Dating back to the Cold War, Russian leaders have at times claimed illness or gone abroad even as they’ve carried out aggressive moves elsewhere. This tradition is alive and well today. As Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, notes, when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Putin was in Beijing; and this July, as the Ukraine conflict was escalating, he happened to take a tour to Latin America.

 

During his Latin American trip, Vladimir Putin delighted Argentinian president Cristina Ferdandez de Kirchner with an accordion skills. Photo: Reuters.

 

News that Russian president Vladimir Putin would be making a weeklong trip to Latin America beginning July 11 caused speculation that he was attempting to stage a distraction while raising the stakes in Ukraine. While the Russian president was on the road, the Kremlin expanded its military assistance to separatist rebels in Ukraine—assistance that, according to Western governments, may have included the missile system that downed a Malaysian airliner on July 17.

Putin’s Latin America trip is noteworthy in its own right, though; it was the Kremlin’s latest step toward its goal of rolling back what it deems an unfair world order in which the global system is dominated by the United States. The visit also continued the Soviet-era practice of bringing pressure on the U.S. in the Western hemisphere as a crisis unfolds on the Russian periphery.

Putin’s trip was ambitious. He made stops in Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Brazil, where he also participated in the sixth BRICS summit (the loose association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). The main issues on the agenda were closer trade, energy, and security cooperation, along with sending the message to Washington that there are alternatives to U.S. political and economic dominance in the hemisphere.

In Cuba, Putin met with the Castro brothers and wrote off Cuba’s Russian debt of around $30 billion. There were also reports that Russia would reopen a Cold-War era listening post on the island, which Putin half-heartedly denied. In Nicaragua—a surprise stop in a country that had close ties to the USSR under the Sandinistas—Putin discussed military cooperation, a possible base for the Russian navy, and a joint venture with China to build a new canal through the country that would be a rival to the Panama Canal, long run by the U.S. and still friendly to American interests. In Argentina, a country locked out of international capital markets as a result of defaulting on its debts since 2001, Putin offered some relief, promising that Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy corporation, would help Argentina build a nuclear power plant. Before the trip, Putin called Argentina Russia’s “main strategic partner in Latin America, the UN, and the G20 group.”

The last stop on the tour was Brazil. There, Putin attended the World Cup Final, which Russia will host in 2018. He also announced the formation of a $100 billion BRICS development bank, designed to erode the dominance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank as arbiters of the global economic system. Putin held talks with the leaders of Venezuela, Uruguay, and Bolivia, as well as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

The ultimate goal of this trip is for Russia to achieve its place in the sun, together with China and the other BRICS members. “Russia positions itself as a separate pole of power,” Latin America expert Vladimir Davydov noted recently, “but not as a single alternative.” Chinese president Xi Jinping, who also attended the BRICS summit, visited the same countries a few days later (save Nicaragua), where he signed a series of mineral and oil deals. China’s engagement in Latin America is more purely economic than is Russia’s. Beijing is now the fastest-growing investor in the region. It is the second-largest trading partner of Cuba and Argentina and has been Brazil’s largest trading partner since 2009. But the two leaders’ trips appeared synchronized, as well they might. In a speech to Brazil’s National Congress, Xi called for a “fairer international order.”

The ultimate goal of Putin’s trip is for Russia to achieve its place in the sun, together with China and the other BRICS members. Despite Putin’s aspirations, his strategy faces serious obstacles if Russia is to achieve his goals. Above all, the idea that the BRICS countries will act as a unified international bloc is unrealistic.

Putin’s trip also had more specific aims for Russian foreign policy. First, Putin sought to show the world that that Russia is a global power, not a regional power as President Obama recently observed. Second, the trip demonstrated that despite Western sanctions (imposed on Russia in response to its military action in Ukraine), Russia can advance its interests by working more closely with partners elsewhere. Third, the tour was evidence that Russia is not only invested in defending its own interests against the West, but is ready to take up the grievances of others, such as the blockade of Cuba by the U.S. or the Falklands/Malvinas dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom.

Despite Putin’s aspirations, his strategy faces serious obstacles if Russia is to achieve his goals. Above all, the idea that the BRICS countries will act as a unified international bloc is unrealistic. Although their combined annual GNP is higher than that of the Eurozone, the economies of the five countries individually differ markedly in size and growth rate. Their economic policies range from state-controlled to free market. The BRICS countries also have trouble finding common ground. They could not agree, for example, on a candidate to head the IMF or World Bank when those jobs became open in 2011 and 2012. They are also arguing about trade, with India and South Africa indicating they may want to back out of a trade agreement endorsed by all BRICS members just a few months ago.

Several BRICS members, especially China, are also uneasy about Russia’s military adventure in Ukraine. Although they see the war as part of a confrontation over the new global hierarchy, they also see Russia’s actions as contributing to the forcible changing of international borders and the encouragement of separatism in neighboring states, behavior they usually oppose. The citizens of these countries, moreover, feel far more negatively toward Russia’s role in the world than their elite representatives do. A recent global public attitude survey found that popular attitudes have experienced a sharp negative turn toward Russia in the past year. In Brazil, for example, negative opinion increased from 52 to 59 percent. Large majorities in each of the nine Latin American countries surveyed said they had no confidence “in President Putin to do the right thing in world affairs.”

For now, therefore, the Latin American countries are likely paying less attention to Putin’s travels than to Russia’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine. “In particular,” Carnegie Moscow Center expert Dmitry Trenin wrote recently, “they look at what a country like Russia can get away with, and what cost it has to bear for that. Given the very diverse nature of the non-Western world, which Russia has now fully joined, it is not realistic to expect much solidarity from its partners there.” Nor will such solidarity be strengthened by trends inside Russia: increasing corruption, demographic problems, a slowing economy, and growing political instability that is likely to eventually undermine the current frenzied, patriotic mood, as well as the Kremlin’s ability to be assertive abroad.

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