Q REPORTS (BBC Mundo) The Russian invasion of Ukraine has split the geopolitical map of the world in two. As if it were a game of chess, the two forces involved in the war move their pieces cautiously in order to gather the greatest amount of support possible.
In this complex equation, Latin America has not been the exception and has aroused the interest of both Moscow and Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has met virtually with some of the region’s leaders, including Chilean leader Gabriel Boric, with whom on March 21 he discussed the possibility of achieving “greater consolidation” of Latin American support for his country.
In this effort, this Tuesday the Ukrainian leader spoke before the Chilean Congress, in what was his first intervention before a Latin American parliament. There, he called on Chile to “join the coalition of countries that help Ukraine defend its independence.”
In July 2022, Zelensky’s only in-person meeting with a Latin American president was held in Kyiv when he met with his Guatemalan counterpart Alejandro Giammattei.
Vladimir Putin, for his part, has continued to strengthen his ties with former allies, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua or Cuba, and has launched a communication campaign in his favor through state media with a presence in different countries in the region.
Despite these efforts, the support of most Latin American nations for Russia or Ukraine has been, to say the least, ambiguous. In fact, international relations experts have described it as “neutral”, recalling its long record of “non-alignment” in great power conflicts.
Still, it must be acknowledged that there have been some important signs in favor of Kyiv.
Last February, most of the region voted in favor of the United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities and demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.” .
However, so far no Latin American country has gone beyond diplomatic declarations.
An example of this is his refusal to send weapons to Ukraine, despite pressure from the United States and Germany. Even the president of the United States, Joe Biden, offered to replace the military weapons of Latin American countries (manufactured in Russia) with a superior American one.
But the proposal has not been successful.
“Even if they end up as scrap metal in Colombia, we will not hand over Russian weapons to be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro responded. “We are not with any side. We are for peace,” he added.
A similar response was given by other presidents, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, in a decision that has been interpreted by Moscow as a wink from the region to his country.
On the other hand, despite the fact that Zelensky has called on Latin America to introduce sanctions against Russia, the vast majority have not done so.
What is behind this supposed “neutrality”? And what is at stake for the various Latin American countries when it comes to supporting Russia or Ukraine in the conflict? Here are 4 key elements that answer these questions.
The power of China
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on March 20 was seen by the world as a clear sign of support for Russia at a time when the Kremlin is under intense international pressure.
Since the war began, Russia’s relationship with China has been instrumental in resisting that pressure.
Beijing has absorbed a large part of Russian hydrocarbon exports, thus softening the impact of Western sanctions on the economy of the Eurasian country and, according to the United States, Xi Jinping is now considering the possibility of sending arms and ammunition to Russia, something that the Chinese government flatly denies.
Although Xi Jinping makes efforts to position himself as a peace facilitator -rather than as a strong Putin ally-, the truth is that his friendly signals to the Kremlin have put the world on alert, including Latin America, which currently has close relations trade with China.
Only in the last 20 years – between 2000 and 2020 – trade between the region and China multiplied by 26, going from US$12,000 million to US$310,000 million, according to United Nations figures.
For several South American countries -such as Chile, Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina- China is today an essential partner to which a large part of their exports are directed, such as minerals (including copper) or food (such as soybeans).
For this reason, the experts consulted by BBC Mundo agree that Xi Jinping’s friendship with Putin should be closely followed by the Latin American nations.
“Given the influence that China has in economic terms in Latin America, and especially in South America, they should take this situation into account and think about how supporting one or the other country could affect them,” says Margaret Myer, director of the Department of Asia & Latin America at the Inter-American Dialogue Study Center.
“I think it is part of the reasons why Brazil has not strongly criticized what is happening with the war in Ukraine,” she adds.
For Pamela Aróstica, director of the “China and Latin America Network: Multidisciplinary Approaches (Redcaem)”, from the region it cannot be ignored that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is happening in a context of a trade war between the United States and China that, In his opinion, it is “much deeper.”
“They are in a competition for who will be the superpower in the next few years. And that’s why it’s so important for China to have an Eastern bloc. It needs allies of the caliber of countries like Russia and entire regions like Latin America,” she says.
The doctor in Political Science adds that “the time for subtleties is over, now it is much more frontal. Are we friends or not? Are they with me or not?… That is why many Latin American countries have maintained an ambivalent attitude for fear of the consequences».
Aróstica says that the economic crisis that is hitting many Latin American nations and the role of China as a source of loans should also be kept in mind.
“Countries have to weigh making China angry and the implications that this may have when wanting to access, for example, a loan.”
John Griffiths, Head of Security and Defense Studies at the AthenaLab Foundation, a Chilean think tank focused on International Affairs, Security and Defense, has a similar view.
“In the strategic field, every Latin American country must consider its relationship with China to carry out its foreign relations policy. And there are some interests that have prevented various nations in the region from condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine more emphatically”, he indicates.
Commercial and political relationship with Russia
Although direct commercial ties between Russia and Latin America are not as widespread -it represents, for example, only 0.6% of the region’s exports-, there are some countries and sectors that may suffer a greater impact in the event of a break in relations with Moscow.
Butter, salmon, cheese and fruits like apples, bananas and pears, which are produced in places like Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia, have Russia as one of their main destinations.
Regarding imports, while Moscow also has a low overall share of the continent, it does send some strategic products for production. This is the case of fertilizers, which are key for agricultural producers such as Argentina and Brazil.
Last year, in fact, Putin assured then Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that Russia was “committed” to guaranteeing the “uninterrupted supply” of fertilizers.
Brazil imports more than 80% of the fertilizers it uses and Russia is its main supplier.
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal), Russia is also an “important supplier of certain key inputs in the production of catalytic converters and semiconductors,” so the shortage could put more pressure on the automotive sector. in the region, which is already facing supply constraints.
But beyond what is strictly economic and commercial, the truth is that Russia also has long-standing political relations in the region that are not easy to break.
A small but relevant group of Latin American countries has shown their direct and open sympathy with Russia’s position in the conflict. Venezuela is one of them, since Russia has one of its central pillars of political and military support. Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia have also expressed their support for Putin out of opposition to the United States.
On the other hand, it is important to note that the war in Ukraine coincides with the arrival of a new wave of left-wing presidents in Latin America, supported by coalitions that have historically had an affinity with the then Soviet Union.
Since 2018, the presidency of Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, Chile, Colombia, and Brazil has been held by these leaders.
“Many of them have historically been aligned with Russia. So it is not so easy for governments to say that they are in favor of Ukraine”, explains Pamela Aróstica.
For his part, the academic expert on Latin American issues from the Ca’ Foscari Venice University, Luis Beneduzi, tells BBC Mundo that “for many leaders, being with Ukraine is being with the United States.”
“The history of US imperialism is very important when thinking about the reaction of these countries that are experiencing a progressive change today,” he adds.
The case of Gabriel Boric, in Chile, is perhaps the one that breaks the rule, since from the beginning he has been emphatic in condemning Putin for the invasion. But, according to experts consulted by BBC Mundo, the rest have given weak signs of support.
Lula da Silva, for example, is now offering himself as a peace mediator. However, according to international analysts, his position could end up favoring Moscow.
“Attempts at mediation are likely to favor Russia. Ukraine needs to fight to free its citizens. Moscow can agree to a ceasefire to ‘freeze’ the front line and keep control of the occupied territories, while it waits to gain enough strength and confidence to move forward,” Keir Giles, senior adviser to the Russia Program told him. and Eurasia at Chatam House, to BBC Brazil.
Thus, despite the fact that many insist on calling Latin America the “backyard” of the United States, the truth is that the multiplicity of positions of these nations regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that Moscow still arouses sympathy on the continent.
Ties with the United States and the West
But it is not so easy for Latin America to turn its back on Ukraine, strongly supported by the United States and the West.
There are deep and long-standing commercial, political, and military ties to these blocs.
In commercial terms, for example, 42% of the region’s total exports (equivalent to 8.5% of the regional GDP) go to the United States, surpassing even China.
While, according to ECLAC, the European Union attracts 9% of exports, and only in 2022 it increased by 26% compared to the previous year.
The main trading partners of the United States are Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru.
Mexico is especially important in this scenario because by sharing a border of more than 3,000 kilometers with the United States, it has a link that extends far beyond diplomatic and official relations.
Not only are they strategic trading partners -according to the US State Department, in 2021 trade in goods and services between the two countries exceeded US$720 billion, making Mexico the second largest trading partner of the United States- but they are also they have to deal with issues as complex as migration and security cooperation.
Although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has not yielded to pressure from Ukraine to impose economic and political sanctions on Russia -and he has not wanted to send weapons to Kyiv either- he did vote in favor of the UN resolution that asked Russia end hostility towards Ukraine last February.
In this way, AMLO has juggled to try to remain as neutral as possible, arguing that his country is for “peace and dialogue.”
On the other hand, an important element that several Latin American countries have to take into account when analyzing their support for Ukraine is its strong relationship from a military point of view with the West.
This is how the political scientist and international relations expert Paulina Astroza explains it to BBC Mundo.
“There is an important part of the Latin American countries that will always accompany the United States for a security issue. This is the case of Colombia or of many Central American countries that are militarily dependent on the United States,” she says.
A similar opinion is held by John Griffiths.
«The Chilean Air Force, for example, depends on its alliance with the United States, on its fleet of F16 Fighters. The Chilean Navy is also highly dependent on the West, and the Army has the armored fleet, which is German. In Peru, Brazil and Colombia it is more or less similar. Colombia has a decades-long relationship with the United States and not because today there is an ideologically left-wing government that has disappeared, “he says.
The experts consulted by BBC Mundo agree that, despite the strong ties that several Latin American nations have with the West, Ukraine and the leaders who support it -such as Joe Biden- are still waiting for a greater signal of support from the region.
And that pressure – they add – will only continue to increase as long as the war does not end.
There is another important element that Latin American countries must evaluate when supporting Russia or Ukraine: what their own citizens think about the war.
At this point, it is key to keep in mind that for many Latin Americans this is a distant conflict, explains Juan Pablo Toro, senior fellow at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a UK-based institution that brings together defense experts and security.
“Given the security crisis in Latin America, people wonder why they are going to go to war thousands of kilometers away if they cannot go out to the streets because the drug traffickers are there. In security issues, the priority starts with the internal one”, he points out.
Thus, he explains, there are more incentives to adopt a neutral position in the face of the conflict.
“Telling people that what is at stake here is legality, sovereignty and an international system based on rules is very difficult. Because also nobody knows what is going to happen and in the end supporting Ukraine is buying an enemy who is also a friend of China,” says Toro, who is also executive director of AthenaLab.
On the other hand, Latin American governments -many of them from the left- have received pressure from their own political coalitions.
This is the case of Boric, who came to power at the hands of the Chilean Communist Party (PC). At the time of the invasion, in February 2022, this party condemned Russia but also the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for their “expansionist efforts” which, they said, “opened up the danger of war.”
In addition, they opposed the Ukrainian leader speaking before the Chilean parliament, and, in fact, they were not present at the intervention made this Tuesday.
“Boric’s decision to support Ukraine so strongly has generated costs and bullying from his own coalition,” says Paz Zárate, a Chilean lawyer specializing in public international law.
Boric has made a personal commitment to human rights, regardless of country. Perhaps he does not feel, as other Latin American presidents do, an identification with Soviet times,” she adds.
More than a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, international analysts agree that every day there will be more pressure for Latin American countries to take a definitive position on the war.
While neutrality can be a good ally for many nations in the region, the great powers are eager to flaunt their endorsements in an increasingly polarized and at times Cold War-esque world.
Article translated and adapted form BBC Mundo. Read the original in Spanish here.