Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty raises urgent questions regarding the nature of Russia’s presence and influence in Latin America. The recent escalation in Europe will likely amplify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hybrid warfare on geographically distant fronts, such as Latin America, in the following weeks and months. His message to the US appears to be clear: if you interfere in my backyard, I will interfere in yours.
US General Glen VanHerck alleged that Russia's largest spy facility was in Mexican territory during recent testimony before the US Senate. That appeared to reference Russia's embassy in Mexico City, which has a long history of serving as an espionage hotspot. “The largest portion of the GRU members is in Mexico right now. Those are Russian intelligence personnel,” VanHerck said.
However, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has refuted the claims made by the United States. “We are not going to question anything. We are respectful of the free expression of ideas. Mexico is a free, independent and sovereign country. Mexico is not a colony of any foreign country. We are not a colony of Russia, China, or the United States,” he proclaimed.
Russia has been selling arms to several Latin American governments for years, notably the former Soviet-aligned bloc, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Venezuela has lately been added to the list of countries with increased Russian arms acquisition. Under the pretense of maintenance, the arms trade has allowed Moscow to further penetrate these countries and not just militarily. This current pro-Russian bloc will likely be extremely useful to Putin in pursuing his strategy of tension with NATO's largest military, the US.
Moscow’s Latin American policies have consolidated in recent weeks. Following a visit to Cuba, the president of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, arrived in Managua on February 24, amidst the Ukrainian crisis, to meet with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Volodin delivered a speech to the National Assembly in which he described Russia's action against Ukraine as a “pacification operation” to avert a large-scale conflict. This visit was likely to serve as a way to gain international support as well as form a cohesive strategy against the US.
Volodin’s trip followed a February 17 visit by Yuri Borisov, Russia's deputy prime minister, to strengthen military and technological cooperation with the Ortega government. Close to 400 Russian military personnel are reportedly already present in Nicaragua under the pretext of joint military exercises and in 2017 the authorities in the capital Managua presided over the inauguration of the Russia-Nicaragua anti-narcotics training center. Borisov also visited Venezuela and Cuba.
Other Latin American countries are either developing ties with Russia or facing attempts to increase influence. In February, Argentina's president, Alberto Fernández, offered his country to Russia as a “gateway” to Latin America during his meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, which could have serious consequences for the US and its allies.
Bolsonaro’s recent meeting with Putin focused on fertilizer imports. In 2021, Russia and Belarus exported 11.7 million tons of fertilizers to Brazil. However, to meet its own needs, Russia reduced its exports to Latin America last year, rising food prices and inflation across the continent. The fertilizer industry has the potential to create an increased degree of economic dependency on Russia in some sectors, which could have political consequences as well, since several Latin American countries rely on Iranian and Russian fertilizers, including Nicaragua and Brazil.
Russian phosphate output is dominated by a monopoly in which one of the leading shareholders appears to be Vladimir Litvinenko, President Vladimir Putin’s campaign manager.
Russian digital penetration will also likely increase significantly across Latin America as a result of the global deployment of digital attachés in many Russian embassies in 2022, including in Cuba and Brazil. According to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, Putin-appointed officials will promote Russian information and communication technology. Concern is growing that they will likely coordinate digital control or interference activities on the ground, such as in Brazil’s October 2022 presidential elections.
In Colombia, local authorities fear significant Russian interference in the May 29 presidential elections. According to the local newspaper El Tiempo, Colombian intelligence discovered multiple wire transfers from Russia to the bank accounts of dozens of Colombian nationals, totaling 30 million pesos per day (approximately $7,500 USD). These small wire transactions have increased in the run-up to the 13 March legislative elections raising concerns about the possibility of a Russian disinformation effort.
“I’m not sure if our intelligence is aware of the extent of the threat posed by Moscow’s digital interference, but the Colombians aren’t,” Oscar Palma, an international relations professor at the Colombian University of Rosario, said. Colombia is strategic for Russia because “it is the only South American country with Caribbean and Pacific Ocean coastlines and has influence in Central America. Also, it is the continent's most important US ally, bordering Venezuela, a key Russian ally. By infiltrating Colombia, Russia would be able to directly challenge the US on multiple fronts,” Palma stated.
With a Colombian presidential candidate on its side, such as Gustavo Petro, a former member of the Marxist guerrilla group M-19 in the 1980s, Moscow may be able to progressively enter the fight against drug trafficking as well. As seen in Nicaragua and Peru, Russian military training for anti-drug operations would allow Russian experts to access the region's intelligence and logistics networks, as well as US counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism strategies and tactics that the latter has shared with regional governments.
Additionally, the situation on the Venezuelan border is expected to deteriorate. Guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents, known as the “Martin Villa” 10th Front, are currently fighting one another in Colombia’s Arauca province near the Venezuelan state of Apure.
Colombian President Ivan Duque confirmed the death of Jorge Eliecer Jiménez Martinez, alias “Arturo,” the leader of the 10th Front, via his official Twitter account on February 24. During the operation, another 21 members of the 10th Front were also killed. With the 10th Front's main leader deceased, other criminal groups will likely attempt to reclaim lost control, contributing to the region's growing tensions.
In January, the arrival in Venezuela of 68 Russian military technicians and advisors for the alleged maintenance of the Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bombers prompted the Maduro regime's military forces to mobilize tanks and artillery units made in Russia to the Apure State, at the Colombian border of Arauca province. The official purpose of this deployment was to expel Colombian guerrillas as part of the “Bolivarian Shield” (“Escudo Bolivariano”) military operation.
Colombia's Defense Minister Diego Molano called the possible Russian deployment “foreign interference.” Nikolay Tavdumadze, Moscow's ambassador in Bogota, guaranteed Colombian President Ivan Duque that Russia's military presence in Venezuela won't threaten Colombia and that Russian weapons systems would not fall into the hands of criminals operating along the border.
“Unfortunately, the Colombian border is poorly controlled. Venezuela's strategic air capability is greater than Colombia’s; they have Sukhoi aircraft, while we have Kfir planes but no anti-aircraft battery,” Professor Palma stated. “There have been rumors of Wagner operatives on the Colombian side, but no evidence yet.” The Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, is an independent affiliate of the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU).
In Venezuela, Wagner members, that are reportedly 400 throughout the country, and Cubans, coordinate the security ring around President Maduro’s Miraflores Palace and the international airport in Caracas, according to the Atlántico Intelligence Group, which gathered intelligence on the ground about Wagner operatives and that the author of this paper interviewed.
Atlántico Intelligence Group also revealed that at the San Antonio del Táchira airport in Táchira state, bordering Colombia, last year S300 missile system units have been deployed under the control of Wagner operatives dressed in uniforms of the Venezuelan Special Action Forces (FAES- Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales de la Policia Nacional Bolivariana). The FAES have been accused of acting as both Nicolás Maduro's violent arm and a “death squad.”
In the city of Rubio, four S400 units, two Wagner divisions, and one group of Russian engineers, all dressed in FAES uniforms, were deployed, Atlántico Intelligence Group told Militant Wire, adding that each division of Wagner consists of 25 men. Atlántico Intelligence Group also said that one Wagner unit works at the migration police headquarters at the Simón Bolivar International Bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, controlling the Chinese software used for facial scanning. Also, Wagner operatives, according to Atlántico Intelligence Group, manage the security system in San Cristóbal de Táchira which is home of Fredy Bernal, the leader of the FAES in Táchira state. Bernal responds to Diosdado Cabello directly.
Cabello, Venezuela’s number two politician, was charged with conspiracy to commit narco-terrorism, importing cocaine into the US, and related gun offenses in a federal indictment filed in the Southern District of New York on March 5, 2020. The US Department of State offered a $10 million reward.
According to the Atlántico Intelligence Group, Wagner operatives have been using drones to operate on the Colombian border for more than two years, attempting to halt the Colombian guerrillas’ advance. Venezuela purchased an unknown number of military drones from Russia in 2021, according to the 2017-2021 Control Ciudadano report.
Also, Noticias RCN revealed on February 14 that Russia has allegedly deployed six radars in Venezuela: one in Caracas and five along the Colombian border in Zulia, Táchira, Apure, and Falcón states. Radars would be used to steal classified information and track down military aircraft. The most powerful unit would be in Caracas’ Fuerte Tiuna military facility. According to Noticias RCN, each site would be supervised by the strategic operational leadership of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, with Russian military officers on duty at all times. With technical assistance from Russia, China, and Cuba, the Venezuelan army installed seven new stations in Sucre, Monagas, Delta Amacuro, Bolivar, and Amazonas.
The border with Venezuela and Brazil is also critical. In May 2021, Venezuelan forces installed radars capable of cracking encryption and intercepting communications of the Brazilian army in Santa Elena do Uairen, Venezuela's state of Bolivar, near the Brazilian state of Roraima, with the support of the GRU Russian military. Brazilian Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto confirmed this information in a public hearing. In addition to the radars, Brazilian authorities regularly intercepted Russian drones conducting border reconnaissance operations.
Concern is growing over the security of the Latin America Atlantic coastline, which stretches for about 4.4 thousand miles in Brazil alone. Undersea cables connect the country's internet infrastructure to networks worldwide. Fortaleza, Ceará is home to the world's second-largest undersea cable hub (12 cables), with connections to the United States (including the Monet cables to Boca Raton, Florida), Africa, and Europe. The recent escalation in Ukraine may prompt Russia to increase its military provocations to other fronts. The implications of attacking the Atlantic Coast cables would be disastrous.
In February 2020, the Brazilian Navy located the Russian ship Yantar, previously seen in Argentina, in seas off Rio de Janeiro. According to US and British authorities, the Yantar could steal data from underwater cables and cut or damage them with its mini-submarines. In a week, the ship resurfaced 80 kilometers off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, near underwater cables, after deactivating its autonomous identification system.
The establishment of control bases for the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) satellites, the Russian analog of GPS, is another area of Russian interest in Latin America that currently poses a threat to the region and the US. Nicaragua already has one base, and Brazil has four. Other sites are planned, including in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, and Mexico. Though they are said to serve purely civilian purposes, the GLONASS stations have the technical potential to provide Russia with critical signal intelligence throughout the region. Russia is likely to use GLONASS as a platform for offensive cyber operations against the United States and its regional allies. The risk is also that the tracking system may allow Russian military forces to obtain key data on the critical infrastructure of US region partners.
Finally, by exploiting the Amazon region's resources, Russia might seek greater opportunity in countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. On December 20, 2021, Kirill Sergeevich Kravchenko, a Russian biologist and one of the world's foremost biopirates, was sentenced to 11 years in jail in Brazil for international wildlife trafficking.
Besides biopiracy, the Amazon region may be attractive to Russia due to its massive uranium reserves. Since only a third of Brazilian territory has been explored for minerals, totaling 244,788 tons of uranium, the available resources are believed to be significantly larger. Other countries in Latin America are reported to have uranium as well. Around 30 thousand tons of reserves have been discovered in six of Argentina’s provinces: Salta, Mendoza, Chubut, La Rioja, San Luis, and Córdoba. A further 217 thousand tons of undiscovered potential exists in Colombia. Paraguay's estimate is above 4500 tons, but as in Peru, Mexico, and Chile, it might be double.
Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear energy company, operates in Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. In Bolivia, Rosatom began the construction of the Research Reactor Complex at El Alto. Last November, Uranium One Holding N.V., a Rosatom subsidiary, signed into a joint venture deal with Alpha Lithium Corporation to develop Argentina's Tolillar lithium deposit.
In this scenario, which the Russians may also use to evade sanctions, the US government should strengthen trade, diplomatic, and military ties with Latin American countries wherever practicable. The US administration should also expedite the deployment of ambassadors to the 11 out of 21 US embassies where vacancies remain, like Brazil. A diplomatic presence in the region at such a critical period in history is the first step in countering foreign threats like that posed by the current Russian government.