Latin America and the Russo-Ukrainian War
This Latin American Focus Group article was co-authored by Lucía Bosoer, Lucas Chiodi, Gabriel Cohen, Melina Nitschker, and Esteban Scuzarello.
The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on the 24th of February has spurred reactions – predominantly condemnation – from around the world. While nominally a conflict involving the two warring parties, the United States, and the European Union, the diplomatic positioning of countries in other regions of the world also merits observation.
Latin America in particular has emerged as an interesting case for analyzing how global power dynamics can cut across a region and divide it when it comes to adopting a stance on a conflict that may appear distant at first glance. In this article, we analyze the position of some of the countries in the region, based in part on their votes at the March 2nd emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
While it is worth noting the non-binding nature of UNGA resolutions, which renders most votes by neutral countries largely symbolic, the outcome of the 141-5-31 vote in Latin America and the Caribbean outlines some of the key divisions in the region today.
The positioning of Latin American leaders defies to some degree the traditional Latin American division between left-wing governments – aligned with Russia – and right-wing governments siding with the US and the so-called “Western” world. This demonstrates the complexity of political alliances in the region today, and challenges any ideas of a modern Cold War recreation scenario. Throughout the last week, certain left-leaning governments have forcefully condemned the Russian actions in Ukraine, joining neighbors which had notably drawn closer to Putin in recent months.
The Major Backlash
A first grouping of Latin American countries emerged in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This group – which counts the governments of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay among its ranks – have been consistent in their rejection of Russia’s aggression, as well as sponsored (and therefore voted for) the UNGA resolution regarding Ukraine.
The Colombian government of President Iván Duque categorically rejected the attack on Ukraine, saying it constituted “an aggression against world peace and the stability of Europe.” President Luis Lacalle Pou of Uruguay echoed a similar statement, going so far as to join the EU in suspending the broadcasting of Russian-backed news channel RT. Meanwhile, President Alberto Fernandez of Argentina (which currently holds the Presidency of the UN Human Rights Council), who concluded a state visit to Moscow just last month, called upon his Russian counterpart to put an end to the invasion, while his government sponsored the UNGA resolution on Ukraine.
In the case of Chile, both center-right incumbent President Sebastián Piñera and incoming President-Elect Gabriel Boric were quick to condemn the Russian invasion. As a leftist, Boric’s reaction spurred the surprise of many and opened a debate within the incoming governing alliance, with the communist factions within Apruebo Dignidad seeking to distance themselves from the official position.
Ambiguity from the Giants
The stern condemnation seen from Bogotá and Buenos Aires has not necessarily translated to a regional consensus, however. Among all Latin American countries, the two largest have seen a more middle ground response.
The Mexican position towards the Russian invasion has been perceived by some as an ambiguous one. The country’s Foreign Affairs Secretary condemned the invasion and has called for a “peaceful resolution of the conflict, respecting all people’s human rights and taking all specific measures to safeguard those people facing vulnerable situations.” Moreover, Mexico has voted in favor of the creation of an Independent International Commission of Inquiry to investigate all alleged human rights violations occurring during the invasion, and has followed a similar logic in the UNGA vote. However, discrepancies and ambiguities have nonetheless flourished as of late.
The initial reaction of the Mexican government following the invasion called for peace, but avoided using terms such as “invasion” or even mentioning Russia. Following a wave of criticism, the government clarified its position. Domestically, the invasion created tensions within President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s party, MORENA, such as when a youth branch of the party based in the state of Mexico released a statement showing support to the Russian government, even stating that Western media did not portray the “true reasons” behind Putin’s invasion. Unexpectedly, the Russian Embassy in Mexico showed thanks for the “the words of solidarity that the Mexican youth showed” the Russian people. Needless to say, this created a whole new round of criticism to the government and MORENA. Shortly afterwards, the party released two press statements clarifying that although freedom of speech and thought was welcomed among members, the position of the local youth branch neither represented the position of the party nor the one of the federal government.
López Obrador has stated that “we cannot be quiet when we are talking about interventions because we (Mexico) have been invaded in the past,” highlighting that Mexico was ready and willing to provide humanitarian assistance and refuge to whoever might need it. However, he made clear that Mexico would not join in international sanctions against the Kremlin as it was not “Mexico’s business” to act in such a way, but rather to help ensure peace talks. He also neglected providing any sort of military assistance to Kyiv, following a request from the Ukrainian embassy in Mexico.
Brazil’s position has fallen along similar lines. While Brasília has voted for separate resolutions – in both the UN Security Council and General Assembly – condemning the Russian invasion, President Jair Bolsonaro has shown equivocal positions towards the invasion by his BRICS partner country.
The Brazilian president believes that the conflict should come to a resolution soon and that peace must be met. However, he also said that Brazil’s position on the conflict was marked by neutrality and caution, arguing “our position must be very cautious when dealing with such a serious case. No one is in favor of war anywhere in the world.” Bolsonaro even went further, saying “we will not take sides. We will keep neutral and assist, as far as possible, the search for a solution”. Brazil also denied joining any sort of international sanctions against Russia, as 30% of Brazilian fertilizer imports come from Russia, and they remain “a sacred issue”. The Ukrainian embassy in Brazil soon released a press statement, arguing that there was no space for neutrality, as “we know who is the aggressor and who is the hostage. We cannot understand what sort of impartiality can be applied to this situation.”
Finally, it is also interesting to note that Bolsonaro has been one of the few leaders in the region to directly and expressively refer to the possibility of NATO involvement in the conflict. The Brazilian president stated that he does not believe that the conflict would last too long, as “The arms capacity from both countries is very uneven. We hope the NATO countries do not increase this problem that is about to be solved.”
Support Through Abstention?
Abstention has historically been a tool employed within the United Nations to avoid the consequences of a controversial vote, and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War is no exception. The current conflict has sparked a variety of questions surrounding vote abstention. What are the implications for a Latin American country abstaining in the recent votes held within both the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS)? Are the consequences of abstaining the same for all countries? Does abstention indicate indifference, an intermediate level of approval, or a reluctance to be identified with either position?
The abstention of four Latin American countries – Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua – in the final vote for Resolution ES-11/1 of the UNGA against Russia is likely tied to the strong relations each country holds with Moscow. These same countries did not support the recent OAS declaration which condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the case of the latter organization, it is worth remembering that this inter-American regional organization has been historically the object of strong resistance by many Latin American states, due what is perceived as a markedly high US influence in agenda-setting and objectives.
Declarations from the leadership of the four countries tacitly lent support to Russia, directly or indirectly supporting the Vladimir Putin regime against what they perceived to be Western aggression. Bolivia and Cuba, who are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, also abstained from voting to establish an independent international commission of inquiry as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
The resulting question then becomes why these Moscow allies did not simply vote against the UNGA resolution, as four non-Russian countries (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria) did. One plausible argument is that although abstention in this specific case indirectly supports Russia, an explicit vote against the UNGA resolution would trigger tremendous backlash and probable condemnation by the international community, given the implied acceptance of the violation of international law and UN Charter principles. Indeed, mere abstention has already been perceived by many Western countries as worrisome, if somewhat expected.
In short, in this context, voting abstention would indicate, on one hand, a tension between marked historical ties and indirect support for Russia as a consequence of evident material needs, and on the other the significance of avoiding real and symbolic condemnation as a result of rejecting international law. Essentially, it is about, at its core, a balancing act.
Putin’s Man in Caracas
If one government was likely to be the most supportive of Russia, it was Venezuela.
However, the Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro was not able to vote on the UNGA resolution, as its voting rights had been suspended earlier this year due to unpaid UN membership dues. Strongman President Maduro tweeted in support of Putin, saying that he was sure that Russia would emerge from this battle united and victorious. This comes as little surprise, given Venezuela’s close ties with Russia; in fact, the Maduro regime already argued in 2014 that the US and NATO were responsible for the crisis in Ukraine because they were encircling Russia in order to destroy it, and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister mused on sending soldiers to Caracas as recently as January.
Venezuela’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva has stressed that Venezuela strictly rejects sanctions against the Russian Federation and that they would aggravate the conflict. He called the unilateral coercive measures a violation of international law and a new form of war.
Meanwhile, the rival presidential administration of Juan Guaidó has predictably taken the opposite stance, with Guaidó tweeting on March 4th in support of Ukraine, comparing Ukrainians’ struggle to the struggle of the Venezuelan people who have fought the Maduro regime for years. Given that Venezuela’s representative to the OAS has been a Guaidó appointee since 2019, the country also signed on to the OAS declaration condemning Russia’s aggression.
Things took a surprising turn when a US delegation traveled to Venezuela on March 5th to meet with representatives of the Maduro regime, which it has not recognized since the start of the current presidential crisis in January 2019. Despite current US sanctions against Venezuela, diplomatic overtures such as this could potentially be indicative of efforts to drive a wedge between Maduro and Putin, or to find a potential replacement for Russian oil imports.
The late-February Russian invasion of Ukraine stunned the international community and has led to the greatest heightening of global tensions in decades. Overnight, countries across the world have been forced to reconsider their alliances, as the Putin regime’s schism with the West has grown increasingly severe.
From Santiago to San Salvador, Latin America has been no exception. Russia has been able to count on its regional partners for vocal expressions of support, even if the showing within supranational bodies such as the OAS and UN has been weaker. Major economies such as Brazil have been forced to consider their dependent relationships with Moscow, while both the left-wing and right-wing leaders of traditional US allies have been quick to offer diplomatic support for Ukrainians. Even hemispheric pariahs such as Venezuela today face the prospect of rapprochement with their staunchest international adversary, due in large part to this current crisis.
With the intensity of fighting in the Russo-Ukrainian War climbing and the casualty count soaring into the thousands, it is clear this conflict is far from finished. The economic ramifications, meanwhile, risk impacting many Latin American countries, particularly if sanctions lead to a major global recession as anticipated.
Regardless, the first weeks of the war have demonstrated deep divisions in the region, particularly between autocratic and democratic states. These divisions are likely to persist in the future, no matter which corner of the world brings the next major conflict.