The Return of Global

For much of the post–Cold War era, Russia’s ability to project its influence on a global scale was constrained by internal challenges and limited resources. But since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Moscow has engaged in a broad campaign to expand its international reach.

Putin has launched a Russian-style charm offensive in far-flung locales where the Kremlin’s influence had been all but written off. Russia’s presence is increasingly visible throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. At the same time, Moscow has found numerous openings and is busily exploiting divisions within Western societies.

Russia’s agenda is straightforward: to assert its influence at the expense of Washington and the rules-based international system. The Kremlin’s toolkit includes: leveraging economic and business ties, exerting political influence, harnessing the information space, and forging or deepening military ties with key countries. Where the United States and its allies have pulled back or failed to deliver, Russia has eagerly stepped in.

When people think about Russia’s disruptive foreign policy agenda, they tend to focus on only a few recent cases.
Intervening inSyria
Invading Ukraine
Interfering in Elections
But Russia is actually casting a far broader net that is having an increasingly global impact.
Building a global state-sponsored propaganda apparatus
Propping up the Venezuelan government
Exploiting political divisions in Europe through social media and other tools
Leveraging information operations to influence Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections
Embracing populist and far right movements in Europe
Using major arms sales to undermine key U.S. alliance relationships
Fueling high-level corruption in South Africa
Stoking ethnic tensions and instability in the Balkans
Russia’s more assertive foreign policy is making the Kremlin an important player in an expanding array of countries and regions.

New Toolbox
Old Tools

Since Russia’s economy recovered from its post–Cold War collapse, its foreign policy and security apparatus has commanded ever greater resources. The resulting toolkit that the Kremlin employs was first honed and perfected in Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

Moscow’s global toolkit can be broken down into four broad sets of overlapping tools:

Levers of Economic Influence

Moscow has employed economic tools such as preferential trade arrangements, discounts on oil and gas exports, debt relief, and financial bailouts to increase its global influence. All three components of the Russian energy sector (oil, gas, and nuclear power) often play leading roles in Russian diplomatic and commercial outreach. Links between government entities and criminal/corrupt activities are a standard feature of such efforts.

The Case of Venezuela

The Kremlin is now a key player in the dramatic events unfolding in Venezuela. Amid an increasingly desperate economic and humanitarian situation and sharpening tensions between Caracas and Washington, Moscow is helping prop up the beleaguered government of President Nicolás Maduro. In exchange, Russia is acquiring valuable assets at knockdown prices.

Russia’s close ties to Venezuela date back to early in Putin’s tenure but have been recently energized by a wave of U.S. sanctions against the Maduro regime and threats by President Donald Trump to intervene militarily in Venezuela.
State-controlled Russian oil giant Rosneft has invested heavily in Venezuela’s oil and gas sector.
Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA’s former president Rafael Ramírez (center) with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin (second from right)
Billions of dollars in Russian advance payments for deliveries of Venezuelan crude have helped Maduro hold on to power.
Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin (left) with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (right)
Russian financial support is critical as Venezuela copes with the effects of a chaotic default, hyperinflation, and economic collapse.
Russian debt relief and large shipments of wheat have helped the Maduro regime contend with chronic food shortages.
Graffiti in Caracas reading “We are hungry” and “Maduro dictator”
In November 2017, the Russian government agreed to restructure approximately $3 billion in loans to help ease Caracas’s debt burden.

Russia’s activities in Venezuela are just one example of how Moscow is leveraging its economic power to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere. Rosneft’s growing role in Venezuela’s energy sector illustrates how Russian political and business leaders often blend commercial opportunities with important foreign policy objectives.

Select Russian energy deals around the world


Rosneft has stakes in five major oil projects and purchased two new offshore gas blocks in 2017. Venezuela owes Rosneft $6 billion.

Source: Bloomberg

South Africa

Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy firm, signed an agreement in 2014 to build nuclear reactors worth $76 billion in South Africa.

Source: Newsweek


Rosatom began construction on the $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in 2017.

Source: Akkuyu Nükleer

Iraqi Kurdistan

Rosneft provided more than $4 billion in loans and investments to the Kurdish oil and gas sectors from 2016 to 2017.

Source: Reuters


Rosneft purchased Indian refiner Essar Oil in 2017 for $12.9 billion.

Source: Economist

Levers of Political Influence

Russia has long taken advantage of corrupt networks across Europe and Eurasia to reward businesses close to the Kremlin and build leverage with local political leaders. Moscow routinely promotes the interests of Russia-friendly politicians, bureaucrats, and business figures in neighboring states and uses Soviet-era ties with intelligence and military officials to further Russian political goals.

The Case of Hungary

Hungary’s slide into illiberalism under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stoked tensions between Budapest and the European Union (EU). Hungary’s estrangement from the European mainstream has created opportunities for Russia to expand its economic and political influence in the country.

Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party has done a 180-degree turn and become increasingly friendly toward Russia. Meanwhile, the far right Jobbik Party has allegedly received Russian financing.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (right)
Both Fidesz and Jobbik have expressed strong opposition to EU sanctions against Russia.
The parliament building in Budapest
“Non-economic problems cannot be solved with economic means . . . Everyone stands to lose from such solutions.”
Prime Minister Orbán on Western sanctions against Russia
Warming relations between Hungary and Russia are reinforced by cozy energy and economic dealings. Well-connected Russian firms like Gazprom have amassed considerable influence in Budapest over the past two decades. Hungary relies on Russian state-owned companies to fuel its nuclear power plants, which generate almost half of the country’s electricity.
In 2014, Hungary awarded Rosatom a $14 billion project to upgrade and modernize the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, without opening the project for competitive bidding.
Greenpeace protests Paks II on the Hungarian Parliament’s office building in Budapest
Russian intelligence and security service operations reportedly have also increased in Hungary in recent years. In December 2017, Hungarian prosecutors charged Jobbik Party politician and Hungarian member of the European Parliament Bela Kovacs with spying on the EU for Russia.
Russian military intelligence reportedly cultivated the Hungarian National Front (MNA), a far-right militant group that actively sought to secure funding from Moscow. According to Hungary’s National Security Committee, MNA members conducted military-style training with Russian Foreign Military Intelligence (GRU) officers working in Hungary under diplomatic cover.
Hungarian National Front members march with the MNA flag in Budapest in February 2014

The Orbán government’s business dealings with Moscow have exacerbated frictions with the EU and key European countries such as Germany and France. Russian intelligence and security service operations in Hungary have also caused concern among its EU and NATO partners. Orbán is an important standard-bearer for anti-EU populist sentiment in Europe. His pro-Russian, anti-EU stance does face some resistance at home, however, as most Hungarians hold a positive view of the EU.

Information Space

The Kremlin frequently exploits new opportunities in the digital domain to promote narratives conducive to Russian interests and to undermine liberal Western governments. Moscow pushes these narratives via a variety of platforms, including traditional and social media; educational, cultural, and entertainment programs; and cyber-enabled information operations. In countries with Russian-speaking populations, Moscow-backed Russian-language media, including pop culture and entertainment programming, are powerful tools.

Information Operations:
The Cases of Germany, the UK, and Spain

Throughout Europe, Moscow is using social media, state-controlled news outlets, and cyber operations to disrupt decisionmaking and promote societal divisions.

In Germany, Russian information operations have exploited internal tensions over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies and supported the radical nationalist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party and far-left Die Linke party.
AfD supporters protest German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies
The most infamous episode of Russian disinformation involved a false story in early 2016 about an ethnically Russian, thirteen-year-old German girl abducted by migrants.
The story spread quickly by way of Russian state-controlled media outlets (RT and Sputnik), social media, and even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
UK lawmakers are conducting an ongoing investigation into whether the Kremlin sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
British Prime Minister Theresa May in November 2017 publicly accused Russia of “weaponizing information” and interfering in various Western election campaigns.
Spain’s foreign and defense ministers accused Russian state and private groups of trying to bolster support for the Catalonian referendum. These groups were reportedly aided by teams operating in Venezuela.

Moscow repeatedly has used new technologies and information as key elements of its foreign policy arsenal. These efforts have played on preexisting tensions and the vulnerability of open societies to foreign manipulation in an era of popular anger, fake news, and widespread dependence on social media.

Russia’s Growing State-Sponsored Propaganda Apparatus


RT International TV is established

24/7 news channel providing a “Russian viewpoint on major global events”


Russia Beyond the Headlines is established

Produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s paper of record, with content in thirteen languages

RT Arabic TV is established

24/7 news channel in Arabic broadcasting from Moscow

RT’s first YouTube channel is launched


RT Arabic YouTube channel is launched


RT en Español TV is established

24/7 Spanish-language news channel broadcasting from Moscow with correspondents in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Madrid, Mexico City, Miami, and Washington, DC

RT begins broadcasting in Canada

RT en Español YouTube channel is launched


RT America TV is established

24/7 news channel broadcasting from Washington, DC

RT America YouTube channel is launched

Russia Today is rebranded as RT and begins “Question More” advertising campaign in the United States and UK


RT in Russian YouTube channel is launched


RUPTLY is established

RT-affiliated video news agency based in Berlin

Rossiya Segodnya is established by Kremlin decree

Led by pro-Kremlin media personality Dmitry Kiselyov, the state-run media conglomerate united RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia radio to increase Russia’s global media presence


Sputnik News replaces RIA Novosti

Sputnik News replaces RIA Novosti as Russia’s international news agency with content in over thirty languages (including Abkhaz, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Chinese, Czech, Dari, English, Estonian, French, Georgian, German, Italian, Japanese, Kazakh, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldovan, Ossetian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Tajik, Turkish, Uzbek, and Vietnamese)

RT UK TV is established

24/7 news channel broadcasting from London

RT Deutsch is established

RT’s German-language online platform

RT France, RT UK, and RT Deutsch YouTube channels are launched


RT en Français is established

RT’s French-language online platform

RT Chinese YouTube channel is launched


RT France TV is established

24/7 news channel broadcasting from Paris


RT Deutsch TV to be established

News channel planned as early as 2018

Military and Security Ties

Russia has taken advantage of instability throughout the Middle East and U.S. retrenchment to rebuild ties with governments and regimes across the region. These efforts include: arms sales, military training and cooperation, and technology transfers.

The Cases of Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia

Moscow has capitalized on vacuums created by U.S. policy mistakes in the Middle East and Washington’s retreat from global leadership. Russia has expanded military relationships with a variety of counterparts in the region.

Russia’s decisive military intervention in Syria, beginning in September 2015, has spurred a dramatic series of diplomatic openings with other Middle Eastern states.
Amid an increasingly chaotic situation in Libya, the Kremlin is building a partnership with strongman General Khalifa Haftar and cultivating ties with other competing groups.
A pro-Kremlin youth group demands, “NATO, stop destroying Libya!”
In January 2017, General Haftar visited the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov off the Libyan coast, a public show of Moscow’s support.
Moscow has reportedly sent special forces to Egypt near Libya’s border and provided various types of support to Haftar’s forces.
Libya’s General Haftar leaving the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
In Egypt, the Kremlin has courted President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and reportedly has reached a deal on access to Egyptian airspace and airfields.
A billboard in Cairo of Presidents Putin (left) and Sisi (right)
In October 2017, during King Salman’s historic visit to Moscow—the first by a sitting Saudi monarch to Russia—Riyadh agreed to purchase an S-400 air defense system and other weapons.
A Russian S-400 system
Saudi Arabia and Russia signed various documents on energy, trade, and defense cooperation. The two countries agreed on a $3 billion arms deal and several billion dollars in joint investment projects.

Russia’s military power is most visible in the Middle East, where it has established its ability to deploy an expeditionary force and serve as a party to conflict resolution efforts. As the world’s second largest arms exporter, Russia has aggressively pursued weapons sales around the world for financial gain and to project its political, economic, and military clout.

Arms sales around the world


Order 24 Mi-171Sh military transport helicopters

Status Deliveries completed (2015)



Order Equipment including Pechora-2M, S-300, and Buk-M2EK anti-aircraft complexes; Igla-S missile systems; BTR-80A armored personnel carriers, T-72 tanks; and Smerch and Grad rocket launchers

Status Deliveries completed (2017)



Order 14 Su-30 fighter jets

Status Deliveries started (2017)



Order 12 Mi-35M attack helicopters

Status Deliveries started (2017)



Order 4 S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems

Status Contract signed (2017)



Order Several hundred tanks, including a first batch of 73 T-90 tanks

Status Deliveries started (2017)



Order 64 T-90 tanks

Status Deliveries started (2017)



Order 11 Su-35 fighter jets

StatusContract signed (2018)


From 2012 to 2016, Russia delivered arms to fifty countries. Russia is the world’s second largest arms exporter with a 23 percent market share, behind just the United States (33 percent).

Russia’s Global Ambitions in Perspective

Are the Kremlin’s attempts to project influence around the world a fundamentally new element of Russian foreign policy? Yes and no. The Putin regime’s ambitions have deep roots: Russian foreign policy since 2012 fits comfortably in the long-standing historical and intellectual traditions of Soviet and imperial Russian foreign policy. Indeed, continuity with the Soviet era and earlier periods of Russian history is a hallmark of the Kremlin’s current foreign policy. Alluding to this history, the Kremlin legitimizes its pursuits by presenting them as an integral part of Russian identity.

Current Russian foreign policy reflects three centuries-old drivers of Moscow’s posture on the world stage.

Strategic Depth

Russian security policy has developed in the absence of natural geographic barriers and met the challenge of defending a vast territory through further expansion. Twice in the twentieth century—after the 1917 revolution and the 1991 breakup of the USSR—the Russian state lost large territories and the strategic depth that served as a buffer between it and Europe. Regaining strategic depth has been a major preoccupation of Russian security policy.
Russia in Europe in 1914
Source: The Map Archive
Russia in Europe According to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (March 1918)
Source: The Map Archive
Russian Federation in 1991
Source: The Map Archive

Recognition as a Great Power

In the eyes of its leaders, Russia’s geographic expanse justifies its claim to great power status. Russia’s vast territory, legacy as an empire and a great power, and history of military conquests are important building blocks of its national identity. Russia’s leaders have been particularly sensitive to any suggestion that Russia does not belong among the major powers.

Uneasy Relationship With the West

Moscow and the West have had complicated relations for centuries. Since the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), Russia has defined itself as an integral part of Europe’s political and security fabric, yet has struggled for acceptance as truly European. The theme “in Europe, but not of Europe” has characterized Moscow’s relations with the Continent.

Along with this legacy, Russian foreign policy also inherited a rich toolkit to advance the country’s goals.

Key elements of this toolkit have been perfected and refined over many decades.

They have performed reliably for the Russian state at home and abroad.

Ideology as an Instrument of Policy

Since the Russian Revolution, the Kremlin has used its ideology of the moment to expand its global reach. In the pre-1991 period, this effort entailed both overt Marxist-Leninist propaganda as well as ideological subversion.

Comintern and Cominform

In 1919, in the midst of a civil war, the Bolshevik government established the Communist International (Comintern) to project its political and ideological influence abroad, control foreign Communist parties, and promote revolutionary unrest in capitalist countries. The Comintern (and its successor organization, the Cominform, from Communist Information Bureau) spread propaganda and disinformation, sowed ideological subversion, cultivated political influence, and gathered intelligence abroad.
Lenin addresses members of the Third International (Comintern) in July 1920 in Petrograd

Eliminating political opponents

The young revolutionary state did not shy away from assassinations and executions. In 1924, Soviet intelligence came up with an elaborate plot to lure Boris Savinkov, the leader of an anti-Soviet organization of Russian exiles in France, back to Russia, where he was convicted in a show trial and apparently murdered. Assassination became a hallmark of Soviet intelligence’s handling of defectors and political opponents of the state. The most infamous examples include Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in West Germany in 1959 and Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.
A de-classified 1964 CIA Memorandum prepared for the Warren Commission outlines the Soviet use of assassination and kidnapping.

Organizations of influence

The Soviet Union also relied on a range of front organizations to target hostile émigré groups, penetrate Western governments and societies, and mobilize support for Soviet policies. In addition to the International Department of the Central Committee and the Committee for State Security (KGB), these efforts included various academic, cultural, and commercial organizations, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Stanislav Levchenko, a former KGB major, explains the purpose of agents of influence

Exploiting anticolonialism and leftist movements

The demise of colonial empires and the rise of leftist movements in postcolonial Africa created a favorable environment for Moscow to extend its influence. Soviet efforts included providing security, military, and civilian technical assistance; educational opportunities; intelligence training; and ideological indoctrination.
Soviet advisors in Mozambique (image from Voyennoye Obozreniye, from the photo archive of V. Zavadsky)

Information and Subversion

From the beginning, the Soviet state weaponized information and ideology in its struggle for survival at home and influence abroad.

Domestic political consolidation

Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin viewed ideas as key instruments for motivating people and controlling the masses. The Bolsheviks employed then-novel tools, such as print media, mass rallies, news manipulation, and a co-opted creative class (writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and so on). Combined with traditional tools of oppression, these instruments enabled the Bolsheviks to impose their vision on the population.
Trains carry agitprop literature to the Russian provinces, captured in a silent newsreel by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov

Undermining U.S. foreign relations

The Kremlin employed disinformation and forgeries to undermine Western policies. Soviet bloc forgeries helped weaken the U.S.-led Middle East peace process in the 1970s. Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a former Czech intelligence officer, recounted: “I have to admit that I am an author of a number of forgeries. . . . The Czechoslovak intelligence service produced at the time a number of forgeries, leaked, for example, to the Egyptian government proving that the American government was planning an assassination against the Egyptian president.”
Former Czech intelligence officer Lawrence Martin-Bittman discusses the effectiveness of forgeries in promoting narratives of American conspiracy.

Shaping public opinion in the West

In the early 1980s, the Kremlin launched a multiyear campaign to turn European public opinion against NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles. The effort relied on disinformation, fear mongering, and exploiting genuine public concerns about nuclear war.
In June 1981, 15,000 people demonstrate in Bonn against NATO’s decision to station medium-range missiles in West Germany

Economic Influence

The Soviet Union also leveraged economic assistance to leftist and other friendly governments to expand its web of influence and promote an alternative to the capitalist system. Soviet economic assistance relied on a range of instruments, from economic and technical advisors to loans and sponsorship of industrial development projects.

Development assistance

For decades, the Soviet Union extended billions in aid throughout the developing world. A declassified CIA assessment recognized that Moscow often “succeeded in maximizing the political impact of its comparatively small [aid] effort,” because Soviet assistance emphasized high-visibility, public sector industrial projects. Soviet aid programs also included humanitarian aid, training for military and security forces, and arms transfers.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev mark the end of the first phase of construction of the Aswan Dam in 1964

Military Support

Military assistance, as well as the use of proxy agents and covert military operations, have been a mainstay of Moscow’s foreign policy—well before the appearance of “little green men” in Ukraine.

Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939

The Soviets sent regular military personnel under aliases to advise and fight alongside Republican forces.
Soviet pilots who participated in air combat in Spain in November 1936

Korean War, 1950s

The Soviets frequently sent personnel and equipment to crisis zones in Asia and the Middle East. Soviet military pilots secretly flew missions during the Korean War and manned North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries.
Soviet instructors and North Vietnamese crewmen at an anti-aircraft training center in Vietnam in 1965

Egypt-Israel War of Attrition, 1970

Moscow secretly deployed Soviet fighter jets and air defense units to Egypt during the so-called War of Attrition with Israel.
A contemporaneous CIA report from May 1970 assesses Soviet deployments in Egypt and its involvement in the Egypt-Israeli conflict

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia largely retreated from the world stage. Once Russia recovered a measure of its economic strength, political stability, and military muscle a decade later, it did not take long for it to reclaim a significant part of its foreign policy legacy. Russian foreign policy today lacks the rigid ideological guidelines and vast resources of the Soviet period, but it reflects greater flexibility, adaptability, and opportunism. There is every indication that both Moscow’s ambitions and its toolkit will endure, even in a post-Putin era.

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Regional Deep Dive

Latin America

For largely geopolitical reasons, Moscow is expanding its presence in Latin America at Washington’s expense despite Russia’s lack of geographic proximity and limited resources.

The Kremlin is taking advantage of the deteriorating relationships between the United States and many of its southern neighbors. Russia supports anti-American populist candidates in elections throughout Latin America and is trying to expand trade and investment opportunities with the region.

The Kremlin likely calculates that closer relations with Latin America—whether built on arms sales, trade, energy deals, or political congruity—will complicate U.S. foreign policy. If these overtures help Russian military and security actors gain access to the United States’ backyard, so much the better.

Moscow in Latin AmericaVenezuela

Venezuela is in the throes of a deep crisis, with both the overall economy and the energy sector in freefall. The cash-strapped Venezuelan government has found an ally in Russia, which has long provided financial, military, and political support. Moscow’s support is helping thwart efforts by Washington and other regional actors to pressure the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

Political Influence Maduro has followed in the late Hugo Chávez’s footsteps, prioritizing close ties with Russia. Over the past year, Moscow has stepped in to provide a crucial political and financial lifeline to Maduro’s government.

Economic Influence A Russian debt relief deal in late 2017 gave Caracas additional breathing room. As foreign companies have retreated from the slow collapse of PDVSA, Venezeula’s state oil company, Rosneft has provided billions of dollars in prepayments for oil deliveries to keep the company afloat. In return, Rosneft has gained preferential access to Venezuela’s oil and gas sector.

Military Ties Russia was a leading supplier of arms to Venezuela in the 2000s. Venezuela has also hosted Russian nuclear-capable bombers and a Russian naval flotilla in 2008, as part of Moscow’s efforts to signal to Washington that it can deploy forces in the U.S.’s backyard.

Moscow in Latin AmericaCuba

Cuba was Russia’s primary partner in the region during the Cold War. The abrupt end of Soviet economic subsidies disrupted the Cuban economy in the early 1990s. Cuba’s new leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, now faces the challenge of governing and rejuvenating the economy without the revolutionary credentials of Fidel or Raúl Castro. Cuba’s economic travails are compounded by a decline in subsidized energy imports from Venezuela and a freeze on the normalization of U.S.-Cuba commercial ties imposed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Political Influence Russian outreach efforts in Latin America have focused prominently on Havana due to its strategic location. Both Medvedev and Putin have visited Cuba during their tenures as president. Cuba has also supported Russia in international forums such as the UN General Assembly.

Economic Influence Russia has provided Cuba with generous debt relief, and Rosneft began oil shipments to Cuba last year to help compensate for the drop in Venezuelan exports. The two countries are ramping up projects in the energy and railway sectors.

Military Ties Moscow has helped finance and support modernization of Cuba’s defense sector. Russian officials have periodically floated the possibility of reestablishing the Russian signals intelligence collection facility at Lourdes.

Moscow in Latin AmericaNicaragua

Nicaragua’s relations with Russia have flourished following Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007. Nicaragua has been in crisis since April 2018 when anti-government protests erupted after Ortega’s surprise decision to slash welfare benefits. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets demanding Ortega’s resignation, and the state’s violent crackdown has left over 170 people dead.

Political Influence Nicaragua is one of Russia’s most steadfast political and military partners in the region. Managua has supported Moscow diplomatically on issues such as the Crimean annexation, the war in eastern Ukraine, and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For its part, the Russian MFA has harshly condemned foreign powers for allegedly meddling in Nicaraguan domestic politics.

Military Ties Russia has supplied Nicaragua with arms, including fifty new T-72 tanks. Moscow also has constructed a GLONASS satellite communications facility in Managua and an anti–drug trafficking center, facilities that are believed to be used for intelligence gathering. In 2015, the Nicaraguan parliament voted to allow Russian warships to dock in Nicaraguan ports.

Moscow in Latin AmericaBrazil

Russia has cultivated relations with Brazil via the BRICS, a grouping that includes Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa. Brazil’s economy is the largest in South America, but political and economic ties with Moscow remain fairly limited. Buffeted by a series of corruption scandals, Brazil will hold a presidential election in October 2018. The contest is essentially wide open.

Economic Influence Russia-Brazil bilateral trade rose to $4.3 billion in 2016, and Brazil is Russia’s largest trade partner in Latin America. Russia imports food and agricultural products from Brazil and exports fertilizer, mineral fuels, and metals. In 2016, Russia purchased 90 percent of its imported pork from Brazil, but Moscow has since begun tightening market access to protect domestic producers.

Information Space Brazilian citizens are extremely active online. The government is increasingly worried about the impact of fake news sponsored by rival political parties and, to a lesser extent, overseas actors on its upcoming presidential election, but has not explicitly expressed fear of Russian interference. A 2017 study by the Brazilian think tank FGV-DAPP on social media interference in Brazil’s 2014 election uncovered a significant network of bots and fake profiles on Twitter with Russian markers.

Moscow in Latin AmericaMexico

Russia has taken some steps to capitalize on the sharp disagreements over trade and immigration that have roiled U.S.-Mexican relations under President Trump. Ties are likely to be strained further if Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist former mayor of Mexico City, wins the country’s July 2018 presidential election. Lopez Obrador has tried to use humor to rebut claims that Moscow and Russian state propagandists favor his candidacy.

Economic Influence After Brazil, Mexico is Russia’s largest economic partner in the region, although bilateral trade remains relatively small in dollar terms. As U.S.-Mexico relations have soured, some Russian and Mexican government officials have made public remarks about the value of deeper commercial ties. These comments stand in contrast to Mexico’s more cautious stance on China.

Political Influence López Obrador appears to be the Kremlin’s favored Mexican presidential candidate due to his anti-American views and the possibility that his victory would cause significant heartburn for the Trump administration. Senior U.S. officials— including former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson hinted publicly about possible Russian interference in the election.

Information Space Moscow has expanded Spanish-language television programming and social media accounts aimed at Mexico and other Latin American countries. A Spanish affiliate of RT typically embraces strong anti-American themes.

Moscow in Latin AmericaBolivia

Bolivia’s staunchly anti-U.S. stance under President Evo Morales has made it an attractive political partner for Moscow. Of additional interest to Moscow given its expertise in natural resource extraction and delivery, Bolivia boasts the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America.

Political Influence United by their vocal opposition to the U.S.-led international order, Bolivia and Russia have cooperated closely at the United Nations (UN). Bolivia was one of eleven countries that voted against a March 2014 resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning Russian actions in Crimea. In April 2018, La Paz and Moscow teamed up to oppose a resolution criticizing Syria’s use of chemical weapons in Douma.

Economic Influence Gazprom has been working on a variety of oil- and gas-related projects in Bolivia in recent years. Similarly, Rosatom signed a contract build a nuclear research reactor in the Bolivian city of El Alto in September 2017.

Military Ties Russia and Bolivia signed a defense cooperation agreement in August 2017 and are discussing potential arms deals as part of Bolivia’s military recapitalization program.

Moscow in Latin AmericaArgentina

Russia’s ties with Argentina flourished under populist former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from 2007 to 2015. Kirchner provided tacit political support for Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, while she pursued cooperation with Russia on nuclear power and other energy projects. Rather curiously, relations were also strong during the late Soviet period, thanks to the dependence of Argentina’s anti-Communist, junta-led dictatorship on Soviet exports of beef and grain. Kirchner’s successor, former businessman Mauricio Macri, took office in 2015 and was expected to put relations with Russia on the back burner.

Political Influence Macri confounded expectations that he would downplay relations with Moscow when he formally reaffirmed the Russia-Argentina strategic partnership during a visit to Moscow in January 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to attend the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in the autumn of 2018.

Economic Influence Trade and commercial cooperation is decidedly modest in scope. Argentina has had limited success in trying to capitalize on Russia’s countersanctions against Western food imports. Joint nuclear energy projects remain stalled.

Moscow in Latin AmericaColombia

Colombia has exceptionally strong ties to the United States, but is surrounded by Venezuela and other ALBA states with close ties to Russia. Colombia’s 2018 two-round presidential election in May and June 2018 is the first contest since the 2016 peace deal that ended the long-running insurgency led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The prevalent use of mobile devices and social media makes Colombia potentially susceptible to efforts to manipulate public opinion.

Political Influence Given Colombia’s close alignment with the United States, high-level political ties with Russian leaders have been minimal. During the height of the FARC insurgency, a network of Russian criminal groups and corrupt military figures supplied the guerillas with weapons in exchange for cocaine. The extent of Russian government involvement in these efforts, which began in the early 1990s, remains fuzzy.

Information Space Amid heightened tensions with Venezuela, Colombia’s defense minister in March 2018 accused Caracas of a series of cyberattacks on the country’s voter registration system. Colombian defense sources have hinted that Russia might be connected to these efforts. Meanwhile, Russian media outlets, including RT, lent support to ex-FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño’s short-lived presidential candidacy in early 2018. (Londoño ultimately dropped out of the race prematurely due to health problems.)

Russia’s geopolitical aim in Latin America is to counter perceived U.S. encroachment in Moscow’s own backyard and boost Russia’s credentials as a global power.

Russian efforts have focused on deepening partnerships to further Moscow’s desire for a multipolar international system and to cultivate an anti-U.S. constituency in the region, while also exploiting developments to disrupt U.S. relations with key regional partners.

For the United States, Russia’s increasing presence in the Western Hemisphere is an unwelcome development that could further aggravate relations with its neighbors and present new threats.

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Russia has excelled at inserting itself into complex situations and making sure its interests are protected.
Russia’s global forays do not face significant economic constraints, given Moscow’s frequent reliance on low-cost methods to project power and influence.
The Kremlin has a knack for seizing opportunities and exploiting other actors’ weaknesses to further its aims. Russia’s toolkit, especially its exploitation of information and propaganda tools, will continue to evolve and embrace new and emerging technologies.
Going forward, Putin’s more assertive foreign policy will be a factor—and potentially a spoiler—for Western policymakers in a growing number of regions.

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  • Visiting Scholar
    Russia and Eurasia Program
    Julia Gurganus is a visiting scholar with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focus is on trends in Russian foreign policy and Russia-U.S. relations.
  • Director and Senior Fellow
    Russia and Eurasia Program
    Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
  • Nonresident Senior Fellow
    Russia and Eurasia Program
    Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. His work focuses on U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
  • Senior Fellow
    Russia and Eurasia Program
    Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
  • James Family Chair
    Vice President for Studies
    Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia.
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