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Latin America

In the Soviet period, the main reasons for involvement in Latin America were not historical, cultural, or economic, but related to strategic competition with the United States. Accordingly, the Soviet Union endeavored to foster leftist insurgencies and other distractions to interfere with United States foreign policy in the region.

The main bases of Soviet involvement in Latin America were Cuba and Nicaragua, but the Soviet Union also attempted some involvement in Peru and Grenada. The Soviet Union placed military and intelligence facilities in Cuba to spy on the United States. It also supported Cuba as an attractive and successful model of Latin American socialism that would induce other countries to move into the same sphere and become export bases for ideology. In 1962 Khrushchev attempted to redress Soviet strategic nuclear inferiority by surreptitiously placing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. Although tensions over Cuba subsided considerably in the decades that followed, Cuba remained an important Soviet outpost until the Gorbachev regime began substantially cutting aid in the late 1980s. The other potential outpost of communism in Latin America, Nicaragua, was lost when a free election rejected the procommunist Sandinista Party in 1990. Meanwhile, Soviet purchases of grain and other goods from Latin America slumped severely in the decade before the breakup of the Soviet Union and thereafter because of the Soviet Union's inability to pay in hard currency (see Glossary).

The January 1993 draft foreign policy concept viewed relations with Latin America as particularly important for Russia's economic development. Russia saw the Latin American countries, particularly Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, as a source of low-price food and other goods for the Russian market, as a source of mutually beneficial technological cooperation, and as a market for arms. The 1993 concept called for establishing and consolidating ties with regional organizations such as the Organization of American States, in which Russia is a permanent observer. The concept was vague about relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and it avoided mention of Soviet-era support for Marxist-Leninist ideological movements in those states.

Some Russian analysts argued for revival of the mutually profitable pre-Soviet trade ties that had exchanged goods from Siberia for goods from Latin America. These analysts advocated obtaining Latin America's trade products--coffee, cocoa, sugar, fruit, footwear, and oil--in exchange for Siberian timber, coal, fish, and furs. Some also argued that Russia's trade in the entire Pacific Basin should intensify to compensate for the loss of ports on the Baltic and Black seas.

In the first post-Soviet years, the Russian government received criticism from nationalist factions for declining trade and lax diplomacy with Latin America. In 1993 commercial activity recovered somewhat as Brazil and Russia concluded a trade agreement that was worth about US$2 billion and included arms purchases by Brazil. In 1994 Vladimir Shumeyko, speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper legislative chamber, toured Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Many Russians urged restored ties with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Peru in order to persuade those states to pay back Soviet-era loans. Some of the many Latin American students who had benefited from the Soviet Union's large student-exchange program also began to seek new entrepreneurial and cultural contacts with Russia on behalf of their native countries. In 1994 Russia cooperated with the United States by supporting a United States-led international intervention force in Haiti.

In early 1996, Foreign Minister Primakov traveled to Cuba and other Latin American states to indicate Russia's determination to expand ties in the region. In March 1996, Russia and Colombia announced an agreement on the supply of Russian small arms and ammunition. Seeking to restore ties with Nicaragua, Russia agreed in April 1996 to cancel the bulk of that nation's debt (US$3.4 billion) to the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet-era status of Cuba deteriorated seriously late in the Gorbachev regime. Ties between the communist parties of the two countries were severed, economic subsidies were suspended, and, in late 1991, Gorbachev announced the pullout of the Soviet military brigade from Cuba. The Soviet Union announced that "mutual benefit" and world prices would dictate future economic relations and that Cuba no longer would enjoy the special status it had had until that time. The end of subsidies was a severe blow to the Cuban economy. In November 1992, a Russian-Cuban trade agreement endeavored to restore some trade ties with a sugar-for-oil barter arrangement, but it did not include subsidies for Cuba. During 1992 the Russian government also failed to defend Cuba against increased commercial sanctions based on international accusations of human rights violations. Some Russian hard-liners criticized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' treatment of Cuba, and that policy was reversed partially between 1993 and 1995. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets committed Russia to a credit of US$350 million and a sugar-for-oil barter agreement in 1993, and he made a high-level visit to strengthen bilateral ties in 1995.

Renewed Russian connections in Cuba have been of significant concern in the United States. Russia has argued that barter arrangements with Cuba do not violate provisions of the United States trade embargo on Cuba, which sets severe penalties for United States trading partners that deal with Cuba. In 1995 the United States voiced concern over Russian plans to assist Cuba in completing a nuclear power reactor. In February 1996, the United States tightened economic sanctions against Cuba in response to the shooting down of two United States civilian airplanes in international airspace. At that time, Yeltsin criticized the United States for overreacting, and he reaffirmed his intention of reestablishing traditional ties with Cuba.

Foreign Policy Prospects

In the 1990s, a number of sometimes contradictory factors have driven Russian foreign policy. The most formidable and unchanging factor is the country's immense geographical span, which gives Russia natural interests in three vastly different regions--Europe, the Pacific, and the vast, largely Muslim stretch of the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia's recent history gives it particular geopolitical motivation to perpetuate relations with the fourteen nations that emerged along its periphery when the Soviet Union dissolved. Recent history also has motivated efforts to maintain an influence over some states of the Third World in which the Soviet Union had a substantial foothold.

The process of focusing priorities among a number of possibilities has proved to be unusually complex in an era when ideology and bilateral rivalry no longer dictate responses. The main recurring disagreement in post-Soviet foreign policy pits advocates of stronger ties with the capitalist world, especially Western Europe, against advocates of some form of reconstituted union in which Russia would be the dominant force, politically and economically. The first option truly could take Russia in a new direction. The second option offers the security of returning to a familiar role, but it also threatens to burden Russia with client states that it no longer can afford.

Between 1992 and mid-1996, the Yeltsin administration wavered from one side to the other, emitting contradictory signals as it tried to maintain as many options as possible. At the same time, however, Russia moved into Western organizations such as the Council of Europe, and treaty arrangements such as START I, which gave it stronger connections with, and obligations to, the West than it had ever had in the Soviet era. In this process, Russia showed consistently that it wished to be taken seriously as a diplomatic power upon which the world could rely, not merely as a plaintiff for its own national causes.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s, increasingly strong political forces in Russia have blocked further movement toward the West by arguing that Russia cannot recapture superpower status as a second-rate partner of rich capitalist states. The centerpiece of this position is opposition to NATO expansion eastward, which has been the pretext for nationalists to block other international commitments such as the START II disarmament agreement. At the same time, Russia has maintained substantial influence in parts of the former Soviet Union, taking advantage of destabilizing ethnic struggles in the new nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia to play a dual role as peace negotiator and military guarantor of security. Finally, Russia's closer ties with China, a country that still is the object of substantial suspicion in the West, have increasingly alarmed Western policy makers.

The replacement of Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev by Yevgeniy Primakov in January 1996 was an indication that Russia might be more concerned with restoring power than with conforming to international standards, although its Great Power infrastructure continued to crumble and Primakov proved to be more pragmatic than dogmatic in his initial policy statements. After Yeltsin's reelection in mid-1996, the president's illness obscured the locus of power in all areas of governance, including foreign policy. Western observers wondered whether a nation in acute economic distress, with a disastrously inefficient military and few dependable allies around the world, might still be willing to make the sort of pragmatic concessions that Yeltsin and Kozyrev practiced in the first years of Russia's post-Soviet existence.

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Because Russian foreign policy is in a period of formation and flux, most scholarly publications are articles or edited works, but some useful monographs have appeared. Noteworthy among the latter are Suzanne Crow's The Making of Foreign Policy in Russia under Yeltsin ; Gerard Holden's Russia after the Cold War: History and the Nation in Post-Soviet Security Politics ; and John George Stoessinger's Nations at Dawn--China, Russia, and America . Useful compilations of articles are Damage Limitation or Crisis?: Russia and the Outside World , edited by Robert D. Blackwill and Sergei A. Karaganov; The Making of Foreign Policy in Russia and the New States of Eurasia , edited by Adeed and Karen Dawisha; Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet Union: Domestic and International Dynamics and Russia and the Third World in the Post-Soviet Era , both edited by Mohiaddin Mesbahi; Rethinking Russia's National Interests , edited by Stephen Sestanovich; and Russian Foreign Policy since 1990 , edited by Peter Shearman. For more current coverage of foreign policy developments, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service's Daily Report: Central Eurasia digests and translates items from the Russian press, the Jamestown Foundation's Prism and Monitor publications offer short articles, and the Open Media Research Institute's biweekly Transition provide longer articles on domestic and foreign policy issues. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of July 1996

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