International

War in Ukraine threatens US interests in the Western Hemisphere

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is playing out as a war of words and money in the Western Hemisphere, as countries throughout the continent cope with Russian propaganda and pressure from Washington to cut economic ties with Moscow. 

While Russia’s allies in the region – Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – have fully embraced Moscow’s rhetoric of threatening NATO encirclement, other major players like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina have condemned the violence while distancing themselves rhetorically and economically from the Western effort to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And two governments that actively sought closer ties to the United States before the crisis, Colombia and Haiti, have seen wildly different outcomes in the wake of the invasion, as U.S. authorities have embraced Colombian President Iván Duque, while functionally ignoring the ongoing humanitarian and political catastrophe in Haiti.

President Biden is due to welcome Duque to the White House on Thursday, in a clear sign that Democrats have fully buried the hatchet after a period of bilateral tension — a fence-mending process likely helped along by fears of Russian interference in Colombia’s upcoming elections.

Gustavo Petro, a leftist populist firebrand who lost to Duque in 2018, is leading in the polls. 

On the campaign trail last week, Petro rebuffed the idea of Colombia taking a role in the Ukrainian war, raising further doubts as to whether he would continue Colombia’s path of security cooperation with the United States.

“I think you’re going to see [Russian] efforts and significant impacts particularly in Colombia, which would be the crown jewel, if you could get a government in Colombia that was willing to begin to decouple from the United States in significant ways,” said Douglas Farah, a senior visiting fellow at National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations.

“There’s not something they’re gonna say, ‘oh, well, should we meddle or not?’ No, they’re meddling and they want to meddle and they’ll continue to meddle,” added Farah, speaking at a forum on Russia’s role in Latin America organized by Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA).

While Colombia has long been the closest U.S. ally in the region, Democrats were incensed that some of Duque’s allies actively campaigned for former President Trump in Florida in 2020.

The rapprochement has been building up for months, led by Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón, who was called back into diplomatic service to patch up differences ahead of Colombia’s own presidential election later this year.

Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hosted a hearing on the future of U.S.-Colombia relations, where senators on both sides of the aisle lauded Colombia, a country that Biden called “the keystone” of U.S. policy in Latin America.

And SFRC Chair Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.) proposed to elevate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, the highest level of security partnership outside the Atlantic alliance. 

“This is based on the common values to protect democracy nowadays, to speak on the issues that are important to both: immigration, climate change and energy transition. And again, to protect democracies from rogue regimes, extra-regional powers, and criminal and malign intentions,” Pinzón told The Hill shortly after the hearing. 

Russia’s economic footprint in the region is relatively small, especially compared to China’s, but its propaganda networks have broad production capabilities and wide dissemination in the region.

Flagship station RT’s Spanish-language service is available throughout the continent and its quick turnaround on breaking news stories and high production values have translated into viewership, particularly in southern South America.

“This for Putin is a prime target of opportunity where he thinks he can even the score with the United States,” said David Kramer, managing director for Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute.

“When it comes to propaganda through RT, Sputnik, that’s relatively easy to do although they have been pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars into their effort on this and it will take some to keep that going,” added Kramer.

In an indication that sanctions are hurting the Kremlin’s capacity to fund its global propaganda network, RT on Thursday closed its operations in the United States, laying off its workforce. 

But Latin America is likely to continue to be a profitable investment for the Putin regime. 

Its largest economic benefactor and beneficiary in the region continues to be Venezuela, an allied regime that primarily trades oil and gold with Moscow.

Brazil and Mexico, the region’s two largest economies, have refused to stop buying Russian fertilizer, and most countries in the region lack the capacity to implement sanctions against Russia even if they wished to do so.

“Sanctions regimes in Latin America are much more limited than in the United States or its European allies. Mexico’s financial sanctions are among the most advanced in Latin America because of its proximity to the U.S. financial system, and even so Mexico lacks the capacity to impose significant economic sanctions of geopolitical consequence,” said Elías Alfille, an in-house expert at K2 Integrity, a financial crimes compliance risk management firm. 

“Governments, of course, can limit their financial interactions with Russia or Russian companies, but their capacity to restrict how much individual citizens decide to trade with Russia is limited,” he added.

But for many experts in the region, the real risk of the war in Ukraine is not measured in Russian involvement, but in lack of U.S. and European involvement in the Western Hemisphere. 

“I think it’s less about the crisis, which I think of course exists … and much more about the opportunity,” said Pedro Abramovay, director of the Latin America Program at the Open Society Foundations.

“I think there were some opportunities being built in Latin America that could connect particularly well with the current administration in the U.S. and even in Europe,” added Abramovay. 

That’s the case of Haiti, where the country’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis drew significant media attention, if not immediate action by the Biden administration.

Biden’s policies toward Haiti have been severely criticized, as his administration has expelled more than 20,000 Haitians to the Caribbean country, most without being given a chance to claim asylum in the United States.

“I understand that the international community, the entire world, is facing so many different issues now, meaning Haiti would be less in the mind of the international community and our international partners, particularly the United States,” said Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. Bocchit Edmond.

Edmond added that Haiti’s stability is a national security concern for the United States, even though the Caribbean country “might be the weakest link in the region when it comes to security and economic [capacity].”

“Because a well secured Haiti, a well secured Caribbean, is a well secured United States,” said Edmond.

The State Department on Friday announced that Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Anne Witkowsky will travel to Port-au-Prince next week, to discuss the country’s political future with both Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, and the political opposition that does not recognize his government.

Still, the administration’s policies toward the region’s poorest countries are taking a hit, if only in terms of less media exposure, accentuating the dangers faced by the region’s most vulnerable people, including migrants.

“What keeps the abuses from becoming worse is the ability to keep decisions in the international limelight,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas.

“So to the extent that there is less attention … and given the fact that the trend of basically approaching migration from a punishment perspective continues to be dominant, then the likely short-term impact is that there will be more people being abused and fewer people knowing about it,” added Chacón. 

And disengagement or focus on taking sides in a kind of Cold War mentality could break down advances in democratic governance in places like Central America, experts say.

“What is the kind of investment that those countries need to sustain their democracy?” asked Abramovay. 

“The war and the focus that the U.S. will put on cooperation [focused] on alignment or not, will put us further away from the possibility of sustaining democracy,” said Abramovay.

Tags Colombia Donald Trump Haiti Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Western Hemisphere

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