COVID-19 has become the Kremlin’s golden opportunity to relaunch its foreign policy towards this Western Hemisphere region in the form of a contribution to public health.

By Ingrid Jiménez

Gone are the days of the Cold War and the bipolar world in which Latin America, with the exception of Cuba, was aligned with U.S. interests.

In the current order disrupted by the pandemic, China is a fundamental economic partner of several countries in the region and Russia, with less strength, is beginning to emerge.

Vladimir Putin considers himself the heir of the Soviet Union and has devoted himself to positioning Russia as the power it used to be during almost the entire 20th century. Researcher Milosevich-Juaristi considers that “Russia does not rely so much on its ideology, as during the Cold War, but has a much more pragmatic vision whereby it seeks to diversify its foreign relations.” The researcher adds that Russia is willing to demonstrate that it is even capable of challenging the United States, in this case by making inroads into its traditional area of influence.

In this context, the Slavic country has intensified its relations with the region in two areas: technical and military cooperation as well as energy, mainly oil and gas.

The most newsworthy in recent years has been its relationship with Venezuela, with the purchase of weapons and several cooperation agreements in different areas, expanded after the economic and financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. since the Barack Obama administration.

Nevertheless, Venezuela is not Russia’s main partner in Latin America, nor is Russia interested in aligning itself with the discredited Maduro government. Russia’s main trading partner in the region is Brazil, with which it has entered into agreements in the energy, aerospace, and telecommunications areas.

The pandemic and the arrival of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V are an opportunity for the two countries to strengthen ties. President Bolsonaro decided to put economy before life and this has taken a death toll of 350,000 in the country. Therefore, ideological differences aside, the central government and nine other states have already signed agreements to buy 47 million vaccines. 

In addition to Brazil, also Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela opted for Sputnik V, given the impossibility of obtaining vaccines from Western laboratories, almost all of which have already been purchased by the U.S. and the EU.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the Inter-American Development Bank, explained the situation: “Although I truly think that the U.S. and European countries are the preferred partners in the region, if there is a vacuum, there isn’t the slightest doubt that China and Russia will seek a way to take advantage”.

Indeed, it is happening: Russia and China are meeting Latin America’s immunization needs. So far, there is no proposal or initiative from the West, beyond the COVAX program, to help the region acquire the vaccines it needs in fighting the pandemic.

As noted by Professor Milosevich-Juaristi, Russian foreign policy has become pragmatic and has scored a success with its vaccine promotion strategy, managing to enter, without much effort, Latin America and Africa, the latter being an area of influence of Western Europe.  

Russia’s presence in Latin America is still timid and does not compare with that of China and its great economic might. What is certain is that Moscow is betting on increasing cooperation in various areas with the most influential countries that have acquired Sputnik, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.   

The geopolitics of vaccines is yet another chapter in the confrontation between the West and Russia. The world order is changing, but it is still too early to envision it, what is foreseeable is that it will probably be much more multipolar than it is today.

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