On Tuesday, Joe Biden declared that cyberattacks, which he hinted to come from Russia, could trigger a real war. A war with bullets. The president of the United States escalated, at least on the rhetorical level, the conflict he has maintained with Vladimir Putin since before reaching the White House. On this occasion, he predicted Moscow’s intervention in the North American elections next year.
Biden’s toughening should get the attention of Latin America. Russia has been developing an increasingly conspicuous activity in the region. In the coming days there will be a relevant news about this role: the Russians will participate in the negotiations between the Nicolás Maduro regime and its opponents. The talks will take place in Mexico, and Putin’s delegates will sit at the table at the request of Maduro. To accompany the opposition there will be a representation from the Netherlands.
Russia has been a relevant actor on the Venezuelan scene. But that role was limited until now to the provision of war material. Or to rehearse troubled energy deals. With the intervention at the discussion table to be established next week, Putin takes a further step. Initiate a direct intervention in politics. That participation has innumerable meanings. It is discreetly symmetrical with the permanent presence of the United States and NATO in the Moscow area of influence. Especially in Ukraine. It highlights Russia’s affinity with a dictatorship for which enmity with the United States is the first alibi for survival. But it also reveals that Putin’s government aspires to be part of a solution to the long Venezuelan crisis, which has projections for the entire region.
Venezuelans have collaborated with these goals. Until a few weeks ago, it was taken for granted that Argentina would participate in the Mexican talks. Maduro preferred Putin. Despite the benevolence of the Kirchnerist Alberto Fernández towards his regime: he left the Lima Group; it withdrew the accusations against Chavismo, which are being investigated in The Hague, for human rights violations; and invited Vice President Delcy Rodríguez to celebrate the national day at the Caracas embassy, offering her a stage to socialize with representatives of other countries and with opposition leaders. Neither did Spain manage to be part of the negotiations. When he offered himself to the opposition as a companion, the parties facing Maduro rejected the proposal.
Russia not only functions as an ally of Maduro’s Venezuela. It also maintains interdictions with its main contradictor: the Colombia of Iván Duque. In May, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Colombian ambassador, Alfonso López Caballero, to reproach him for Duque pointing out that cyber activism in Moscow was hiding behind the demonstrations against him. There is no news yet that Sergey Lavrov summons United States Ambassador John Sullivan to make an equivalent claim to Biden’s accusations.
The Russian game in the Caribbean is completed with a very active link: the one that unites Putin with the Cuban dictatorship. From Moscow came an explicit endorsement of Miguel Diez-Canel, and a warning against any external intervention, when the street demonstrations against him were unleashed.
These skirmishes are set against the backdrop of a novel diplomacy linked to the pandemic: Moscow’s provision of vaccines to Latin American allies. A business whose extraordinary publicity fails to hide great practical difficulties.
Last December, Maduro announced the purchase of 10 million Sputnik V vaccines, produced by the Gamaleya research center and marketed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). So far only three million Venezuelans have been immunized, with Sputnik and China Sinopharm. Last week the NGO Médicos Unidos denounced that the arrival of the second dose had been interrupted, causing a major health problem.
Difficulties in supplying that second dose have caused a crisis in Russian propaganda. In India, the Dr. Reddy laboratory, which markets Sputnik V, announced two weeks ago that it will stop doing so due to the impossibility of guaranteeing the second application. India is the main recipient of the Russian invention, and Gamaleya has authorized its local production as of the last quarter of this year. News that coexists with the joint maneuvers of Russian and Indian ships in the Baltic Sea.
While the United States leads the censorship against the authoritarian aggravation of the Daniel Ortega dictatorship in Nicaragua, Lavrov received his colleague Denis Moncada to announce, with suspicious imprecision, that Sputnik V will be produced in Managua in some time.
The government of Luis Arce, of Bolivia, also faced with Washington, is another of the recipients of the vaccine formulated in Gamaleya. But there, too, the vaccination program collapsed and now the Minister of Health, Alejandra Hidalgo, seeks to find another product that can be combined with Sputnik V, due to the lack of second doses.
Putin’s plan, to become a solution to the pandemic for his Latin American allies, had its biggest mishap in Argentina. There, a letter was leaked from the presidential advisor Cecilia Nicolini, in charge of negotiating the purchase of vaccines, to the director of the RDIF Anatoly Braverman. In that message, Nicolini dramatically expressed the difficulties the Fernández government was in to carry out its immunization scheme. He reproached Braverman for not even responding to his claims, even though Argentina had been deeply committed to the success of the Russian health enterprise. To complete her regret, the official told Putin’s official that a member of her team had contacted the Richmond laboratory, which produces Sputnik in the country, to establish a suspicious intermediation in the supply of the product.
These advances and setbacks by Putin have meanings that go beyond health diplomacy. They reveal Russia’s intention to pressure the United States in its traditional area of dominance. And that, in the absence of economic and commercial power, such as that exhibited by China, this action must be backed by politics. They therefore exhibit the unwavering vocation of the Russians to be actors in global chess. And, at the same time, they bare their enormous limitations to achieve that goal.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.