Russia’s threats in Latin America
An escalation of tensions over Ukraine is unlikely to lead to Russian military deployments in Latin America. Cyber attacks should be the real concern.
Today’s post can be divided into two parts:
First, I think Russia’s “threat” to deploy military forces to the hemisphere is laughable
Second, there are real non-military threats from Russia, mostly involving cybersecurity and disinformation, that could occur should tensions over Ukraine escalate.
Two other disclaimers:
First, nothing I’m writing below is urgent. I’m not expecting a massive cyber attack next week. Nor should anyone suggest that if it hasn’t happened by mid-February, that clearly everything written below is wrong. These are long term concerns as the tensions continue over the course of the rest of the year.
Second, I focus on Latin America because that’s what I do. Putin looks for targets of opportunity and he is tempted to create trouble in Latin America because of its proximity to the US. But there are plenty of other regions of the world where a similar set of issues are in play should Russia choose to expand its efforts beyond Eastern Europe. I don’t make an attempt below to balance Russia’s objectives in Latin America vs what it can do in other areas of the world including Europe, Africa and inside the US.
Neither Putin nor Maduro want Russia to get its military bogged down in Venezuela’s quagmire
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov could “neither confirm nor exclude” that Russia is considering sending military assets to Latin America in response to what it perceives as US and NATO aggression in Eastern Europe.
Russia wasn’t invited, not even by Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua. It would be an invasion under those terms, but of course, they’d probably be welcomed. The fact that so many of us assume that it is de facto true that Cuba or Venezuela would eagerly welcome Russian military presence in their territory says a lot about the loss of sovereignty those countries currently face.
But perhaps Russia isn’t as welcome as they think. In their weekly political risk report, Caracas Chronicles suggested that Venezuela’s military commanders reacted poorly to the Russian announcement, viewing it as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. Worse, even Maduro allies thought it was inopportune given that it will hold back the regime’s current efforts to reduce sanctions.
If they did go in, Russia getting any significant number of forces or military equipment bogged down in Venezuela would be a mess for them. They couldn’t keep their equipment maintained due to lack of supplies, electricity and fuel. Their troops may even have a hard time obtaining food depending on supply chains. They’d face threats from the FARC’s 10th front and other insurgent groups that have been hostile to the Maduro regime. They’d be stuck facing the day to day reality of the country’s complex political situation including the fact the Maduro regime doesn’t even have 20% support.
The threat of Russian military deployment in the hemisphere would be such a mess for them and their allies that it’s almost worth egging it on. (Almost, but not really. Because we should all be in favor of de-escalation of tensions.)
Russia’s asymmetric threats could pose a real challenge to the hemisphere
However, separate from the overstated military deployment threat, there are some real threats in the hemisphere in terms of how the tensions could play out. Russia has expanded and demonstrated a spectrum of capabilities over the last 15 years that could be deployed in the hemisphere and prove to be a real challenge for the US and the region.
Cyber attacks. Russia has spent years finding vulnerabilities in other countries’ critical infrastructure networks. The most recent attacks in Ukraine appear to have more destructive capabilities than simple defacement or denial of service. It’s quite likely that Russia has capabilities it can deploy inside the US, but the country may find it more advantageous to go the indirect route of targeting US allies in Latin America.
Hitting Mexico with a cyber attack in a way that disrupts the economic flows across the border would be among the most impactful ways Russia could hit the US in Latin America. Hitting other economic partners of the US in the hemisphere would also have some impact, and it’s possible Russia goes after targets of opportunity in South America. But given the amount of business that occurs along the border and the current political frustrations with supply chains and inflation, going after US-Mexico trade relations does magnitudes more damage to US businesses and interests than hitting Brazil or Colombia or Ecuador.
Whether Mexico or elsewhere in the region, it is safe to assume that Russia has offensive capabilities that far outmatch the defense capabilities of Latin American governments and private providers of critical infrastructure to defend against an attack. Electrical/energy infrastructure and communications systems are particularly vulnerable.
(Would AMLO’s ideology or diplomacy mitigate this threat? No. Putin doesn’t care.)
Health. Nobody has fully explained the “anomalous health incidents” (commonly referred to as Havana Syndrome attacks, but not a fair name at this point) that have occurred around the world. However, if Russia is involved, it is possible that in the event of a conflict over Ukraine, the numbers of AHIs increase in Latin America and the targets go beyond US and Canadian government personnel to start hitting other US interests including businesses and tourist sites where US citizens travel. This is a less likely scenario than cyber attacks or increased disinformation, but it would also be high impact. Given what little is known about the threat, it should be taken seriously as one of the weapons that could be used in geopolitical conflict.
Disinformation. Russia has operated sporadic disinformation efforts in Latin America for over a decade and has built an infrastructure for spreading its own take on the news in Spanish. There isn’t much commentary on the Ukraine situation in Russia’s Spanish-language media today, but that could swiftly change if tensions escalate.
Election disinformation. The elections in Colombia and Brazil are a target rich environment for Russia to engage in cyber attacks and disinformation operations. Russia does not need to change the results of the elections. As seen in the US, Russia just needs to cast enough doubt that the losers of the elections have grievances and doubt the legitimacy of the process. Bolsonaro, in particular, is primed to cast blame on anyone he can.
Causing damage while avoiding direct blame
The challenge of those threats in the cyber, health or disinformation spheres is that there is no simple attribution to them. In fact, with issues such as cyber attacks and AHIs, there are plenty of attempts to obscure the origin of the attacks or even create conspiracy theories that the attacks don’t exist. It’s a way to further muddy the situation and create controversy rather than unity.
If electricity or banking networks or government websites suddenly go down in a Latin American country, is it a nation-state, a criminal group, a “false flag” by the US, or an accident? The region’s first instinct is not going to be to blame Russia. An attack will create real and potentially serious diplomatic and economic consequences. But without simple attribution, countries cannot and will not easily unify to respond in a coordinated manner.