Deceptive carrot: How Russian lies are spread in Latin America

In the third year of the Russian-Ukrainian war, it is difficult to describe the role of Latin America in its attitude to it in one word. On the one hand, we hear condemnation of Moscow’s actions. This was stated in the final declaration of the Free America ​​Forum by representatives of the region’s 22 states. From time to time, we can hear similar statements from national leaders. On the other hand, in these statements, they try to select their words so that they are not accused of sympathizing with one of the parties. Why is there such caution? Ukraine Crisis Media Center, which initiated the panel discussion “Latin America in the Focus of Russian Propaganda”, believes that this is the result of the Russian Federation’s active use of powerful tools – from diplomacy to direct information attacks.

It was important for the participants of the meeting to express their views on the geopolitical significance of the Russian-Ukrainian war and its impact on the political situation in Latin America.

“Russian aggression against Ukraine has definitely affected the political landscape in Latin America. There are several countries that openly support Russia. There are those that are neutral and those that have a definite position on Ukraine. Nevertheless, there are also internal problems in Latin America that attract the attention of citizens and governments. One such example is a diplomatic scandal between Ecuador and Mexico. Of course, Russia is trying to gain as much influence as possible in this region and is always flirting with the so-called Global South, pitting it against the Global North, and trying to create more and more fault lines,” said Oleksiy Otkidach, an expert on Latin American at ADASTRA Fellow.

He also drew attention to the fact that Latin American countries have strong ties with the United States and the European Union, and perhaps this influence of Russia is not as big as they are trying to convince us. Latin America has a rather long tradition of neutrality regarding events in other regions of the world.

“Which Latin American countries can decide to attend the peace summit in Switzerland that will discuss the possibilities of peace prospects for Ukraine? What could be the position of Brazil as an economic leader in the region?” asked Volodymyr Solovyan, Head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

According to Oleksiy Otkidach, Ukraine will make every effort to involve Brazil in this summit.

“If we manage to persuade this country to accept at least some provisions of the Ukrainian plan, we will see a change of position at the level of different countries. Chile and Argentina may also attend the summit. We saw how President Zelensky met with the President of Chile and he also has a good personal relationship with the President of Argentina Milei. There is a certain relationship with the president of Ecuador. I expect that Colombia won’t stand aside and will join in order to strengthen the position of its leader,” he said.

 The Swiss summit seems to be a great opportunity to take the side of peace, consolidate positions on the continent, and thus write your names on this page of recent history. After all, all we hear now are isolated and sometimes contradictory signals. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador criticizes the United States for excessively supporting Ukraine. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva calls for creating an analog of the G20 to achieve peace in Ukraine with the participation of Latin American countries, China and the United Arab Emirates, while Argentine President Javier Milei wants to hold a summit of Latin American countries that support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.

It would be surprising if Russia did not make efforts to disrupt the summit. The U.S. State Department recently said that the Russian government is funding a disinformation campaign through the media across Latin America to undermine support for Ukraine. The Kremlin keeps spreading disinformation through its extensive contacts in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Meanwhile, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev promises to help Latin American countries resist “US attempts to interfere in their internal affairs”, stating that Moscow will continue to use all available means to prevent “interference in the internal affairs of countries, campaigns to discredit their legitimate authorities, intimidate their population and destabilize their economies.”

“Latin America remains an important zone of peace, a kind of island of stability. It is important for us that more and more countries in the region seek to pursue an independent policy,” one of the Kremlin hawks says openly. 

Ivan Fechko, an expert of the Latin American and Caribbean Research Program of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism,” which studies Russia in this region and the narratives it spreads there not only through the mass media, but also through the cultural diplomacy methods, told about how this influence is exercised.

“Speaking of propaganda, we cannot fail to mention such huge machines as Russia Today, “Sputnik” and other channels. They remain more influential than some Western media and have an audience of more than 30 million people. They are trying to impose the idea that Ukrainians are only pretending to be victims of aggression. They portray this war as a war against the West and not against Ukraine, and promote many propaganda narratives,” the expert noted.

Russian embassies also serve as the centers of propaganda. They are disproportionately large. Their staff exceeds 10 times the staff of Ukrainian embassies in the same countries. This shows that there is a huge number of intelligence officers working there to spread Russian influence.

“It is also worth mentioning the Russian Federation’s cultural diplomacy in the region. They have huge cultural organizations – the so-called Russian Houses, which represent Russia as a huge world donor. By spreading Russian culture, they convince Latin Americans that this war is justified and they are trying to liberate their historical territories. This happens due to the distortion of historical and cultural realities,” Ivan Fechko added.

And what do Latin American journalists think about this? Marcelo Cantelmi, editor-in-chief of the Foreign Desk of Clarin media, believes that the greatest Russian influence in Latin America is manifested in three dictatorships – in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. Another country that also exercises significant influence in this region is China, but it does so through investment.

“Our internal agenda is very complex. Latin American countries face many problems. When Lula won, everyone thought that now we have a leader who can end this mess. But it’s not working very well now…Ukraine has no money, and if it doesn’t get weapons, it won’t be able to win this war. Although I’m a bit cynical, I look at it as a journalist. It is more than a war between two countries. This is a war between two systems, which is why it has such a high price,” Marcelo Cantelmi said.

Some countries in Latin America still express the point of views that do not coincide with the point of view of Russia and deviate from Russia’s ideas about freezing the war and preserving the territories, which it occupied in Ukraine. This is one of the conclusions reached by the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

One of the topics of discussion was the assessment of Ukraine’s capabilities in helping Latin American countries resist Russian propaganda. In such a difficult situation, is there a desire and opportunity in Ukraine to participate in the development of a relevant strategy?

“Of course, we do not have such resources as Russia has. Even in a situation where many countries have imposed sanctions, Russia still has many opportunities. Besides, China and Iran are helping it in spreading disinformation,” Ivan Fechko admitted.

At the same time, he noted that there are many civil society groups that are trying to establish contacts with Latin America, journalists, public opinion leaders, and various institutions.

“We have the Ukrainian Institute, which does a lot to promote Ukrainian interests in this region,- the expert said. – In conditions of lack of funds, we have to use other opportunities to cooperate. With the support of the USA, Poland, Latvia, North Macedonia, and other countries, it is possible to organize some events in Latin America. They can be very useful.”

Summarizing the results of the discussion, Volodymyr Solovyan emphasized that Ukraine is important for Latin American countries.

“I hope that this meeting will mark the beginning of our mutually beneficial cooperation. We can do some joint research, share our experience, explain why this war is happening, debunk propaganda and Russian narratives in Latin America,” said the Head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

The event was attended by journalists Ricardo Marcelo Cantelmi Pampillon, Clarin (Argentina), Maria Jimena Duzan Saenz, podcast A Fondo (Colombia), Natalia Viana Rodrigues, Agência Pública (Brazil), Julio Guillermo Idiart, La Nacion (Argentina), Juan Camilo Merlano Poveda, Caracol TV (Colombia). All of them are participants of the press event held as part of the “Unfold Ukraine to Global South” project implemented by Ukraine Crisis Media Center in cooperation and coordination with the Open Society Foundation and funded by the International Renaissance Foundation.