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Russia heads to 'America's backyard' to find salve for sanctions

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited several Latin American nations this week to seek trade opportunities that could offset US efforts to puncture Russia's economy.

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    Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (l.) greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his arrival for a meeting at the presidential house in Managua, Nicaragua, Wednesday.
    Jairo Cajina/Courtesy of Presidential House/Reuters
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Russia took its global charm offensive to Latin America this week, as the Kremlin seeks to counter Western sanctions over its policies in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Over the past few days, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reassured Cuba of ongoing support, denounced US sanctions against Venezuela, and even suggested Russia might be willing to take part in building a Nicaraguan rival to the Panama Canal. Rumors of Russian arms supplies to several countries in the region have prompted expressions of alarm in Washington.

Mr. Lavrov's four-country visit, the latest in a series by top Russian officials, is part of a major diplomatic campaign to blunt US-led efforts to isolate Moscow for its policies in Ukraine. Over the past year, President Vladimir Putin has staged high-profile meetings with leaders of China, India, Egypt, Turkey, and even Hungary, and in each case come away significant new trade deals – and political breathing space.

Similarly, during a visit to Brazil last summer, Mr. Putin nailed down deals with several Latin American countries to provide goods that have been denied to the Russian market due to its sanctions war with the West.

"Russia is returning to Latin America after a long period of inactivity, and of course this is causing some concern in the US," says Igor Kovalev, deputy chair of world economics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "Russia's role in the region is suddenly growing. Part of that, no doubt, is the need to find ways around Western sanctions against Russia."

Warplane rumors

Though Moscow has made no official announcements of new arms sales, Western media have been full of reports that Russia is preparing to lease Su-24 attack planes to Argentina and even sell MiG-29 fighters to Nicaragua.

The rumors of Russian warplanes to Argentina have even triggered a mini-war scare in Britain, which fought a 1982 war with Argentina over control of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. The flames were fanned, perhaps inadvertently, by Russia's ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, who told the Kremlin-funded RT network that the 2013 referendum that saw an overwhelming  number of Falkland Island residents vote to remain part of Britain was no more legitimate than the Russian-sponsored referendum last year in which Crimeans elected to join Russia.

"If the US can talk about arming Ukraine, why shouldn't Russia demonstrate it can do the same in America's backyard?" says Kirill Koktysh, and expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "There is a political message there, for sure. But it's also in Russia's long-term interest to beef up relations with these countries. Business is business."

Russia is already a major arms supplier to crisis-hit Venezuela, which is under sanctions from Washington for alleged human rights abuses.

That's an opening for Russian diplomacy, which Lavrov didn't miss. Pointing out that Russia, too, suffers from US persecution, he told journalists in Cuba that Washington's policies are "totally inconsistent."

"We would like the United States to stop looking for enemies in its geographical surroundings and listen to a unanimous voice of Latin America and the Caribbean Basin" to be left to settle their own affairs, he said.

None of this has been missed in Washington.

"Russia is using power projection in an attempt to erode US leadership and challenge US influence in the Western Hemisphere," Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, head of US Southern Command, said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "Under President Putin ... we have seen a clear return to cold war tactics."

Experts say that Russian diplomacy is expertly playing upon existing differences between the US and many Latin American countries, in a mirror image of its tactics in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

"There are a lot of tensions in the region, particularly with many Latin American countries supporting Venezuela against US sanctions," says Mr. Kovalev. "Of course Russia is exploiting this factor. Why wouldn't it? It works."

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