Mercurial Tango: Putin's Odd Courtship of Argentina

07/29/2014 09:25 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2014
  • Nikolas Kozloff Author, 'Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left'

In light of the history, Argentina seems like the last country one would expect to embrace Russia and Vladimir Putin. Indeed, during the Cold War Buenos Aires was ruled by a military junta firmly allied to the U.S. In what came to be known as the "Dirty War," Argentine generals hunted down suspected left-wing political opponents, killing an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983. At the time, the military saw itself as a bastion against radicalism in Latin America and did its utmost to hunt down revolutionaries and many others deemed to be socially or politically undesirable.

Curiously enough, however, the junta had some pragmatic leanings and when Argentine relations with the U.S. began to sour over human rights violations, Buenos Aires turned to the Soviet Union which became an important commercial partner. Indeed, Argentine support for the U.S.S.R. proved decisive when the U.S. imposed a grain embargo on Moscow following the latter's invasion of Afghanistan. With nowhere to turn, Russia imported massive amounts of grain from Buenos Aires.

Perhaps even more surprising, recent reporting suggests the U.S.S.R. even supported the military junta's 1982 invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands or Malvinas. During the conflict, Britain received logistical and military support from the Reagan administration, prompting Buenos Aires to turn to Moscow. According to Brazilian newspaper O Globo, the Soviets shipped weapons to Argentina via neighboring Brazil. In another recent book, a Russian journalist claims the U.S.S.R. also provided crucial satellite data to the junta which allowed the Argentine military to sink British naval vessels during the Falklands conflict.

From Military Junta to Kirchner

Fast forward some forty years, and it seems that Argentina has once again chosen to pursue a rather outlandish yet opportunistic foreign policy toward Russia. Recently, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner hosted Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires, where both solidified diplomatic ties. On a certain level, it is surprising that the Kirchner government would welcome the likes of Vladimir Putin. As I reveal in my second book, Argentina has done much to overcome the dark legacy of human rights violations dating from the military years. In light of Russia's appalling record on human rights, as well as the country's ties to Russian rebels in Ukraine, the timing of the Buenos Aires diplomatic tête-à-tête seems a little perverse, and that is putting it mildly.

To be sure, Kirchner may cite realpolitik reasons of her own for courting Putin. Though U.S.-Argentine ties have improved since the Bush years, relations have remained decidedly frosty. The Obama administration has never trusted South America's "new left" regimes which have consolidated power throughout the wider region, and Argentina's dalliances with Venezuela have no doubt raised suspicions in Washington's elite corridors. Moreover, Buenos Aires has refused to go along with Pentagon schemes in South America: as I revealed in an earlier piece, Kirchner rebuffed a U.S. drive to establish a base in the remote Chaco region. Furthermore, the cumulative effect of the WikiLeaks scandal as well as Snowden revelations --- which revealed U.S.-U.K. spying in the South Atlantic in the vicinity of the Falklands --- have contributed to even greater mistrust in Buenos Aires.

Dire Financial Straits

In light of such frictions, it's perhaps not too surprising that Kirchner would seek to consolidate a more "multi-polar" world rivaling U.S. dominance. What is more, Argentina is in dire need of foreign investment after the country defaulted on its debt in 2001. Ever since then, Argentina has been entangled in an acrimonious battle with its creditors. Currently, the Kirchner government is desperate to stay solvent in the wake of a U.S. court order to pay more than $1.3 billion to "holdout" hedge funds refusing to participate in the restructuring of Argentina's debt. With its economy in recession and inflation at double-digit levels, Buenos Aires can ill afford to default.

In the face of such pressure, Kirchner has sought all the political support she can muster. Appearing with Putin in Buenos Aires, both leaders remarked that it was time to reform international entities which had not provided "equitable" solutions to distinct conflicts. Presumably, Putin and Kirchner would like to replace such bodies with the likes of BRICS: just two months ago Moscow invited Argentina to attend a summit of the group, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Rather dubiously, Kirchner added that Russian-Argentine "multi-polarity" would do away with "double standards" on the world stage and encourage greater adherence to international law.

Could Russia make much of a difference for Argentina in the ongoing dispute with investors? Last month, a delegation of Argentine legislators traveled to Moscow in an effort to recruit the Kremlin's assistance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov remarked, "We support Argentina in its efforts to get out of debt." In Buenos Aires meanwhile, Putin was joined by an entourage of Russian businessmen who look to their leader for suggestions when it comes to foreign investment. According to Putin, commercial exchange between Russia and Argentina has increased dramatically over the past decade, with principle goods traded including beef, citrus fruits, minerals and oil.

Putin to the Rescue

Another reason Kirchner may wish to extend ties to Russia has to do with energy cooperation. Currently, the South American nation has to import energy for its needs to the tune of $10 billion annually. Therefore, Buenos Aires needs large powerhouses such as Russia to help develop its resources. Perhaps, Moscow can help secure Argentine energy independence in the event that large multinationals get scared off by the country's financial troubles.

Right now, Kirchner has a lot riding on the so-called Vaca Muerta, where Argentina has vast unconventional oil reserves. The Vaca Muerta shale field, located in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, is estimated to be the largest oil field in the Western Hemisphere and may contain more than 20 billion barrels of oil. Currently, several U.S. companies including Exxon-Mobil are active in Vaca Muerta. However, if Argentina goes into default such deals could be placed in jeopardy.

"This is where Putin's recent visit becomes important," writes Foreign Policy magazine. The publication notes that "a focus of discussion between Kirchner and Putin was reported to be Russia's role in helping develop Argentina's vast unconventional oil reserves, the Vaca Muerta." For some time, Argentina has courted Gazprom, and in the event of a default the Russian state oil company could provide an alternative to U.S. investment. According to BBC Mundo, Argentine state energy company YPF and Gazprom have been negotiating for two years on a potential agreement.

Putin's Gambit

Of course, Putin has his own motivations in courting Argentine friendship. Since the eruption of hostilities in Ukraine, Russia has been isolated diplomatically in the international community, and in March the leaders of the G-8 expelled Moscow outright. Perhaps, Putin reasons that by extending an olive branch to a couple of left-leaning Latin American countries he may help to break the deadlock. Still smarting over Obama's remark that Russia is a mere "regional power," Putin would like to snub Washington in its own "backyard."

Having been cut out of the G-8, Putin is turning to other fora such as BRICS and South America. However, it's unclear whether Russia's gambit will pay off for Putin. World Politics Review notes that "Russia is presenting a number of challenges to important U.S. global interests, but its activities in South America are not among them. Russia's actions in the former Soviet republics and the Middle East are far more threatening than its modest engagement in Latin America." The publication adds that "Russia has proved unable to expand its close partners beyond a group of marginal leftist regimes with troubled economies and constrained diplomatic potential." What is more, Moscow's annual trade and investment in Latin America is dwarfed by China, Europe and the U.S.

Perverse Relations

Kirchner meanwhile is beset with her own problems. To be sure, Russia might provide financial assistance at a crucial time. Yet by hosting Putin --- particularly now in the midst of the crisis over Ukraine --- Kirchner looks oddly out of step with the political coalitions which helped put her in power. Amnesty International was none too pleased with Putin's visit and sent Kirchner a letter of protest over Russia's handling of human rights. Such protestations, however, did not stop Putin from signing some arms transfer agreements with Argentina. Kirchner is also reportedly preparing cooperation agreements with Russia designed to facilitate "mutual assistance" on criminal matters as well as extradition.

Somewhat perversely, Kirchner also reportedly inked a deal with pro-Kremlin Russia Today news channel to broadcast its Spanish language service alongside local TV fare. Moscow Times reports that Argentina has never before granted such round the clock priviledges to foreign channels. In Buenos Aires, Putin sought to build up a sense of cultural solidarity, remarking that "one out of six Argentines has Russian roots." Putin has also proposed that Russia and Argentina deepen cultural exchanges next year, an idea which Kirchner has roundly endorsed.

Despite such historic and cultural ties, many local residents still oppose Putin and his interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, the local Ukrainian community of Buenos Aires picketed Putin in the Plaza de Mayo, shouting "Crimea belongs to Ukraine!" Putin was also greeted with protests from the local gay, bisexual and lesbian community, which criticized discriminatory Russian laws pertaining to homosexuality. Drawing attention, organizers participated in a "public kiss" in front of the Russian Embassy no less.

Backing up Nationalistic Claims

In another sign that Kirchner's foreign policy may have lost its bearings, the Argentine President has sought Putin's help in backing up claims to the Falkland Islands or Malvinas. In this sense, Kirchner echoes previous efforts to recruit Russian support going all the way back to the military junta. Then as now, Buenos Aires may find it convenient to corral public discontent into narrow nationalistic claims over a barren and rocky outcropping of islands in the middle of the South Atlantic. Even though British settlers on the Falklands have no desire to become Argentine citizens, Kirchner has pressed her claims with Putin. Perhaps, crass economic motives may help to explain Argentine motivations. Indeed, Buenos Aires has its sights on lucrative offshore oil and gas located in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands.

Kirchner's questionable courting of Putin goes back to March of this year, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimea outright. Bizarrely, Kirchner remarked that "Russians and Argentines have similar positions and visions." Both Moscow and Buenos Aires denounced the "double standard" of western states which defended Ukrainian sovereignty while rejecting Argentine claims over the Falklands. Putin, Kirchner added for good measure, was "a dignified figure worthy of imitation" by other world leaders. Later, Argentina abstained from condemning Russia's annexation of the Crimea during a vote of the United Nations General Assembly.

Putin has returned the favor by backing up Kirchner and her peripatetic claims in the South Atlantic. In Buenos Aires, Putin remarked "Russia...has invariably stood for resolving the dispute over the sovereignty of the Malvinas Islands by way of direct negotiations between Argentina and Britain." Kirchner responded in kind by toasting to a "world without double standards," referring to sanctions leveled by the U.S. and EU against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. The Argentine leader followed up by thanking Putin for his "support in our national struggle" and the fight against colonialism which "definitely needed to be stamped out."

Mercurial Tango

What then should one make of such mercurial tango? Realistically, it does not seem very likely that Putin can cause much mischief for the U.S. in Washington's "backyard." Nevertheless, if things do start to worsen in Ukraine as now seems likely, and relations between Russia and the west plummet yet further, one cannot discount the possibility that Putin will try to catch the U.S. off guard in its own hemisphere. In light of age old Cold War tensions, such a scenario would be highly undesirable to say the least.

For Kirchner, such high profile geopolitical games carry their own risks. To be sure, Argentina may calculate that Russia will provide welcome financial assistance at a time of great volatility and uncertainty. Yet such help makes a mockery of foreign policy and casts doubt on Argentina's claims to have turned the page on its own dark past of human rights violations. Moreover, Kirchner's notion of securing Russian backing over the Falklands harks back in some ways to the days of the military junta, a regime which most Argentines would probably soon forget.