Argument

Putin Is Still ¡Muy Popular!

The Russian president's tour of Latin America shows that the leftist south still has love for Russia -- and the BRICS are willing to play ball.

Vladimir Putin's six-day Latin American tour this past week reveals that, in the face of tougher economic sanctions by the United States and perhaps the European Union over the Ukraine crisis, the Russian president will not be quiescent. Anticipating an intensifying showdown on Ukraine, Putin took advantage of a meeting of the BRICS countries in Brazil to pursue a diplomatic initiative and call on political support in Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Brazil.

Latin America, generally -- and this set of four countries, for different reasons -- offers hospitable terrain for Putin's aims. Although all these governments prize sovereignty and nonintervention when it comes to dealing with the United States, none is prepared to strongly condemn Moscow for its aggressive behavior toward Ukraine.

Whatever their ideological stripe, the governments of Latin America have to weigh the continued reservoir of goodwill for Russia, dating back to the Cold War, among sectors of the left. At the same time, however, with few exceptions they are loath to extend the degree of solidarity Putin seeks and instead prefer to remain on the sidelines. Posturing aside, most do not want to risk economic and political relationships with the United States and Europe over Moscow's involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

What most unites all of the Latin American left -- in fact, virtually the only issue that brings together the whole region, across the political spectrum -- is the fierce opposition to the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba, the country that Putin shrewdly made the first stop on his trip. For many Latin Americans, sanctions are associated with what they view as Washington's anachronistic and counterproductive policy toward Cuba. (The sanctions being considered in the U.S. Congress against the Venezuelan government for human rights abuses similarly arouse anti-American sentiment across the region.)

Putin used his Havana visit to announce the decision to forgive roughly 90 percent of the debt Cuba incurred during the Soviet era, or about $32 billion. Reports that Russia had, in exchange, decided to reopen a surveillance post in Lourdes, Cuba, that had been used to spy on the United States were denied by Putin, who claimed that Russia can "meet its defense needs without this component." Putin, in his meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro (Putin also met with Fidel), discussed offshore energy exploration (just a few dozen miles from the U.S. coast) as well as projects to modernize the maritime port of Mariel and create a "grand transportation hub."

The geopolitical narrative of the Cuba visit, like that of the rest of Putin's tour, was unmistakable. Much of it had to do with Russia trying to flex its muscles and project power in an arena traditionally regarded as the strategic prerogative (often called, pejoratively for Latin Americans, the "backyard") of the United States. The not-so-subtle message of the trip: Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, Putin is determined to counter any attempt to isolate him. But in Havana, it was far from clear that the lofty promises of higher levels of economic engagement between Russia and Cuba will materialize.

Putin's geopolitical swing in Latin America continued with a surprise visit to Nicaragua. As President Daniel Ortega -- Washington's bête noire since the 1979 Sandinista revolution of 1979 -- rapturously told Putin upon his arrival, "It is like a ray of light, like a flash of lightning. This is the first time a Russian president has visited Nicaragua." Nicaragua, which voted against the U.N.'s condemnation of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, welcomed Moscow's offer to aid the ambitious (though dubious, according to some experts) Chinese-funded venture to build a canal across the country.

But Putin may have found the most enthusiastic reception for his cause, amid the growing tension with the United States, during his visit to Argentina. Although press reports called attention to the series of agreements on nuclear energy and other projects between Russia and Argentina, the backdrop for Putin's encounter with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was undoubtedly the Argentine government's contentious battle over restructuring its debt. Both the sanctions against Russia and the legal rulings against Argentina were treated by both leaders as unwarranted, punishing actions by the traditional poles of global power. In Putin, Fernández may have found a bedfellow.

However, it was in Brazil, Putin's final stop on his southern jaunt, that the most serious diplomatic and business deals took place. Putin and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff talked about arms sales, and specifically the possibility of a $1 billion anti-aircraft missile system. Although Washington's relations with Brasilia are not as troubled as they are with Buenos Aires -- and certainly not with Moscow -- ties between the Western Hemisphere's two major powers have badly frayed, the result of the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance and, in 2010, the Obama administration's hammering of Brazil's offer with Turkey to lead a controversial nuclear proposal on Iran.

Most significant for Russia's pursuit of greater global clout was Putin's participation in the BRICS meeting -- a summit that included Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi (making his Latin American debut), and South Africa's Jacob Zuma. The long-anticipated launching of the bloc's development bank, to which each member government will contribute $10 billion to a special fund, was the most important announcement involving Russia during the visit.*

True to form, Putin didn't miss an opportunity to draw connections -- however far-fetched -- to the issue that was plainly weighing most heavily on his mind. In an interview, he urged Brazil, China, India, and South Africa to draw "substantive conclusions" from the current situation, referring to sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in the Ukraine crisis. He said it is time to dilute the dominance of the U.S.-led West and the dollar by boosting the role of the BRICS on the global stage.

In Putin's geopolitical chessboard and balance-of-power mindset, Russia's association with the BRICS has turned out to be extremely useful. But if Putin sought forceful expressions of solidarity from his emerging partners on the Ukraine question, he was probably disappointed. Rousseff insisted that the BRICS grouping did not aim to challenge other countries' interests.

China, which has the preponderant role in the BRICS (the development bank will be based in Shanghai), evinced little interest in making Ukraine a high priority and is not about to risk its relationship with the United States over this issue (neither is Brazil). Indeed, President Xi's visit to the region (he went to Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and Brazil) was chiefly about deepening economic relationships with Latin America and thus stood in sharp contrast to Putin's notably geopolitical agenda. China's economic contribution to the region -- not only in trade and financing (roughly $100 billion since 2005) but also investment -- is highly significant, unlike Russia's negligible role.

In the end, Putin's visit probably had a marginal impact on Latin America. No government changed its position as a result. Still, the Russian president was able to convey his gratitude to those who stood with him and ensure that they would at least stay neutral on the Ukraine issue. But the tour revealed that Russia's capacity to forge strategic alliances in the region is limited. Putin's Russia will not be ostracized in Latin America as a result of its intervention in Ukraine -- but it will also not be warmly embraced and supported by most countries.

Putin, who attended the final game of the World Cup in Brazil, may now have some ideas for the next one, which will be held in Russia in 2018. He got to witness firsthand the mania and strong passions for soccer throughout Latin America -- and its spreading popularity globally. No one should be surprised if he is already calculating how to derive maximum geopolitical advantage from that spectacle four years from now.

Correction, July 18, 2014: Each BRICS country will contribute $10 billion to the bloc's new development bank, for a total of $50 billion. An earlier version of this article said each country would contribute $50 billion. (Return to reading.)

Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Shoot-Down Heard 'Round the World

The 1983 downing of KAL-007 accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union. Could MH17 be a tipping point for Putin's Russia?

The tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, probably destroyed by a missile on July 17 while it overflew the restive region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, evokes memories of the 1983 shoot-down of flight KAL-007.

On Sept. 1 of that year, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 en route from New York to Seoul strayed off course into Soviet airspace. A Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor fighter jet downed it off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, killing all 269 passengers and crew aboard. As the world reacted with disbelief and indignation (except for the Chinese, who abstained in the U.N. vote to condemn the USSR), Moscow issued conflicting denials, claiming first that the Soviets had tried to "assist" the plane to a nearby airfield, and then that they had fired warning shots with tracer shells along the flight path.*

It was not until a week later that Moscow admitted the plane had been shot down -- but blamed the pilots of the "spy plane" who, they said, knew they were flying over forbidden territory and did not heed the signals of the Soviet interceptors. Some of these claims were later exposed as lies: The world now knows, for instance, that the plane received no warning before the Soviets fired on it. But the Soviet belief that the plane was on a spy mission was probably genuine -- "beyond any doubt," according to the December 1983 KGB/Defense Ministry report sent to the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, though it is possible that the KGB and the military deliberately misled the leadership to avoid taking responsibility.

The KAL-007 shoot-down dealt a heavy blow to the Soviet Union's international image. "It was an act of barbarism," U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared, "born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations." His view was widely shared outside the Soviet bloc. Demonstrations erupted in South Korea and Japan: Protestors carried placards denouncing "massacre by cold-blooded Russians," and burned Soviet flags.

The Soviets' clumsy and callous handling of the salvage operation further inflamed passions: They barred foreign search vessels from the crash area, and stripped the Japanese patrol boat Tsugaru of weapons before allowing it into the Soviet port of Nevelsk to pick up piles of shoes and random clothing items recovered from the search. In the meantime, wreckage and mangled body parts washed up on the beaches of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Shocked relatives, assembled on ferry boats in the Sea of Japan, called out the names of their lost loved ones -- as they are doing today in Amsterdam, where MH17 originated, and in Kuala Lumpur, its intended destination.

The months between the shoot-down and Andropov's death in February 1984 saw the worst tensions in Soviet relations with the West since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The ailing, incapable Soviet leadership, overcome with paranoia and a sense of doom, feared that Washington would launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR. The deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe in the fall of 1983 meant that the Soviets were literally five minutes away from nuclear obliteration. Soviet intelligence was tasked to look out for signs of impending nuclear attack. Moscow's fears were amplified after the November 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer, which imitated a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union and which Moscow briefly misinterpreted as a real attack. Only the cool nerves of the Soviet command center officers saved the world from a potentially apocalyptic catastrophe.

In retrospect, the KAL-007 downing was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Coming after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and tightening Western sanctions in the wake of the December 1981 declaration of martial law in Poland, this senseless atrocity highlighted the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system and deepened Moscow's international isolation. It was largely to overcome this isolation, lessen the dangers of accidental war, and recover his country's prestige on the global stage that Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the underlying principles of Soviet foreign policy, leading to broad rapprochement with the United States, withdrawal from Europe, and the end of Soviet Communism itself.

The shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines plane puts Vladimir Putin in a situation comparable to that of his role model, Andropov. Like in the early 1980s, Russia today faces international isolation and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. There is a widening gap between Moscow and the West in terms of understanding the other side's perspective and likely actions. And in some ways, things might even be worse for Putin. In the early 1980s, the Soviet public was generally unaware of the deep crisis in East-West relations. Today, Russia's public opinion has been inflamed by a torrent of vicious anti-Western propaganda amid rising nationalism, which severely constraints Putin's ability to maneuver.

What really undermined the Soviet position in 1983 were the regime's blatant lies and unwillingness to cooperate in an international investigation. Putin's record in this respect is far from reassuring. Memorably, his presidency started with deception in the August 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, which Moscow initially blamed on NATO while refusing foreign help in rescuing the crew. Putin then lashed out at a then-still-free Russian media for criticizing the government response and infuriated grieving families with his comment on the fate of the submarine: "It sank," he said with a callous smirk.

At a time when Russia's relations with the West are at their lowest point since 1983, it is not surprising that Putin blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the disaster. The Russian media, in an attempt to shift the onus from Russia-sponsored separatists, has aired stories claiming that the Ukrainian air force downed the Malaysian airliner. While Ukraine's responsibility cannot be discounted pending investigation, Putin is making a big mistake by pre-emptively pointing the finger at Kiev. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the pro-Russian militias may be responsible for the disaster, the Russian president risks losing moral ground by becoming an apologist and an accomplice to the crime.

If the investigation reveals that the separatists were responsible, only unequivocal denunciation of the perpetrators will save Putin from moral bankruptcy. Yet doing so will mean a drastic reversal for Russia's support for the separatists, a prospect too painful for the Kremlin to contemplate. Accustomed to deception and disinformation, Putin evidently hopes to muddle through this latest setback. But this will only lead to a deeper crisis in Russia's relations with the West. Memories have not faded yet of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and certainly not of the 1983 war scare. There were no catastrophes then -- but this third time the world could be unlucky.

On the other hand, this tragedy -- like the downing of KAL-007 -- could serve as a turning point for Russia's foreign policy, a point of departure on the road of reconciliation and rapprochement with the West. Just as for Gorbachev, the opportunity is there for Putin to take.

*Correction, July 19, 2014:  In 1983 the Soviets originally claimed that they fired warning shots with tracer shells before shooting down flight KAL-007. An earlier version of this article did not mention the tracer shells. 

YURKO DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images