Explaining Latin America’s Contradictory Reactions to the War in Ukraine
Nearly every Latin American country opposed the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001. Most also opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Why is the region more divided on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine today? Despite the Latin American consensus opposing unilateral uses of force against weaker states, governments across the region have refused to impose sanctions on Russia to respond to its invasion of Ukraine. There are even some countries, like Brazil, whose diplomats in U.N. forums have condemned Russia while the executive ponders whether to help Vladimir Putin’s administration economically. Does Latin America solidly condemn interventions only when the United States is the intervener?
Latin American countries have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine following two regional traditional approaches to the international order. Most Latin American states have supported Ukraine using a Latin American diplomatic tradition that defends nonintervention and self-determination principles. A minority of Latin American countries argues that Russia is legitimately responding to the expansion of NATO. They justify their position using a different tradition that rejects Western imperialism. Brazil and Mexico exemplify the tension between both approaches. Diplomats in these countries condemn Russia’s use of military force, while the presidents are skeptical of Western actions against the Putin administration.
As the war enters its second phase, understanding the diplomatic traditions and domestic political imperatives driving these ambivalent responses will be key if the United States and Europe want to win more support for Ukraine from the Global South.
Why Have Most Latin American Countries Criticized Russia?
Tom Long and Carsten Andreas-Schulz argue that there is a Latin American “republican” tradition of engaging the international order. Latin American international lawyers and diplomats have sought to use republican ideas about preventing domination, promoting separation of powers, and guaranteeing the rule of law to prevent interventions by great powers, especially by the United States. In efforts to interact with great powers on equal footing, Latin American countries have traditionally defended legal principles such as nonintervention and self-determination. Latin American countries have also traditionally opposed unilateral approaches to solving controversies, favoring multilateral and collective responses to international crises. Consistent with the republican tradition, Latin American representatives have defended the rule of law and multilateral actions during their participation in U.N. debates and when they justify voting in favor of resolutions condemning Russia.
It might seem contradictory that most Latin American countries describe Russian actions as a crime of aggression yet decline to impose economic sanctions. While some Latin American presidents have expressed their potential support for sanctions, like Iván Duque from Colombia, the Brazilian and Mexican presidents have maintained their reluctance to apply these measures. However, the effects of Latin American economic sanctions on the Russian economy would be minimal. As of 2019, only 0.3 percent of both the imports and exports of the median country in the region went to Russia, with the exceptions of Ecuador, Jamaica, and Paraguay. Even Russia’s trade with its most important partners in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, is small compared to countries in other regions.
The Latin American reticence to impose economic measures against Russia is also consistent with the regional republican tradition. Latin American diplomatic elites favor designing collective responses to controversies through multilateral forums. They prefer to use pacific solutions to controversies following international law over targeted economic measures imposed without the approval of a multilateral organization. Similarly, Latin American policymakers do not support sending military equipment to Ukraine without multilateral authorization, arguing that these transfers might escalate the violence even further.
Why Have Others Hesitated to Criticize Russia?
Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are reticent to criticize Russia. Strategic considerations and authoritarian affinities inform their positions. The West has criticized and sanctioned them for their authoritarian practices. Thus, Russia has become one of their political allies, even if it cannot offer an economic lifeline. The Kremlin has suggested, in vague terms, that Russia could use these relationships to expand its military presence in the Western Hemisphere. The State Department and several Latin American specialists have dismissed this possibility. Russia could also represent an example to follow. Some analysts worry that the Nicolás Maduro administration could use military force to solve the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana over the oil-rich Essequibo region. However, Maduro might not have the economic and military capabilities to use force and withstand the sanctions that the international community could impose in response.
It would be easy to conclude that this minority of Latin American countries might have a pro-Russian stance if we only focus on strategic considerations. However, these countries’ posture is more accurately described as anti-Western, more than a posture accepting the Russian use of force against a weaker neighbor. To justify their reticence to criticize Russia, they follow a Latin American diplomatic tradition that Juan Pablo Scarfi defines as “pluralist.” Latin America uses multilateralism and international law to oppose U.S. imperialism, defend the plurality of values in the international order, and protect diverse political regimes. Countries relying on the pluralist diplomatic tradition argue that there are inequalities in the international order favoring the West. They point out moments when Western countries have abused international law with minor consequences — for example, during the Iraq War in 2003. They also disapprove of the biased application and enforcement of rules against non-Western states, the selective attention to problems in some developing countries, and the expansion of Western projects such as NATO.
Like other authoritarian governments, these Latin American countries have used multilateral forums and international law to protect their regimes. Using the Latin American pluralist tradition, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela defend what they argue should be an inclusive multilateral architecture where different political regimes can coexist. Thus, these authoritarian Latin American countries oppose excluding Russia, another authoritarian state, from multilateral forums. This position could also help these countries domestically. Governments in Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have claimed to be part of a coalition of countries defying Western military and ideological expansionism. They have accused their domestic opposition of siding with Western imperialists.
What Is Going on with Mexico and Brazil?
Mexico and Brazil are currently serving two-year terms as non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the only Latin American countries on the council right now. These two countries exemplify the tension between the regional republican and pluralist traditions of engaging with the international order. They stand out among Latin American countries because their career diplomats have criticized Russia, following the first tradition. At the same time, following the latter, their presidents are reticent about condemning Putin. The potential inconsistencies between the two Latin American traditions have produced inconsistent responses to the Russian invasion. Some Mexican commentators have even described the Mexican position as “schizophrenic.”
On the one hand, following the Latin American republican tradition, Brazilian and Mexican representatives in the United Nations have condemned the Russian actions in Ukraine. Diplomats from both countries have criticized the Russian use of force against a weaker neighbor as illegal and a crime of aggression. They have voted in favor of U.N. resolutions at the Security Council and the General Assembly denouncing the Russian invasion, asking for peaceful solutions to the conflict, and prioritizing humanitarian assistance. Even when they abstained in the vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, Brazilian and Mexican diplomats used arguments following the republican tradition. They posited that suspending Russia without gathering more evidence about the alleged crimes would weaken the rule of law in the long term. The career diplomats behind these decisions are multilateral and international law experts. Thus, it makes sense that they favor positions following a diplomatic tradition that prioritizes these instruments to seek solutions.
On the other hand, in line with the Latin American pluralist tradition, the Brazilian and Mexican presidents have been reticent to criticize Putin’s actions. Jair Bolsonaro has argued that “globalists” control the international order, i.e., financial capitalists and left-wing actors. He posits that the best way to confront this globalist international project is to include diverse political regimes in decision-making circles. He favors neutrality and listening to both sides in this conflict as the best way to find a peaceful solution. Andrés Manuel López Obrador has shown little interest in foreign policy. He also favors neutrality stating that he wants good relations with all international leaders, not only Western ones. Many local media outlets and politicians in both countries have asked the presidents to remain impartial in the conflict. They sometimes echo Russian conspiracy theories to sustain their arguments and describe Russian critics as supporters of Western imperialism.
Brazilian and Mexican diplomats in the United Nations have had to modify their multilateral positions to accommodate, and perhaps tame, their presidents’ statements and preferences. Both countries keep asking for multilaterally coordinated and sanctioned responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, Brazilian representatives have criticized Western sanctions as indiscriminate, polarizing, and not conducive to a peaceful solution. Mexican diplomats have posited that sanctions and suspensions weaken the international order and foster an exclusionary and discriminatory multilateral system.
Potential Risks to the United Nations
On April 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the U.N. Security Council. He reminded delegates that the primary purpose of the U.N. Security Council is to guarantee international peace. He warned them that if the Russian invasion continues, “the finale will be that each state will rely only on the power of arms to ensure its security, not on international law, not on international institutions. Then, the UN can simply be dissolved.” This warning might resonate in Latin America. Countries in the region have promoted a robust multilateral architecture to respond to crises and prevent abuses by great powers. Latin American diplomatic elites have argued that weakening this structure would represent “the single greatest threat to international peace.”
Latin American representatives had introduced proposals to respond multilaterally to the Russian invasion even before Zelensky’s cautionary speech. For instance, Mexico worked with France and introduced a draft resolution to the Security Council demanding civilian protections in Ukraine and calling for unhindered access for humanitarian assistance. When Russia vetoed this draft, Mexico and France took the resolution to the General Assembly, which adopted it on March 24. Mexico recently revived the demand to limit veto powers in the U.N. Security Council, a reform project that Mexico and France have advocated for since 2015. The Mexican mission at the U.N. co-sponsored a resolution that the General Assembly adopted by consensus on April 26. This project asks for accountability and transparency mechanisms to regulate veto prerogatives in the Security Council.
There are two main takeaways from the Latin American reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. First, Latin America favors multilaterally coordinated and approved responses over collectively organized sanctions. Second, the Latin American reluctance to criticize Putin is more an anti-Western reaction than a pro-Russia stance. Hence, Latin America consistently follows its two regional diplomatic traditions of engaging the international order. However, the regional republican and pluralist approaches recommend different collective actions and offer different paths to strengthen the multilateral architecture in response to the Russian invasion. The tension between these two traditions explains the Latin American divergences and contradictions.
Ukraine and the United States have been excellent at making Ukraine’s case for aid to Global North audiences. Western countries have responded decisively and unitedly in support of Zelensky. As Russia begins a new assault on eastern Ukraine and continues attacking Mariupol, Ukraine and its Western allies will need to modify their message if they want to secure more support from the Global South. Latin American countries will be reticent to back collectively coordinated sanctions to defend a rules-based international order — the strategy that has unified the West. The United States can gain short-term support from Latin America by building economic partnerships to counter Russia.
Ukraine and its allies can gain more substantive Latin American support by implementing multilaterally coordinated and approved actions framed as a defense of a small country’s right to self-determination from a great power illegally using force. Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala followed this approach to secure the votes to suspend Russia as a permanent observer to the Organization of American States on April 21. Antigua and Barbuda’s representative explained that “small nations […] must raise their voices, now and in the future, against such aggression from wherever it comes.” This strategy simultaneously appealed to the Latin American republican and pluralist traditions.
J. Luis Rodriguez (@luisrodaquino) is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. His research studies how the Global South builds and maintains limits on the use of force in international law and organization. He holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.