Latin America’s Varying Responses to Putin’s War Against Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 41

(Source: Ukrainian Military Center)

Executive Summary:

  • The United States is looking to Latin America to send Soviet-era and Russian weapons to Ukraine in exchange for modern American-made analogs.
  • Many Latin American countries are hesitant to agree to this request because they do not want to break their treaties with Russia, though popular attitudes across the region are hardening toward Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation.”
  • Latin America has become an increasingly significant arena for Ukraine and Russia to pursue their global agendas for weaponry, mercenaries, and political support.

Despite Latin America’s distance from the conflict zone, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked “special military operation” (SVO) against Ukraine is increasingly affecting the countries of the region. For the past two years, the US government has discreetly implemented a global program to identify, acquire, and transfer armaments to Ukraine. Eleven months after the SVO began, Washington began approaching Latin American countries to acquire their Soviet-era and Russian weapons arsenals for transfer to Ukraine, receiving US weaponry as replacements. On January 19, 2023, Commander of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) General Laura J. Richardson announced to a virtual audience that US military officials overseeing operations and defense relations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean saw opportunities in the region. Richardson declared, “We are working with the countries that have the Russian equipment to either donate it or switch it out for United States equipment.” She added that discussions with six countries were “in the works” but did not elaborate further (TASS, January 20, 2023; The Eurasian Times, December 25, 2023).

SOUTHCOM declined to provide additional details about the negotiations with Latin American countries. SOUTHCOM spokesman Jose Ruiz subsequently told Voice of America, “As a matter of protocol, we are not going to discuss details about the defense resources of sovereign nations or speculate about any support to Ukraine they have not already announced” (Voice of America, January 20, 2023).

Moscow is opposed to Latin America transferring its Soviet-era and Russian weaponry to Ukraine. Political analysis and socioeconomic processes professor Andrei Koshkin at Russia’s Plekhanov University of Economics tartly observed to Sputnik, “The whole problem is that now they [the United States] are buying Soviet and Russian weapons in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America to send them to Ukraine. We are against it because it turns out that they will be directed against us” (Sputnik Mundo, January 25).

Latin American countries have had a fractured response to the weapons transfer issue. The presidents of Brazil and Colombia rejected US proposals to transfer their Soviet and Russian armaments to Ukraine in exchange for modern American-made analogs (Zerkalo Nedeli, February 28). Russia has been using its foreign and economic policies to thwart the weapons transfers. After learning it was for eventual transshipment to Ukraine, Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa abandoned a planned transfer of Russian-made military hardware “scrap metal” to the United States. Noboa stated that Ecuador did not wish to “triangulate weapons” by sending Russian military hardware to Ukraine via the United States and that Ecuador would not break any international treaties (El Universo, February 22). Underlining the trade issues behind the decision, Noboa confirmed the policy reversal came after Russia lifted its import suspension on five Ecuadorian banana exporting companies (see EDM, February 13).

Both Ukraine and Russia are seeking military personnel in Latin America. Colombian media reported recently that at least 35 Colombians who volunteered to fight in Ukraine against Russia have died in the conflict. Most Colombians enlisting to fight on Ukraine’s front lines do so for the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, a different organization from Ukraine’s official military forces (El Espectador, February 22).

The Kremlin has been attempting to stop the flow of foreign mercenaries and volunteers to Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of the consequences that this “export” of fighters to Ukraine may have, particularly referencing Colombians. He asserted, “If people go there from Colombia or other Latin American countries, they will have an epiphany someday. Many American and British mercenaries have already said publicly on camera that they are completely disappointed with what is happening there, with those lofty ‘democratic’ goals proclaimed by the Kyiv regime and its Western backers. Some are returning to their countries” (Posol’skia zhizn’, February 16).

Brazil’s BRICS (a loose political-economic grouping that originally consisted of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) membership has largely neutralized its possible support for Ukraine. Latin American politics, however, have provided other alternatives, particularly in the region’s second-largest economy. In November, Argentina’s President-elect Javier Milei had a lengthy telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during which he received an invitation to visit Ukraine (La Nacion, November 22, 2023).

The concept of a pan-American summit to support Ukraine began on December 10, when Milei met with Zelenskyy. Milei subsequently proposed holding a summit in support of Ukraine, which he hoped would be attended by most, if not all, Latin American countries (La Nacion, January 29). Milei’s victory caused Russia to acknowledge diplomatically that Argentina’s earlier BRICS application was null and void. Moscow remained largely silent on the chances for success of Milei’s proposed summit (, November 20, 2023).

Across the continent, attitudes toward Russia’s war against Ukraine are slowly hardening. Last fall, Latin American countries adopted a joint final declaration at the Free America Forum, which condemned Russia’s SVO for the first time (Zerkalo Nedeli, February 28). In general, however, the Russian government is not unduly displeased with Latin America’s overall position on its SVO. Instead, it sees opportunities to increase anti-US sentiment. During a recent visit to the region, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev commented, “The vast majority of Latin American states are pursuing a balanced foreign policy line against the backdrop of an unprecedented aggressive campaign launched by the Anglo-Saxons against Russia. … Let me remind you that the current version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept outlines the need to support Latin American states subject to pressure from the United States and its allies” (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, February 28).

Latin America has become an increasingly significant arena for Ukraine and Russia to pursue their global agendas for weaponry, mercenaries, and political support. This competitions has been complicated by the covert, proxy Western-Russian struggle for supremacy. As the war enters its third year with a growing drain on both sides’ manpower and logistics, the search for allies capable of replenishing weaponry becomes more urgent. Whether Latin America can decisively break the high-stakes stalemate remains to be seen.