Venezuela on Tuesday night appeared to be the final taker for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden after an erroneous tweet by a senior Russian official announced the fugitive had accepted the country’s offer of asylum.
In fact, Snowden remains in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, apparently still choosing between offers from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia — drawing attention to the burgeoning relationship between Moscow and those Latin American critics of the United States.
The former security contractor isn’t the only thing they have in common: Natural gas, billions of dollars in arms shipments and similar geopolitical agendas also tie them together.
With Russia positioning itself as a global rival to Washington, those countries seem to be falling in line as part of a Kremlin drive to provide some pushback in the US backyard.
The roots of Moscow’s power play lie in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union cultivated allies in the region to counter what it saw as increasingly threatening American influence in the world. Cuba proved the most reliable Soviet ally there.
Although the Cold War may be over, a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin has sought to shimmy the region back on its side through a mix of rhetoric and resources.
His relationship with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been most prominent. The two found common ground over their mutual distrust of what they characterized as American imperialism, as well as the potential for a major trade flow.
Under Chavez, Venezuela reached a $4 billion arms deal with Moscow to receive an array of weaponry in an agreement the Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport says will be completed by the end of this year.
The exporter also signaled it would be willing to ink new deals under current President Nicolas Maduro, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Natural gas — one of Russia’s primary levels of foreign influence — has also been high on the agenda.
Last week, Moscow hosted the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, attended by the Bolivian and Venezuelan heads of state, in which it concluded the “Moscow Declaration.” That agreement proclaims to “advance the Member Countries’ position on challenges and issues of international gas markets.”
During his visit to Moscow for the conference, Bolivian President Evo Morales emphasized his country’s interest in working with Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom to help develop Bolivian fields for export.
“We want Russia to resume its technological exports to Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said in an interview with the English-language Russia Today network. “We want to learn from you, to work together and cooperate in investment, in order to diversify our investments and our market.”
The newly popularized phrase “multi-polar world” — as opposed to one dominated by the world’s sole superpower — has gained currency not only in Moscow, but also in Caracas, Managua and La Paz, where leaders there have found strong support among their constituencies for playing on anti-American feelings.
Russia — which has held numerous military training exercises in the Caribbean — has ratcheted up anti-American rhetoric since the beginning of Putin’s third term as president last year and delivered a number of moves that have thrown the Obama Administration’s Russian “reset” policy off track.
Chief among them has been Russia’s persistent criticism of US policy toward the Syrian civil war. Moscow has lashed out at American attempts to provide arms to the country’s scattered opposition.
Maduro strangely echoed that sentiment when he announced his offer of Asylum to Snowden last Saturday to widespread cheer at home.
“Who is the guilty one? A young man... who denounces war plans, or the US government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?” Reuters reported the Venezuelan leader as saying.
Other Latin American countries have rushed to Russia’s defense on the world stage.
Nicaragua, under Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, was one of the first — and only — countries to recognize the independence of Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the country’s weeklong war with Russia in 2008.
But while those Latin American players may have taken some of their cues from Moscow, some experts downplay Russia’s influence in the region.
Foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, says Russia plays a minor role despite the high-profile disputes it may share with some countries.
“I don’t believe that Russia seriously sees Latin America as a part of the world where we can have long-term political influence,” he said. “Russia isn’t the Soviet Union.”