Washington, Kiev and the EU have been furiously lobbying Latin American governments to provide weaponry to Ukraine, but LatAm governments still want no part in this war.
Four Latin American countries — Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Mexico — have categorically rejected US and EU requests to send weapons to Ukraine. As readers may recall, the Commander of US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), General Laura Richardson, recently said that Washington is encouraging six countries in the region that have Russian military equipment, including the four mentioned above, to “either donate it or switch it out for United States equipment.”
The EU and Ukraine have also been furiously lobbying Latin American countries to provide weaponry, Russian made or otherwise. As I noted this time last week, such frantic calls for assistance could be construed as further evidence of the serious resource constraints afflicting the NATO alliance. But there will be no relief from Latin America’s largest economies, which are determined to maintain neutrality in the conflict.
Washington’s goal in pressuring countries to give away or “switch out” its Russian weaponry appears to be three fold: first, to reduce Russian arms sales and growing influence in its direct neighborhood; second, to supplant those sales and influence; and third, as a stopgap measure for rearming Ukraine. Until Ukraine’s armed forces have enough Western-produced weapons to replenish their stocks and are well versed in how to use them, which takes a long time, its soldiers desperately need ammunition for the Russian-manufactured arms they are more familiar with.
Which is why Washington, Kiev and certain European governments are urging LatAm countries to give up their Russian arms. But it’s not working.
“Not Worth Provoking Russia”
LatAm countries with Russian-made weapons include Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, all three of which have extremely close military ties with Russia; have had to endure years (or in the case of Cuba, decades) of debilitating US sanctions; and largely blame NATO expansion and US meddling for the war in Ukraine. It’s safe to assume they will not be giving up any of their Russian-made weapons any time soon.
The six countries Washington has been trying to extract weapons from are reportedly Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru.
It’s not just Russian weapons that NATO members are asking for. Earlier this month, Germany offered to pay Brazil’s government 25 million real (around $5 million) for a store of ammunition for its Leopard 1 tanks. The request suggests that Berlin is also willing to offer the older model of its Leopard tank to Ukraine. In fact, the manufacturer has already started reconditioning the vehicles but there is a shortage of ammunition. Besides Germany, only Brazil (with 261 units), Chile (30), Greece (500) and Turkey (397) continue to operate the tanks.
But Brazil is not willing to play along. According to a report this weekend in Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (aka Lula) rejected the request during a meeting with the heads of the Armed Forces and the Defense Minister José Múcio on January 20. The recently reelected president said it “wasn’t worth provoking Russia.”
He later said:
“Brazil has no interest in passing on ammunition to be used in the war between… Ukraine and Russia. Brazil is a country of peace. At this moment, we need to find those who want peace, a word that until now has been used very little.”
Russia is not only an irreplaceable source of fertilisers for Brazil’s huge agricultural industry; it is also a fellow BRICS member. And Lula has vowed to bolster cooperation within the framework of the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which could be on the verge of growing a lot larger with the admission of new members. At the same time, South Africa is taking heat for maintaining its neutral stance on the war while preparing to stage military exercises with Russia and China in February.
Readers may recall that Lula already raised hackles in Washington, Brussels, London and Kiev in May last year by apportioning a large share of the blame for the Ukraine conflict on NATO. In an interview with Time magazine covered here, the three-time president said:
Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. The U.S. and the E.U. are also guilty. What was the reason for the Ukraine invasion? NATO? Then the U.S. and Europe should have said: “Ukraine won’t join NATO.” That would have solved the problem.
The other issue was Ukraine joining the E.U. The Europeans could have said: “No, now is not the moment for Ukraine to join the E.U., we’ll wait.” They didn’t have to encourage the confrontation.
Lula also had this to say about the man who would end up being Time’s Man of the Year 2022, Volodymyr Zelenskyy:
This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty…
If he didn’t want war, he would have negotiated a little more. That’s it… You are encouraging this guy [Zelenskyy], and then he thinks he is the cherry on your cake. We should be having a serious conversation: “OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.” And we should say to Putin: “You have a lot of weapons, but you don’t need to use them on Ukraine. Let’s talk!”
As I noted at the time, Lula, as a former, albeit potentially future, head of state had more latitude than serving Latin American presidents to speak more frankly about both Zelenskyy and the collective West’s role in the war in Ukraine. But his tune hasn’t changed much since reoccupying the presidential palace. Last Thursday (Jan 26), Lula laid out his government’s core positions on the NATO-Russia proxy in a phone conversation with Macron:
- Brazil acknowledges that Vladimir Putin’s Russia violated Ukrainian territory and this is illegal.
- But NATO’s behavior in recent years has not contributed to guaranteeing a relationship of trust with the Kremlin.
- Brazil defends the establishment of negotiations with Russia so that a ceasefire can be reached.
- Brazil will help to bring about peace, but will not contribute in any way to military operations.
- Brazil’s war is against an entirely different foe: poverty.
Rejections All Round
Lula is not the only head of government in Latin America that has refused to furnish Ukraine with Russian-made arms. On Saturday, the President of neighboring Argentina declared during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that “neither Argentina nor anyone in Latin America” is thinking of sending weapons to Ukraine.
As CNN reported a couple of days ago, the presidents of Colombia and Mexico have also made their position on Russia’s war in Ukraine clear: “they do not agree with it, peace must be sought and they will not participate in the war in any way.”
In his speech at the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) last Tuesday, the President of Colombia Gustavo Petro acknowledged that Colombia does indeed have Russian-made weapons purchased by previous governments. He also said that US representatives had urged him to donate those weapons to the Ukrainian cause, to which his answer was a categorical no.
“I told them that our constitution includes a commitment, in the international arena, to peace. And [those weapons] will stay as scrap metal in Colombia; we will not hand them over so that they can be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war,” Petro said, who was also at pains to emphasize Colombia’s neutrality in this conflict: “We are not with anyone. We are with peace.”
Needless to say, this is a high-risk position to take for the elected leader of a country that has at least seven US military bases and reportedly dozens of so-called “quasi-bases” on its soil. For decades Colombia has served as a strategic beachhead for the US to combat non-aligned countries in South America. It is also one of NATO’s global partners, and the alliance’s first Latin American partner. But now Petro is refusing to play any part in its proxy war with its historic foe, Russia.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short) not only refused to send weapons to Ukraine; he lambasted Germany’s government for its decision last week to send tanks to the war zone. AMLO cited the decision as an example of the power corporate media wields over governments.
“Germany did not want to get too involved in the war in Russia and Ukraine. And against the population of Germany, or the majority of Germans, the government decides to send more weapons to Ukraine, due to pressure from the media.”
Russia’s diplomatic services responded to the statements of both heads of state with tweets thanking them for refusing to send arms to Ukraine. The Russian Embassy in Bogotá issued a statement praising Petro’s “very realistic” decision to not donate Russian weapons in the country to Ukraine. In Mexico, the Russian Embassy stated:
“We thank López Obrador for his open and clear position on supplying German tanks to Ukrainian territory. We hope that nobody doubts that there is currently a direct clash between the free West and Russia. You know what is going to happen with those tanks.”
👏Agradecemos a @lopezobrador_ por su posición abierta y clara sobre el suministro de tanques alemanes al territorio de Ucrania
Esperamos que nadie tenga dudas de que actualmente hay un choque directo entre el Occidente libre y Rusia
Usted sabe lo que va a pasar con estos tanques pic.twitter.com/PTfHhALdMd
— Embajada de Rusia en México (@EmbRusiaMexico) January 25, 2023
Since the war in Ukraine began, AMLO’s government, like most governments in Latin America, has tried to maintain a neutral position on the conflict. This is in keeping with Mexico’s long, albeit interrupted, history of neutrality dating all the way back to the early 1930s. Mexico’s constitution even includes a list of foreign policy principles such as a commitment to non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and promotion of collective security through active participation in international organizations.
But AMLO will still probably face blow back from the US for openly criticizing a key European client state on such a sensitive issue. He is already facing accusations from local media and opposition parties of being a Putin stooge. The same goes for Petro.
As readers may recall, the former US Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobsen recently accused AMLO of “almost intentionally… trying to goad the United States.” And one of the biggest bones of contention, she said, is the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in particular Mexico’s refusal to “pronounce itself in favor of [Ukrainian] sovereignty, as many countries in the world have done, not only the United States.” That bone just grew a little larger.