Until now, Latin American nations had refused to play a direct role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, preferring to take a more neutral, hands-off approach. But that fragile unity has now been shattered.
Just over a week ago, Ecuador’s new President Daniel Noboa announced the signing of a security agreement with the United States. That agreement includes a key stipulation — that the Ecuadorian military hands over all Russian-made weapons, military equipment and systems to US forces. In exchange, Ecuador will receive more modern US-made weapons, military equipment and defence systems, valued at $200 million, at some heretofore undisclosed time in the future.
“This is the exchange of Ukrainian and Russian scrap for €200 million dollars in modern equipment,” Noboa said. “That is something we will finalise at the end of this month.”
The “scrap” that Quito has agreed to deliver to the US includes six Russian Mil-Mi-171 helicopters and six 17-1V type helicopters; six Rostec (Splav) BM-21 multiple rocket launch systems; six Excalibur Army Spol RM-70; 34 KBP ZU-23-2 23×152 millimetre short-range air defence systems; 10,000 Chinese Norinco Type-56 7.62×39 millimetre rifles, ammunition, grenades, mortars and helmets, reports the Spanish language edition of Huffington Post. The latter were donated by China but never used by the Ecuadorian armed forces. Now they are being donated by Ecuador to China’s biggest strategic rival, the US.
For the moment, details are few and far between. Noboa did not specify under what terms the transfer of weapons will be executed, when the new US-made weapons and equipment will be delivered or for what purpose(s) the United States has requested Russian-made “scrap”. But its final destination will presumably be Ukraine.
Russia, needless to say, is hardly thrilled with the new development. Vladimir Putin’s government pointed out, among other things, that the deal signed between the US and Ecuador is illegal since Russia explicitly prohibits the transfer of said weapons to third countries in the sales contracts of its weapons and defence systems. Russia’s Ambassador in Quito said on Jan 11:
“We are verifying that information [regarding the proposed deal between Ecuador and the US]. But we have conveyed to the Ecuadorian authorities Russia’s position that the Americans do not need that equipment, even more so when it is called ‘scrap metal’… We warned the authorities that this (transfer) would be an unfriendly step.”
The agreement between the US and Ecuador comes in the wake of Noboa’s declaration of an “internal armed conflict” against Ecuador’s drug cartels on January 9, following an explosion of gang-related violence across the country. That, in turn, came on the heels of a hush-hush agreement in October between Washington and Ecuador’s then-outgoing scandal-tarnished President Guillermo Lasso to allow the entry of US troops onto Ecuadorian soil. Then, in December, as we reported here, the Noboa government quietly asked Washington to come up with a Plan Colombia-style initiative to combat the drug cartels.
To round off the formalities, Noboa announced just four days ago his government’s full support for Israel: “As a nation we are not going to condemn Israel’s actions nor are we going to take a position like Brazil or Colombia.” Both Brazil and Colombia have backed the South African ICJ case against Israel.
For the moment, there are no signs of US troop deployments to the violence-plagued country. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby has categorically ruled out such a move. But US interest in the Andean country is certainly rising. Yesterday, Ecuador received a US delegation led by the Special Presidential Adviser for the Americas, Christopher Dodd, SOUTHCOM Commander Laura Richardson — who first floated the idea publicly of LatAm nations swapping their Russian weaponry for US weaponry — and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Christopher Landberg.
Of course, the impact Ecuador’s arsenal of Russian-made weapons has on the Ukraine-Russia conflict will be practically zero. But the mere fact the Biden Administration is still requesting the weaponry at this late stage in proceedings speaks to the desperate shortages of weapons and other equipment Ukraine now faces, as many of its European allies have themselves run low on supplies. Washington’s request for Russian-made weaponry may also serve other ends, of course, including to reduce Russian arms sales and influence in Latin America with a veiw to supplanting those sales and influence.
A Long Wait
Ukraine has been waiting for this consignment for a long time. As readers may recall, just over a year ago Washington began pressuring governments in Latin America to donate or (in the words of the Commander of US Southern Command, General Laura Richardson) “switch out” Russian military equipment to Ukraine. EU governments and the Zelenksy regime also lobbied Latin American countries to provide weaponry, Russian made or otherwise. Germany even offered to pay Brazil’s government 25 million real (around $5 million) for a store of ammunition for its Leopard 1 tanks.
As I noted at the time, such frantic calls for assistance were indicative of the serious resource constraints afflicting both Ukraine and the NATO alliance. Until Ukraine’s armed forces had enough Western-produced weapons to replenish their stocks, which has arguably never happened, and are well versed in how to use them, which takes a considerable time, its soldiers desperately needed ammunition for the Russian-manufactured arms they are more familiar with. But the calls were roundly rejected, with Brazil’s Lula saying:
“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.”
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 to send tanks to the war zone after weeks of resisting US, NATO and Ukrainian pressure. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro explained in no uncertain terms why his government would not be sending Russian weapons to Ukraine:
“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.”
Even Argentina’s weak President Alberto Fernández 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 it turns out, that probably wasn’t true. In April last year, the Ecuadorian news magazine Vistazo reported that Ecuador’s then-President Guillermo Lasso was considering donating a consignment of Soviet-made helicopters to the Ukrainian cause (translated by yours truly):
The New York Times accessed reports labelled “top secret” indicating that Guillermo Lasso’s government was considering sending Soviet-designed helicopters to Ukraine — a measure that was supported by the United States.
However, the documents, signed in February 2023, do not clarify whether Ecuador fulfilled its intentions.
For its part, Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the allegations. In a statement, sent to the NYT, it stated that “the donation of military goods and supplies is not mentioned in Ecuadorian legislation, so an operation of these characteristics would be impossible.”
According to the US newspaper, Ecuador planned to send its old MI-17 helicopters to Ukraine so that the United States could provide it with new aircraft. However, the leaks do not confirm whether US officials promised to replace the Ecuadorian planes if they were moved to Kiev, or even if the arrangement went ahead…
The leaked documents suggest that Ecuador’s government was likely to donate the helicopters, but could also change their mind out of fear that Moscow would get angry and break off relations. In fact, that was the position of the Russian army should the arms transfer take place.
A Little Gift for Zelensky from Milei
Ecuador may not be the only Latin American country to send Russian-made arms to the Ukrainian cause. Even before coming to office, Argentina’s President Elect Javier Milei and his soon-to-be Foreign Minister Diana Mondino proposed donating two Russian Mi-171E helicopters that Argentina’s air force had been using for their Antarctic operations but have been grounded because maintenance scheduled in the country cannot take place, given the ongoing war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. Moscow, again, was quick to lodge its objections.
“We are categorically against their transfer to Russia’s adversaries,” said the Russian ambassador in Buenos Aires, Dmitri Feoktístov, arguing that this would violate Argentina’s obligations under end-user guarantees.
Even in Argentina, the decision was not without controversy given it essentially involved giving away patrimony belonging to the nation to a third country. So Milei and his Foreign Minister Diana Mondino came up with a new strategy: instead of giving away the helicopters, they would use them as a down payment on a small fleet of ancient F-16 fighter planes in questionable condition belonging to the Danish air force.
For now, Russia seems to be willing to give the Milei government the benefit of the doubt. In late December, Ambassador Feoktístov said that Moscow expects Buenos Aries to refrain from sending further weaponry to Ukraine:
The first contacts with the Argentine leaders, including the president, the vice president and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, show that, despite all the euphemism that surrounded the arrival to power of Milei’s team, there are reasons to believe that… friendly relations between our countries will be maintained despite the priorities that are publicly declared: the US, Israel and the West in general.
Back in Ecuador, big question marks hang over when the US will actually deliver on its pledge to help modernise its military. Slovakia’s experience may offer a cautionary lesson. According to Slovakia’s new Defence Minister Robert Kalinak, the former Slovak government gave up its only S-300 air defence system to Ukraine, free of charge, in 2022. In 2023, it offered the Ukrainian armed forced 13 MiG-29 fighter jets. Western countries promised Slovakia a Patriot air defence system in exchange for the S-300s, as well as €700 million in financial compensation for the squadron of MiG jets. According to Kalinak, none of it has materialised.
Even more important, Latin American nations had until now refused to play any direct role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, preferring to take a more neutral, hands-off approach. That included Bolsonaro’s Brazil and other right-of-centre governments such as Paraguay and Uruguay. According to the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, only Costa Rica has endorsed and is applying the US-EU’s sanctions on Russia. Only one country — Gabriel Boric’s Chile — has so far invited Zelensky to address the national parliament.
But times are changing. Even before taking office, Milei and Mondino offered to organise a peace conference for Zelensky and Ukraine — the ultimate oxymoron — in Argentina. Zelensky, of course, was at Milei’s inauguration ceremony; it was his first trip to Latin America since the war began. So too was Noboa.
It is hard to believe that just over six months ago, Latin American heads of state refused to be browbeaten by their European counterparts into inviting Zelensky to the EU-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Summit. They also refused to sign off on the inclusion of a paragraph condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the summit’s final declaration. A number of CELAC members, including Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, pulled ranks, refusing to allow the conflict, which many Latin Americans see as far-removed, to dominate the proceedings. That fragile unity has now been shattered.