Russia’s turn to Asia, Africa and Latin America

The aggression on Ukraine brought about a drastic geopolitical divide between the West and Russia, almost completely isolating the Russian economy from Western markets and compelling Moscow to turn to other regions of the world for support. As early as last May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was saying Russia would foster partnerships in the East and in the South, with Russian President Vladimir Putin later adding the Kremlin was looking toward cooperating with Asia, Africa and Latin America. Thus, Moscow spent recent months interacting with countries in those regions by means of a number of international events it held: a reception at Russia’s UN mission in New York, two economic forums, a security conference, and even military exercises in Russian territory. Furthermore, Lavrov visited China, India, Africa, the Gulf and Southeast Asia, while Putin has actively participated in international summits, such as that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

Moreover, Russia has been redirecting its energy exports to Asia, where it’s also been negotiating Russia-Mongolia-China cooperation and expanding trade and infrastructural ties with China. Beijing recently said it’s ready to work with Moscow for the development of the global energy market, raising questions on the prospects for future collaboration between the two countries in the transnational energy sector.

But fostering international relations is also a matter of selling the narrative. Moscow has therefore been targeting Africa, Asia and Latin America with disinformation campaigns rationalizing the aggression on Ukraine, nurturing sympathy toward Russia, and fomenting anti-Western sentiment. Degrading the West’s image and reputation is a favorite with Moscow. So, Lavrov even alleged the West brought about a “racist division of the world”, while Putin, speaking to Asian leaders gathered at the CICA Summit, portrayed the West as a neo-colonial power bent on exploiting poorer countries.

It was also at the CICA Summit that Putin offered President Erdogan of Türkiye a deal for the export of Russian gas from Turkish territory. Erdogan accepted the proposal shortly thereafter. Even while Türkiye is a member-state of NATO and it firmly backs Ukraine in the war, it has also kept in good terms with the Kremlin, something which has enabled Ankara to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow in recent months. However, Türkiye hasn’t joined the sanctions and it’s been fostering trade with Russia, creating some disquiet among its NATO allies.

Fostering good relations with Ankara is clearly of great strategic utility to Russia. Türkiye is, after all, a potential trade gateway to Europe as well as an influential regional power. Furthermore, Türkiye is in NATO—meaning it’s very likely Moscow has it in its long-term strategic calculations to try to drive a wedge between Ankara and its NATO allies.

Then there’s Africa. From the invasion onward, Moscow has courted Africa by means of Lavrov’s visit, Putin’s meeting with African Union President Macky Sall, and a number of Russia-Africa discussions—with Russia now preparing a Second Russia-African Summit. All the while, the Kremlin kept targeting Africans with the conspicuous disinformation campaigns it’s known for deploying in the continent.

Russia acquired a measure of influence in Africa over the last decade, keeping especially strong relations with Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic. This study for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (p. 25-26) asserts that, in Africa, Moscow intends to expand its geostrategic presence to confront the West, and that Russia may now be on the verge of acquiring naval capabilities in Sudan and Libya. The study then goes on to say that, with a greater influence in Libya and the Sahel, Russia gains access to key migration and human-trafficking routes, thereby achieving a stronger position to inflict humanitarian crises on Europe. Adding to the study: increased influence by Moscow in West Africa would potentially enable it to block the development of two planned regional pipelines that are meant to supply Nigerian gas to Europe.

Across the Atlantic, Latin America, where Russia keeps strengthening relations with the authoritarian triangle of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua—even taking part in war games in Venezuela last August—, thus furthering its geostrategic potential in the region.

Then, in Asia, Moscow has strong political backing by North Korea and by the military junta in Myanmar, whose leader even ingratiated Putin by publicly telling him that “[you are] a leader of the world because you control and organize stability around the whole world.” And there’s also Vietnam, which despite being one of the most vigorous emerging economies in Southeast Asia, is also an historical associate of Moscow—and so has already offered to expand trade cooperation with Russia.

To the south of Russia, its Caspian neighbor Iran, where the ruling regime has been heightening internal repression, even while facing accusations of supplying military equipment to the Kremlin. Moscow and Tehran have been deepening ties over recent months, and they’re partnering to develop the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), stretching all the way from Russia and through Iran to the Persian Gulf, and from there to India. The INSTC could clearly open Indo-Pacific markets to Russia and expand Moscow’s geopolitical influence in the region.

Russia has also been strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE—which are Tehran’s regional rivals, and with whom Moscow keeps a controversial relation at OPEC+. Russia’s engagement with Iranians and Arabs alike could give it greater relevance in the Middle East. Moscow’s weight in the region may be further fostered by its presence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has itself been deepening ties with Iran and some Arab countries. And then there’s also the Eurasian Economic Union, which besides Russia also encompasses four other former Soviet states, and which has been developing ties with the Middle East, but also with Southeast Asia and Africa.

Nonetheless, Russia’s greatest potential ally is China. Even while Beijing called for peace in Ukraine and repudiated Putin’s nuclear threats, it has not condemned the aggression and it vehemently opposed the sanctions on Russia. From the invasion onward, the two countries have been elaborating on their strategic relations, while also deepening military cooperation—with concern over the growing Sino-Russian partnership being voiced by NATO and the Pentagon.

It’s also of note that Russia and China have been reducing their use of Western currencies in mutual trade, and that, according to Lavrov, they intend to create an independent financial infrastructure—with Moscow nurturing similar arrangements with Iran and Myanmar. This is an obvious way to evade the sanctions regime. However, it’s also a fact that Russia has for years been reducing its international use of the dollar, including in mutual trade with China. Russian economist Sergey Glazyev, who’s close to the Kremlin, even calls for constraining the West through the establishment of a new international monetary architecture, which he argues could be implemented via the BRICS. Besides Russia and China, the BRICS also include Brazil, India and South Africa. Last June, Putin attended the BRICS Summit, where he floated the idea of creating a new international reserve currency under the aegis of the BRICS. Even though that idea wasn’t adopted into the Summit Declaration, the fact is that Putin succeeded in promoting it as a potential policy direction for the grouping. At the same Summit, President Xi Jinping of China called for expanding the group with new member-states. However, he also exhorted the BRICS to reject “hegemony” and “unilateral dominance”, in what seemed to be an attempt at reorienting the grouping into opposition toward the U.S. and its allies. It’s nonetheless difficult to imagine Brazil, India and South Africa going along with anti-Western geopolitics. Some Indian voices have already spoken out against such a scenario, with Shashi Tharoor, former Undersecretary General of the United Nations, implying that the misuse of the BRICS on behalf of the emergence of a global axis led by China and Russia would impel India to abandon the grouping.

Even while India abstained from condemning Russia at the UN, it nonetheless manifests discomfort for the war, with President Modi asserting to Putin that this “is not an era of war”. Russia wants to involve India in Russia-India-China cooperation, presumably to counter the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific. Such a juncture seems unlikely though. Delhi maintains relevant ties with Moscow, but not with regional rival Beijing. Additionally, India keeps excellent strategic and trade relations with the U.S., Japan and Australia, and is now strengthening ties with the UK, the EU and Canada.

It’s strategically indispensable for the West to court deeper ties with India.

Moscow’s international maneuvers make it clear that the West must intensify its diplomatic engagement with its partners across the world, including the African Union, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Gulf and ASEAN. Yet, the West must also work with those partners to build dynamic relations that’ll withstand changing international circumstances. Initiatives such as the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and the EU’s Global Gateway will be key in that.

Miguel Garrido
Miguel Garrido
Portuguese columnist and independent researcher