On Saturday July 12th, 2014, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin on his first official visit to Argentina as part of a strategy to strengthen both political and commercial ties between the two countries. In the past year, trade between Russia and Argentina has grown six-fold, reaching a stable level of US$1.8bn and thereby positioning Argentina as one of Russia’s leading trade partners in Latin America. Yet, in the midst of the sanctions issued by the European Union and The United States against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea southern peninsula in March, the timing of this new diplomatic initiative between both countries seems rather suspicious.
Last April, Russian ambassador in Buenos Aires, Victor Koronelli, expressed his gratitude after the Argentine government refrained from condemning the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Later in May, the Argentine government announced that Russia had been invited to participate in the sixth summit of the emerging market nations that has come to be known as the “BRICS” group – integrated by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa –, held in Brazil last July. The announcement was made via Twitter by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after a meeting in Moscow with his Argentine counterpart, Hector Timerman.
In June, a body of Argentine legislators led by Julián Domínguez, president of the Chamber of Deputies, visited the Russian capital to seek support in the legal dispute against the so-called “vulture funds” in New York, following the decision by U.S. Supreme Court Judge Thomas Griesa to block a US$539m (£335m) payment by Argentina to bond holders until full repayment to hold-out creditors is carried out as well. This ruling, which enforces an earlier decision in favour of the vulture funds seeking a US$1.6bn payout, has pushed Argentina to its second massive default in thirteen years.
In this light, and after Russia’s expulsion from the G8 due to the crisis in Ukraine, the gestures of rapprochement between the Russian and Argentine governments multiplied. Russian Foreign Minister Landrov expressed his country’s willingness to support Argentina to settle its debt and also reiterated Russia’s historical support of Argentina regarding the country’s claim to sovereignty over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. In turn, President Fernández de Kirchner criticized the “double standard” of the world’s major powers to reject the referendum in Crimea approving annexation to Russia while having previously accepted a similar referendum that granted the Falkland/Malvinas Islands their legal status as part of the United Kingdom.
Yet, what is there for Argentina to benefit from in allying with Russia?
According to political analyst Carlos Pagni from Argentine newspaper La Nación, the reasons are purely economic. Pagni avers that the Argentine government needs to revamp its main source of foreign exchange outflows – energy imports – and to develop its oil and gas industry. However, other critics argue that Argentina is looking for “alternative sources” of funding because it has no access to capital markets as a result of the confrontation with its hold-out creditors. The truth is that, up to the present time, there have been no reports of major Russian investment in Argentina’s oil industry, except for a possible association between Russia’s Gazprom and Argentina’s state-run petroleum company YPF on a US$1bn deal that may also include the Argentine subsidiary of German multinational chemical giant BASF which operates fifteen oil and gas projects in the country.
Nevertheless, both countries have indeed signed bilateral agreements on nuclear energy and other projects by means of which Russian state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, will help build the third reactor of a nuclear power plant in Argentina. Moreover, there are also talks of Russian companies possibly taking part in the construction of two hydroelectric plants in Argentina. In addition, President Putin has signed nuclear agreements with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and, in a similar move, has also brokered deals between Russian and Cuban energy companies in Havana, apart from writing off 90 percent of Cuba’s debt that dated back to the Soviet period, an estimate of about US$32bn. Two years ago, Russia struck a similar agreement with North Korea, waiving 90 percent of its US$11bn Soviet-era debt. The remaining 10 percent is supposed to be settled via joint projects in education, healthcare and energy.
According to President Fernández de Kirchner, Russia will help provide financial assistance at a time of great volatility and uncertainty for the country. In turn, Russian energy minister Alexander Novak told reporters in Buenos Aires that “Rosatom could offer ‘comfortable’ financial conditions to Argentina”. President Putin, on his part, stated that “today, Argentina is one of Russia’s key strategic partners in Latin America, the UN and the G20. Our approaches to the key issues in global politics are either similar or identical and we share the belief that there is a need to create a new and more equitable polycentric world order based on international law with the central and coordinating role of the UN.” Mr. Putin also added that Russia hopes to build bases in Argentina for its satellite system and help the country over the peaceful use of military technology, including the use of Russian planes and helicopters in the sector of Antarctica claimed by Argentina.
In the light of all these events, it seems like old times: when Argentine relations with the United States during the Cold War began to grow sour over the violation of human rights by the dictatorial regime of the Argentine military government between 1976 and 1983, Argentina turned to the Soviet Union for assistance as its key commercial partner. Indeed, this diplomatic initiative eventually proved decisive for Russia when the United States imposed a grain embargo on the country after its invasion of Afghanistan, during which time Russia thus imported massive amounts of grain from Buenos Aires. More striking still, the Soviet Union is believed to have supported Argentine 1982 invasion of the British-held Falkland/Malvinas Islands by shipping weapons via Brazil and supplying crucial satellite data that allowed Argentine military forces to sink British naval vessels.
Fast-forward 32 years and with Russian relations with the E.U. and the U.S. deteriorating rapidly, Mr. Putin’s Latin American tour seems rather cynical and even more so does the latest move by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to launch a Spanish-language version of Russian state-owned TV channel, Russia Today, broadcasting on Argentina’s national television, Television Digital Abierta, via a televised linkup. On Friday October 10th, while expecting an agreement between Gazprom and YPF to be announced, President Fernández de Kirchner informed instead, via a joint video conference call with President Putin, that thanks to a new media agreement between both countries, it will now be possible to “communicate with our peoples without intermediaries and transmit our own values”. According to an online article by Itar-Tass Russian news agency, both Presidents agreed that access to information should be free of any bias by traditional media conglomerates, fostering to familiarize both Argentine and Russian audiences with “genuine information” as opposed to the negative image that “some international news media are seeking to paint”. However, since its founding in 2005, Russia Today has become better known as an extension of former President Putin’s confrontational and tendentious foreign policy. Therefore, in the midst of the fierce mass media communication and independent press debates in both countries, this latest move by Argentine and Russian Presidents is not only badly timed, but also quite perverse, and that is putting it mildly.