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Russia's "Return" to Latin America: An Interview with George F. Kennan Fellow Victor Kheifetc

Image: Victor Kheifetc

Victor Kheifetc was a George F. Kennan Fellow with the Kennan Institute who is conducted research on Russia's "return" to Latin America. We asked him to discuss the importance of his project and how he became interested in pursuing this topic.

Image: Scholar Spotlight Victor Kheifetc
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil shakes hands with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Attribution URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/palaciodoplanalto/48142658252/

Q: Describe your background and what brought you to the Wilson Center. 

I was born in Leningrad when it still had its Soviet name and was part of the USSR. So the Soviet past is still a part of my biography, but most of my Soviet memories have to do with the epoch of perestroika, when the country was transforming rapidly and the process of transition into the new economic and political identity had already started. Both of my parents are historians, but the political changes I was able to observe with my own eyes strengthened my interest in studying the recent and not-so-recent history of my country even more. Additionally, I was always eager to learn foreign languages, and during my university years I pursued Latin American studies and the study of Soviet and Russian foreign policy. Even while I was still a student in secondary and high school, there were a lot of foreigners in my city (in those times, mostly from Cuba and Nicaragua, but also from Eastern and Central Europe and different parts of Africa) and my communication with them contributed to my interest in other cultures. Leningrad was quite a polyethnic city with a lot of cultural diversity even in Soviet times, and these circumstances also became the milieu for my interest in history and languages.

After defending my Ph.D. at Saint-Petersburg State University, I worked at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico as a Fellow in the Directorate for Historical Studies, due to a generous scholarship provided by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs for those interested in Mexican Studies. Those years not only made it possible for me to obtain a lot of data for my research, but even more importantly, it also allowed me to understand different paradigms for perceiving the history of bilateral relations between my country and different nations of Latin America. Since my wife was born in Mexico and our family can be considered ‘international’ I began to feel closer to this region without losing my Russian self-identity. Thus, I always try to consider this history through different eyes to understand how it was and is seen by Russians and Latin Americans.

For years, I conducted my research on the history of Soviet foreign policy in Latin America and the history of Latin American left wing parties. Later on, I became part of a kind of international workshop in participation with colleagues from Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba and the United States which was studying different aspects of International Relations in the Western hemisphere and especially the role played by extra-hemispheric actors.

Given the Wilson Center’s reputation as one of the world’s leading think tanks and as the number one think tank in regional studies globally, I could not think of a better place to pursue my research. I already had a chance to participate in some activities organized by the Wilson Center and the Kennan Institute on Venezuelan issues, and those seminars proved to be very fruitful for me for better understanding some details of Russian engagement in Latin America as well as for exchanging opinions and views with colleagues from different parts of the world. Now, I have an excellent opportunity to perform my research on a more solid basis.

Q: What project are you working on at the Center?

I am a historian and a specialist in International Relations, and prior to my current project on Russian policy in Latin America, I conducted a series of studies on Latin American left wing parties and their international affiliation, with a particular focus on the Moscow-centered Communist International. While studying documents on the Mexican Communist Party, I managed to discover some materials on interesting cases of dualism in Soviet foreign policy (the Plenipotentiary Envoy to Mexico City Stanislav Pestkovsky was at the same time the Comintern emissary in that country). Later on, advised by some colleagues, I decided to further analyze the contemporary period of post-Soviet relations with Latin America and to compare its features with the pattern used in the epoch of the USSR.

After some years of conducting my own research and discussing it at LASA annual congresses, the bi-annual Ibero-American congress at the Saint-Petersburg University, and other important international meetings, a joint project appeared. In this case, I started to work together with my Argentinean colleague Gonzalo Paz, whom I met for the first time in 2013 in Washington, D.C. during a seminar held by the Inter-American Dialogue. Our joint project is titled “Russia and Latin America in the Putin Era (and US reactions).” Despite many important articles and books on Russian-Latin American relations in different epochs, some of which were prepared by colleague-researchers or fellows of the Wilson Center and Kennan Institute, there is still a need for a complex and thorough study which not only analyzes Moscow’s motives for reengagement with Latin America after some years of Russian “retreat” from the region in the 1990s, but also explains how the Kremlin’s interest in Latin America transformed and if these interests today are the same as they were at the very beginning of the 21st century. Obviously Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan cases are key aspects of this research, but there are very important dimensions for Russia (the BRICS group with Brazilian involvement is one of them). Trade, energy, and weapon sales, combined with a domestic political show in Russia, are also part of the so-called “return” to Latin America.

We believe that there is an acute need for the public, the academic community, and policymakers to have a clearer understanding of the evolution of the main trends and the possible evolution of Russian-Latin American relations. Our project will contribute to filling this vacuum by providing up-to-date analysis that would be used as background and context to understand the current situation and future events or foreign policy decisions, including U.S. reactions to Russian activities in Latin America. We plan to describe and explain how and why Russia’s relations with the broader region developed in recent years and to reveal the objective and subjective factors influencing these relations. Secondly, we want to address the issue of change and continuity of relations by proposing an explanation of its main periods, and we want to understand the main trends, events, and milestones. Last but not least, our goal is to understand the role and place of the region in the broader context of American-Russian relations by assessing U.S. foreign policy and reactions.

Both participants of the project would like not only to research, but also to contribute to better communication between academia and policymakers. Consequently, we are conducting some meetings with policymakers in different places and with experts in Latin America or experts on Russian foreign policy to share our opinions and discuss some points of the project with them.

Q: How did you become interested in your current research topic? 

My current project is a logical continuation of my previous studies of Latin American political parties (left wing parties mostly) and their relations with different countries and ideological like-minded groups and parties world-wide. While I was conducting this research, I came to a conclusion on the necessity of combining the study of historical aspects of Soviet foreign policy with the internal development of some Latin American political parties and groups and contemporary Russian relations with Latin America. This would create the possibility for a comprehensive understanding of the goals and motives of Moscow’s return to the region, of the motives of Latin American countries to engage or reengage with Russia, and finally, to analyze how these relations may affect the system of international relations in the Western hemisphere and how these relations are seen by Washington in the context of U.S.-Russia relations and in the context of U.S.-Latin American relations.

Q: Why do you believe that your research matters to a wider audience?

Based on the historical and contemporary experience of Soviet/Russian relations with Latin American nations, our aim is to challenge the assumption that these relations should be considered only as a geopolitical game and that these relations are a direct threat to a system of regional security. We are, rather, demonstrating that these relations are multidimensional ones, and that Moscow’s engagement with the region is able to contribute to the construction of a more stable and polycentric world, although there is also a risk that the logic of confrontation may lead to a reproduction of well-known patterns of the Cold War epoch. Thus, we believe that this project may contribute not only to a better understanding of the situation by the academic community but also by policymakers.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your research? 

While we now better understand why Russia decided to come back to Latin America and what their motives are in maintaining a presence in different countries (in almost all of them, in a visible contrast with the Soviet epoch), there is still a great enigma: will Moscow change its policy toward Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and others? We still face a challenge in answering how Russia will modify its political and geopolitical lines of conduct in the region. These modifications do not only depend on the Kremlin’s decisions, but are part of a complex international context which includes the United States, China, Latin American countries, and other actors who have emerged in recent years. Basically, we believe that Russia has returned for a long period, but there are several different scenarios for Moscow’s relations with Latin America.

Q: What do you hope the impact of your research will be?

Contemporary Russian policy toward Latin America is not just a simple repetition of the Soviet pattern, and we believe strongly that Moscow is not going to create another Cuba in today’s Venezuela. Definitely, there are a lot of new features in Russia’s engagement with Latin America never seen in Soviet times, so it would be unwise to identify today’s Russia with the USSR. However, as the whole international relations system faces a serious reconfiguration and as a new kind of Cold War becomes a reality, some old patterns are being revived both by Russia and the U.S. in their relations with Latin America. Thus, we hope that our research will not only contribute to a better understanding of the essence of Russian-Latin American relations, but that this understanding will help us to escape from old mistakes and contribute to a reduction in regional and international confrontation. It might be a naïve perception, but we would like it to become reality.

About the Author

Image: Victor Kheifetc

Victor Kheifetc

George F. Kennan Fellow;
Professor, School of International Relations and Director, Center for Iberoamerican Studies; St. Petersburg State University
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