In 2018, former U.S. Deputy Assistant of Defense for the Western Hemisphere Frank Mora said that Russia would try to intervene in the Colombian elections. Mora, whom President Joe Biden nominated as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States in July 2021, added that the Russians would likely be using social media to generate mistrust and confusion among the electorate. “The underlying objective is to identify options that could create a conflict with the United States and weaken the alliance that exists between the two countries,” Mora said at the time. “They are trying to create a world where the electorate no longer knows what is real or fake. It is a very cheap strategy that causes chaos and benefits them.”
Concerns about possible Russian interference in Colombia’s elections was such that then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos created the Integrated Center for Electoral Intelligence (CI3E), under the leadership of the National Police and the Electoral Observation Mission, whose objective was to guarantee “safer elections,” Santos had said.
Russian interference raises more concerns
Four years have passed, and the problem of Russian interference in Colombia’s upcoming elections (March and May 2022) has become even more alarming for many Colombian and international political analysts. “There’s been increasing concern, as Colombia goes into its own electoral process the increasing amount of disinformation that is coming from outside of the country that is intended to disrupt the democratic process,” Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the White House, said in an early December 2021 briefing.
Gonzalez noted that this year, Colombians are likely to be manipulated and unable to make a decision for themselves, which is of great concern to the United States, as the South American country is its most important partner in the region, the Colombian magazine Semana reported. “For a key ally, that’s an area where, for example, we’re going to really take a special look to make sure in Colombia we’re supporting an environment where it’s the Colombians that decide who votes, and that they’re not manipulated by external forces,” Gonzalez added.
But what interests might Russia have in Colombia’s elections? Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C., says that the Russians see Latin America as a potential partner, not only for commercial but also political matters. An example would be the recent statements of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who said that he “could neither confirm nor exclude” the possibility of Russia sending military assets in Cuba and Venezuela, something that causes concern not only in Colombia, but throughout Latin America.
According to Farnsworth, today’s Russia no longer uses the methods it employed in the Cold War, when it sent spies to different countries. Russia’s strategy these days is cybernetic, which not only involves disrupting web pages and software applications, but also disseminating campaigns on social media, the Colombian news site kienyke.com reported. Helping candidates who align with Russian views to reach positions of power would allow Russia to take ground from other great powers that have good relations with Colombia.
According to Semana columnist Alejandra Carvajal, Russia’s interests in Colombia are varied, the strongest being that Ecopetrol (a Colombian oil company that participates in all links of the hydrocarbon chain: exploration, production, transportation, refining, and commercialization) is a threat to Russia’s interests, “because Europe absolutely depends on the gas that [Russia] provides, giving Putin not only economic but also political leverage over the old continent. Ecopetrol, like other similar companies around the world, represents a problem for Russia as it offers an alternative to Europe in the face of a possible gas shortage.”
What remains is the hope that the Integrated Electoral Intelligence Center, which conducts vulnerability and risk assessment for the elections in Colombia, will do its job well, and that at election time, Colombians will vote for candidates who respect the country’s sovereignty, without interference from foreign governments.