Through the use of disinformation, economic coercion, and overt and covert political actions, Russia has weakened democratic institutions in Latin America. Such were the findings of a late October report of nongovernmental organization U.S. Institute of Peace.
“This Russian machine is extremely pernicious and dangerous,” Jorge Serrano, a security expert and member of the advisory team of Peru’s Congressional Intelligence Commission, told Diálogo on November 17. “It has the capacity to cause damage and delegitimize the electoral process, which is one of the most valuable pillars of any democratic system.”
Since 2000, Moscow has been developing a complex ecosystem of disinformation and propaganda as part of its national security apparatus, the report indicates. This network experienced a marked increase during the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and with the invasion of Ukraine since February 2022.
The disinformation operations active in Latin America seek to counter the United States by portraying it in an evil light and supporting repressive regimes, the report says. With persistent narratives, Russian operations do not limit themselves to media platforms but include outreach efforts aimed at diverse audiences.
This alternative reality, darker than Moscow acknowledges, relies on Kremlin alliances in the region (along with those of like-minded nations such as Iran) to undermine U.S. influence, strengthen authoritarianism, and project a strong international network of Russian allies, the report indicates.
The Russian influence machine supports violent protests in U.S.-partner countries, while concealing executions, abuses, and human rights violations in Moscow-partner nations, it details. Although Russian electoral meddling was identified in Colombia, Mexico, and Bolivia, due to this distortion of the truth, the positive public perception of Russia in the region persisted, until the invasion and massacres in Ukraine.
“An active Russian network in the region is composed of companies with overlapping directorates, led by senior Russian intelligence officials, operating under the umbrella of the ‘Russian National Committee for the Promotion of Economic Trade with Latin American Countries,’ based in Santiago, Chile,” Serrano said. “Russia is increasingly aggressive.”
Influence for hire
On November 7, the U.S. State Department warned about the Kremlin’s attempts to spread disinformation through “influence for hire” firms to “launder its propaganda and disinformation” through local media, seeking organic integration with Latin American audiences.
The U.S. State Department identified three entities — the Social Design Agency, the Institute for Internet Development, and Structura — as responsible for coordinating these targeted information manipulation campaigns to promote the Russian lie, with specific focus on countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.
These “influence for hire” entities, the State Department reports, have the ability to overtly and covertly recruit local media and social media influencers to spread fake news. Experienced and technically capable companies exploit open information environments to promote twisted Russian propaganda.
The State Department also indicates that Moscow, through a network that includes state media, proxies, and influencers “plants” stories or amplifies and modifies popular or divisive discourses, intensifying content to further penetrate the Western information environment.
“These activities can include disseminating false content and amplifying information perceived as beneficial to Russian influence efforts or conspiracy theories,” the State Department statement says.
“Moscow seeks to disguise its propaganda, aware that U.S. and European intelligence services always identify their networks, platforms, contacts, and the disinformation web they weave in Latin America and around the world,” Serrano said. “If this Russian evil machine is not stopped it will become more aggressive and destructive.”
A U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center Special Report highlighted the case of New Resistance as an example of information manipulation and dissemination of anti-democratic and authoritarian ideologies worldwide, orchestrated by the Kremlin.
New Resistance, a neo-fascist quasi-paramilitary organization operating in the Americas and Europe, has deep connections to entities and individuals within the Russian disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. According to the mid-October report, it supports the neo-fascist ideologies of Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin, subject to U.S. sanctions and the main promoter of a Russian-led Eurasian imperialist anti-Western movement.
The Brazilian chapter of New Resistance (Nova Resistência) is active and works to spread malign influence in Latin America, co-sponsors events with Dugin, where high-level Russian officials participate and organizes “academic” seminars and training courses on its YouTube channel and website with local and international professors, historians, and philosophers, the State Department report indicates.
Regionally, Nova Resistência plays a central role in creating like-minded groups, “nationalist and revolutionary organizations” throughout the Latin American region, the report states. Its efforts are not limited to political and philosophical organizing, but also extend to supporting paramilitary activities.
In addition to open propaganda and disinformation in support of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Nova Resistência is involved in efforts to mobilize Brazilians to fight on Russia’s side in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. “This is a tangible case for denouncing Russia before international bodies,” Serrano said.
Confronting the Russian machine
To counter Russian influence in Latin America, it is critical to prioritize the creation of a baseline interagency assessment and mapping of Russian information operations in the region to understand Russia’s strategic objectives and operations more fully, the U.S. Institute of Peace report says.
“It is imperative that democratic governments and countries disseminate these reports to the population,” Serrano said. “Every nation must denounce Russia’s operational tactics, urge its security forces and cyberwarfare centers to prepare for and confront Moscow’s machine and work together to establish a unified bloc against this structure of disinformation and lies.”