Argentina’s Libertarian President-Elect Confronts a Quiet Buzzsaw of Russian-Funded, Anti-American Disinformation on Latin American Social Media

Javier Milei promises to buck Latin American opinion and back Ukraine, but can he kick his country’s addiction to Russian oil and fertilizer?

AP/Natacha Pisarenko
Argentina's president-elect, Javier Milei, at Buenos Aires, November 19, 2023. AP/Natacha Pisarenko

One week after Russia invaded Ukraine, Javier Milei, then a little-known libertarian, strode into Argentina’s National Congress and brandished the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine.  The wild-haired National Deputy told reporters: “I brought the Ukrainian flag basically because those of us who support the ideas of freedom, cannot tolerate or support an invasion like Russia has done in Ukraine.”

This year, running for President of South America’s second-largest nation, Mr. Milei said Argentina’s main partners should be the United States and Israel. Now, as President-elect, Mr. Milei confronts a quiet buzz-saw of Russian funded, anti-American disinformation on Latin American websites and social media.

“It is not so much pro-Russia as it is anti-US, anti-EU, and anti-Israel,” says Douglas Farah, who co-authored with Román D. Ortiz a 40-page report last month, “Russian Influence Campaigns in Latin America.” Talking to The New York Sun, Mr. Farah says: “The US is always that bad entity. And the perception of Russia is at least neutral.”

Building on Latin America’s historic leanings for a non-aligned status, Russia’s press disinformation is creating an environment that Argentina’s right-wing revolutionary may find hostile. Latin diplomats deleted last summer all references to Ukraine before a Brussels summit between EU leaders and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a Venezuela-based group with 33 countries as members.

Spain had invited President Zelensky to address the summit. Latin American leaders disinvited him. Last year, the leaders of the four-nation South American Common Market led by Argentina and Brazil, Mercosur, vetoed an appearance of Mr. Zelensky at their annual meeting, in Paraguay.

Earlier this year, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru rejected an American proposal to trade-in their old Soviet-designed MiG transport helicopters and surface to air missiles for new American-made equipment. Ukraine was to be the end user of the second hand equipment, said General Laura J. Richardson, commander of the U.S. military’s Miami-based Southern Command. Peru has MiG and Sukhoi jets — war planes Ukrainian pilots know how to fly.

Bearing a similar request, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, visited Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, a member of the center-left Perónist party, rejected the offer, telling reporters: “Argentina and other Latin American countries do not plan to provide weapons to Ukraine, or to any other conflict zone.” Chile’s leftist president, Gabriel Boric, offered only to help Kyiv clear landmines.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil rejected reselling tank ammunition, saying: “Brazil has no interest in passing on munitions to be used in the war between Ukraine and Russia…Brazil is a country of peace.” Colombia’s left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, said: “Even if they end up as scrap in Colombia, we will not hand over Russian weapons to be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war. We are not with either side. We are for peace.”

Increasingly, Washington is waking up to Russia’s renewed efforts to foster anti-Americanism in Latin America. Two weeks ago, the State Department accused Russia of using press contacts in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay to spread disinformation to weaken support for Ukraine and to fuel anti-American views. “The Kremlin’s ultimate goal,” State says, “appears to be to launder its propaganda and disinformation through local media in a way that feels organic to Latin American audiences.”

In addition to Telesur, a Cuban-Venezuelan TV network that is available on most Latin American cable TV packages, Washington says that three Russian front organizations — Structure, the Social Design Agency, and the Institute for Internet Development — work full-time to plant anti-American stories in Latin American social media, news sites, and with influencers.

“Inna Afinogenova is really good looking, funny, sarcastic, and speaks impeccable Spanish,”  Mr. Farah says of one popular social media influencer. “Her line is: ‘The war in Ukraine is a tragedy. But do we want a country on Russia’s border run by Nazis?’”

“Russia’s disinformation campaigns in Latin America, which have been active since early in Vladimir Putin’s presidency, increased around Russia’s 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine,” reads Mr. Farah’s report, written for the United States Institute of Peace. “Their effect can be seen in shifting public opinion and in the reluctance of Latin American countries to provide matériel to Ukraine or to participate in sanctions on Russia.”

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that as the region “desperately seeks to remain neutral, Russia will continue to chip away at the United States’ sphere of influence in Latin America, and the Ukrainian people will suffer the consequences.” The observation is made in a report that describes the region as a “Hesitant Hemisphere.” 

During Argentina’s presidential campaign, Mr. Milei said Argentina should distance itself from Russia and back Ukraine. About 400,000 Argentines are of Ukrainian origin. But Argentina, an agricultural powerhouse, is increasingly dependent on imported oil and nitrate fertilizer from Russia. Challenged to revive Argentina’s sputtering economy, Mr. Milei may tone down the anti-Russian rhetoric after his inauguration on December 10.

Three weeks later, on January 1, Argentina is to join the expanded group of BRICS, or Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. To promote Argentina’s candidacy, President Fernández visited Moscow in February last year and met with President Putin. Three weeks later, Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

Yesterday in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a telephone call: “We noted a number of statements that Mr. Milei made during the election campaign. But we will focus on and judge him mainly by the statements that he makes after the inauguration.”

The New York Sun

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