The Kremlin’s interference in Colombia’s presidential election

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View of the Kremlin/Kirill Chebotar

Quite alarmingly, Colombian intelligence, in conjunction with Five Eyes and NATO intelligence services, released a report in February detailing the disinformation campaign taken up by the Russian government to interfere in the Colombian 2022 presidential election. The report alleges that Russia promoted disinformation for the March legislative, and upcoming May 29 elections.

Colombian intelligence had been warned prior by U.S intelligence, including by Juan González, Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council in the White House. Russia, according to the report, is attempting to influence electoral outcomes to diminish public trust in democracy and to install their preferred candidate.

This is neither the first time – nor the last – that the Kremlin has attempted to influence the results of a Colombian election. In 2018, then-US Under-Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere Frank Moro affirmed that Russia had interfered with the election in favour of Gustavo Petro’s candidacy.

Russia has a vested interest in sowing discord within Colombia, one of the strongest democracies in the Western hemisphere and a country with a deep security partnership with the United States, Canada, and NATO.

To illustrate, Colombia was recently made a major security partner of the United States and a NATO partner — the only country with such a designation in the region. The Kremlin hopes to fragment Colombian society and democracy further, hurting Colombians’ faith in their public, democratic institutions.

Russia, itself an autocracy ruled by kleptocrats and the security state, does not want to promote democracy, but rather hinder its success throughout the world. Russia has been behind anti-democracy information warfare campaigns in various other countries, including the United States, Canada, and Brazil, among many others.

Moreover, Russia is hoping to make Colombia retrench away from NATO and Five Eyes countries. It is looking to implant its influence more solidly within the country and the region.

Colombia has been a solid security partner to the West, collaborating on Plan Colombia, the Havana Accords, and other joint initiatives to help deal with the paramilitaries and illicit trafficking organizations in the country arguably for more than three decades.

Russia has continued its intelligence networks in Latin America since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many former KGB networks have become Russian intelligence networks.

Currently, Russian military colonel Dmitry Vladimirovich Tarantsov has been operating in Colombia relating to the March and May elections. The colonel, serving within the Kremlin’s military intelligence corps, was previously involved in interference operations in the 2016 American election. Tarantsov’s presence in Colombia has alarmed Colombian and Western intelligence agencies alike, signaling Russia’s commitment to interfering in the elections.

Russia has already established itself as an important geopolitical actor in parts of Latin America, sending military and economic aid to the Maduro regime in Caracas and to the Cuban government.

Through these actions, Russia is positioning itself in a new ideological Cold War against the West, provoking further escalation of tensions that could result in further violence and undemocratic governance, as was brought about by the first Cold War.

Moscow has found a sympathetic politician in the socialist progressive candidate Gustavo Petro, given his ideological and policy background. During his term as mayor of Bogotá (2012-2014), Petro hosted Venezuelan General Hugo Chavéz during his first trip to Colombia and heralded the “spirit of chavismo as one that will persist for years.” He also attended the funeral of El comandante in 2013, stating on social media: “You lived the times of Chávez, and maybe thought he was a clown. You were fooled. You lived the times of a great Latin American leader.”

As the current frontrunner, Petro, has looked to de-emphasize Colombia’s strategic, political, and economic reliance on the United States and the West, hoping to turn inwards or perhaps towards the more economically-centered approaches of China and Russia.

Petro has not openly spoken about this dynamic, nor about his potential turn towards Russia or China, but his rebuke of Western involvement is certainly good news to the Kremlin. Petro presents an opportunity to the Kremlin to reclaim its influence in the country and the region at large.

A Petro victory would also defuse Colombia – Venezuela tensions, especially along a porous 2,600km border used by migrants and narcotraffickers. Even though the bellicosity between the two nations has been limited to a war of words and propaganda, any escalation along the border could stymie Russia’s flow of arms and economic aid to the region. Petro has repeatedly claimed on the campaigned trail that, if elected, he would jump start diplomatic relations with the Bolivarian Republic.

Regaining such an influence could help it assert its geopolitical but also commercial interests. Given Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the West’s transitioning away from Russian oil and natural gas, Russia is looking to expand its share of energy markets in Latin America, including Colombia. And Petro’s campaign promise to halt oil exploration on the day he receives the presidential sash, could be shelved under Kremlin directives.

The government of President Iván Duque has been aggressively pro-Western and anti-Kremlin, previously expelling Russian diplomats and increasing security and diplomatic cooperation with the United States, Canada, and the Organization of American States. Confirmation of Kremlin involvement in the upcoming elections was voiced this week by Colombian Ambassador to Washington, Juan Camilo Pinzón. “Russia has been trying to be in the region, trying to influence in a malign way, our democracies through cyber-attacks, through misinformation and that’s something that we are concerned about, because there are regimes in our region – like the one of (Nicolas) Maduro in Venezuela or (Daniel) Ortega’s in Nicaragua – that have allowed their territories for these threats.”

Ambassador Pinzón, who was a keynote speaker at the Milken Institute Global Conference this week, warned that Russia has set up information and cyber capabilities that “affect the politics in the region, including my own country.”

A brusque change to the left, which, at this time, appears increasingly imminent for a slim majority of Colombians, would signal a reversal of many strategic policies and a significant geopolitical shift for Colombia during a year in which the nation also marks 200-years of bilateral relations with the U.S. The Russian government, it appears, is taking concrete steps to make this shift happen on May 29.

Joseph Bouchard is a Canadian geopolitical analyst focusing on the Americas.