Is Russia Waging a Silent War in Latin America?
By: Guido L. Torres
“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia struggled to maintain its stature on the global stage. As a result, the new Russian Federation was forced to downsize its footprint and part with historical allies worldwide. At the height of the Cold War, Russia, and the United States (U.S.) used developing nations as proxies to seek the advantage and proliferate each's political system and influence. Latin America performed a critical role in the proxy wars between the two superpowers. Many of these countries fell victims to Russia and the U.S., on many occasions to the detriment of those developing nations. Over the past 30 years, the region has experienced a pin-pong effect, bouncing from left to right leaning governments. However, the political winds have shifted towards liberal democracies over the past decade, yet exploitable social and economic fissures remain.
After the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, the U.S. redirected most of its focus and resources to fighting terrorism. Believing the Cold War had culminated, and Russia no longer posed an existential threat, the U.S. fought non-state actors, and its doctrine followed suit.
On the other hand, Russia observed America's strengths in battle and understood that it had become combat-hardened, technologically superior, and resourced like no other military on earth. As a result, Russia could only adapt and prepare for conflict with a future America by developing nonlethal, low-intensity capabilities to defend its territory and create strategic space between the West and Russia’s near-abroad.
Between the early 2000s and 2016, Russia refined its hybrid style of warfare, starting in Eastern Europe and working its way around the globe. Russia's cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007, conventional and irregular war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea with the introduction of the “little green men” have all shown an enhanced style of conflict by using a combination of old tactics but reinstated with cyber and social media tools that propagate like wildfire (Riehle 2021). The Kremlin’s Eastern European experiments had proved successful, and its gray zone approach intensified. These successes emboldened Russia to go as far as interfering in the U.S. 2016 election by leveraging the power of cyberspace in concert with traditional spy-craft to take a nation that was already considerably divided and sow extreme discord within its people.
During the last decade and a half, Russia mastered non-traditional methods to challenge its adversaries while remaining below the threshold of armed conflict. They understand that these asymmetric modalities of war were cost-effective and deniable on the world stage (Hoffman 2007). The effectiveness of information, misinformation, and disinformation is the cornerstone of their influence strategy. It has proven effective and low-cost, both politically and economically.
The key aspect of Russia’s nonlinear warfare is centered around various methods of subversion to demoralize and cast doubt in a political and social system (Hadzhiev 2020). Utilizing the preexisting divisions in a society creates opportunities for Moscow to stoke internal flames, seizing the strategic advantage and erode a targeted nation’s legitimacy and influence.
While the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) support Ukraine and many Eastern European countries in the region, Russia is obliged to look for counterbalances in areas where it feels it can compete effectively. Latin America is one of those regions where Russia has profound historical partnerships, such as Cuba, while growing ones where they can stage and compete with America (e.g., Venezuela). The complete deterioration of Venezuela under the Hugo Chavez, and now, Nicolas Maduro regimes provide Russia with bargaining prospects in terms of U.S.-Ukraine relations (Sitenko 2016). Moreover, Russia seeks to undermine the U.S. at any opportunity that presents itself. Gaining influence in America’s near-abroad allows Russia to weaken developing democracies and create dilemmas for U.S. policymakers.
Arguably, no partnership is more valued to the U.S. in Latin America than Colombia, where the two nations have battled cartels, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and drug traffickers for nearly 40 years. As a result, Colombia is the model for U.S. influence and support in the hemisphere. The success of U.S. Special Operations irregular warfare investments has projected Colombian SOF as a regional powerhouse. The nation has grown into a flourishing democracy and is now even an exporter of security in the region. Still, Colombia is riddled with battle scars from its challenges with guerillas, human rights, and socioeconomic disparity. These volatilities create the ideal scenario for Russian interference and its nonlinear warfare strategy. Understanding Russia’s approach to Colombia can illuminate their methodology in the hemisphere against U.S. allies and partners, allowing the development of indicators to detect similar activities throughout the region.
To develop a comprehensive approach into an asymmetric and not well-understood method of war, understanding its lexicon is essential. Hybrid warfare and nonlinear warfare are remarkably similar and are usually used interchangeably. Although Russia wages hybrid warfare, it has evolved substantially past the recognized definition. Hybrid warfare combines conventional, irregular, terrorist, and criminal activities conducted in a coordinated manner. Although one sees the hybridity of their method, more appropriately is defining their evolutionary process as nonlinear, which delineates the use of multi-modalities to subvert and target a government, its population, and critical aspects of society (II 2017). Simply put, the gray zone.
Russia has become adept at understanding a country’s sociological fragility and exploiting it via disinformation, subversion, media (social and state-sponsored), and various other influence platforms. These methods, coupled with political warfare, cyberattacks, and ransomware, have provided Russia the opportunity to wreak havoc on an adversary or developing nation by destabilizing and challenging U.S. and NATO policy objectives.
Russia aims to undermine the U.S. and create civil discord to divide with each opportunity that presents itself (Riehle 2021). They have mastered multi-modal operations to prepare the environment and uniquely allow a nation to fracture from within. A top priority of the Russian government is to challenge NATO and other European countries that cozy up to the West. Beginning in 2007, Russia began its cyber operations and information warfare against Estonia to sow discord based on already brewing ethnic challenges. Later in 2008, Russia waged a combination of cyber operations and conventional-style military attacks against Georgia, leading to the first noted time of executing an offensive cyber operation coordinated with traditional-domain war plans (Sweitzer 2019). The Kremlin has continued to wage these tactics throughout Europe, Asia, Middle East, and the Americas in an unstandardized manner. Only applying the instruments necessary to achieve its political aims.
Russia has succeeded and failed in many of their attempts, but they have learned and adapted their tradecraft each time. The Kremlin has employed a variety of capabilities to expertly cause division and social destabilization. Building upon a group of Czech scientists’ criteria for a successful hybrid warfare campaign, a case study on Bulgaria by Hadzhiev depicts a theoretical model studying three categories that could provide a better understanding of Moscow’s approach to subvert a nation (2020). Hadzhiev looks at social-historical, governmental, and international conditions into eight enablers that provide a clear picture of susceptibility to Moscow’s nonlinear or hybrid warfare (Hadzhiev 2020). This model will be explored while developing the of the Colombia case study.
Recently, Russia pivoted to Latin America, while the region has distance itself from leftist-leaning dictators and progressing towards liberal democracies, such as America (Sitenko 2016). Russia’s reemergence in the hemisphere has not been effortless, choosing to focus on the power of military sales and influence to gain a foothold with meager success. Russia's traditional allies like Cuba have welcomed their presence, while the Kremlin has fostered closer bonds with Venezuela and Nicaragua. Still, Moscow struggles to gain the advantage in the hemisphere. Moscow leverages the instability in Venezuela as an anchor into the region to establish a launchpad as a result of America’s perceived encroachment into their Eastern European borders (Shuya 2019). Furthermore, Venezuela offers a strategic location for collaboration with Cuba, Iran, China, as well as other regional allies that maintain an adversarial or competitive posture towards the U.S.
There is no stronger Latin American alliance than that of America and the Republic of Colombia. Decades of U.S. support against leftist guerrillas and narco-traffickers have bonded the two nations. It is well documented that Colombia is America’s center of gravity in the region and a successful example of support for a nearly failed nation that arose from extreme violence into a thriving democracy. Russia’s attempts to motivate Colombia through military sales have mainly been fruitless as the Colombian government has remained steadfast and loyal to its American ally. It is well understood that Russia would like to retaliate for U.S. intervention in Russo-Ukrainian affairs. Thus, Colombia is arguably the ideal target to exert Russian nonlinear warfare to create an unfavorable transformation of an American strategic partner. Historical reporting presumes Russia unsuccessfully conducted disinformation and electoral meddling into Colombian political affairs starting with their 2018 presidential election (Barnett S. Koven 2019).
Over the past five years, an increase in civil unrest, instability, and general dissatisfaction with many Latin American governments has expanded. Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and socioeconomic challenges faced by many in the hemisphere, a wave of leftist candidates are now running for political office, all while mass protests are flaring. Conditions for Russian nonlinear warfare may be favorable, yet no comprehensive studies have been conducted to date on Moscow’s exploration of gray zone tactics in Latin America.
To contextualize the Kremlin’s tactics, techniques, and procedures within Latin America, a historical view of its documented approach in other arenas is essential. In several of the following case studies, Russia waged what is more commonly referred to as hybrid warfare. Where hybrid warfare blends conventional and unconventional themes of war, nonlinear can pursue only non-military tools and gray zone tactics to achieve strategic political aims. Russian nonlinear warfare does not require using all the instruments involved and may only sequence or intensify procedures as necessary to achieve its desired end state.
In 2007, Estonia, a NATO member, experienced a series of destabilizing actions. First, cyberattacks conducted against political, financial, and diplomatic institutions endured for three weeks (Mastalski 2021). Second, Russian state-run media, initiated misinformation and disinformation campaigns and propaganda against the Estonian government. Next, a series of protests ensued by ethnic-Russian Estonians in the hope of promoting a successful insurrection. Although difficult to detect, these are assessed as part of Russia’s hybrid warfare. The events of 2007 are examples of Russia’s indirect approach, preferring influence and dissension over military action. The cyberattacks defaced public websites; and coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks of the Estonian banking system and other governmental servers. Simultaneously, Russia’s state-run media, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News networks injected hostile political rhetoric about the regime while playing to ethnic-Russian citizens, attempting to provoke a separatist movement. Ultimately, Russia failed at its goal, but the world was introduced to Russia’s new generation of warfare doctrine.
Ukraine’s aspirations to join the NATO alliance have placed them in Russia’s crosshairs for several decades. Finally, in 2014, under political volatility in Ukraine, Russia took its lessons learned from Estonia and Georgia and exercised it new form of conflict against its vulnerable neighbor. At the center of Russia’s campaign were information-related capabilities, where they used the historic pro-Russian citizens of Crimea as its centerpiece in executing full-spectrum hybrid warfare.
Russia employed a combination of cyberattacks, as seen in Estonia and Georgia, propaganda, and disinformation operations using public news and social media to stoke ethnic fissures and propagate internal political turmoil (Meredith 2019). These activities led to the annexation of Crimea to Russia, but the war continues. In this case, Russia covertly deployed Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) to Ukraine to assist separatists in the region. These Russian activities were the beginning of what has commonly been referred to as “the little green men” (Sweitzer 2019). The Ukrainian model is indicative of Russia’s willingness to use military equipment and soldiers while publicly denying their presence.
A more concerted covert method was used against the U.S. During the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia leveraged various indirect tools to destabilize the nation and create uncertainties in the election and political process. In Eastern Europe, Russia has the strategic advantage due to physical proximity, cultural similarities, while targeting militarily inferior countries. Thus, Moscow’s plan to erode America from within was orchestrated without premeditation, nor need to introduce conventional military force into the equation.
Russia’s strategy in 2016 applied a multifaceted approach to nonlinear warfare. The plan was to discredit the Democratic Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton, cause confusion and mayhem in its citizenry, create profound wedges between the political parties, and allow America’s democracy to internally fracture. Moscow’s active measures campaign was remarkably successful, weaponizing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to propagate fake news and disinformation, organize protests and civil unrest, and amplify those activities using social media botnets by the thousands (Mueller 2019).
Subsequently, Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, hacked Clinton’s emails, along with her campaign chairman, John Podesta, and strategically leaked the harmful information just shy of the election so that the damage could not be reversed (Mueller 2019). The GRU also attempted to hack into state and local election offices, but no evidence exists that they successfully manipulated votes.
Russia’s success in creating deeper divide in America and putting into question the democratic process that bonds the nation was a magnificent example of a non-contact approach to conflict. The Kremlin’s triumph against the most powerful country in the world proved that striking the cognitive domain of its greatest adversary was more effective than physical conflict.
The three case studies illustrated above indicate that Russia has developed a comprehensive approach to achieving geopolitical goals with various instruments of power. As the term suggests, nonlinear means that there is no singular path towards achieving one's objectives. However, there may be sequences and patterns, but the tactics may differ depending on the environment, politics, and risk associated with the individual tactical acts. Still, Russian nonlinear warfare can ultimately transition to hybrid warfare capabilities to include conventional, criminal, and special operations assets or simply employ deniable influence and cyber campaigns to successfully achieve their goals.
There are two critical aspects that one should consider when identifying Russia’s nonlinear warfare. First, the suspected targeted nation will have preexisting internal fissures that are easily exploitable, such as ethnic challenges, socioeconomic inequality, or political corruption. It is important to note that Russia does not create these issues; they simply exacerbate them using tools of influence (Riehle 2021). Second, Russia will have a motive to allocate resources towards such a campaign. In the cases of Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, it is reasonable to assess Russia’s national security interest in quelling former soviet territories’ coziness with NATO. Still, Russia seizes low-hanging fruit opportunities to compete. and reduce American hegemony and unipolarity.
Commonly across all of Moscow’s nonlinear activities is the reliance on information and influence as the center of their strategy. In 2013, Vorobyev and Kiselyov wrote in a Russian military journal, “information is now a type of weapon. It does not simply compliment fire strikes and maneuvers; it transforms and unites them.” Thus, “information is becoming ” The cost-efficiency of information-related capabilities such as cyber operations, electronic warfare, propaganda, and disinformation are profoundly more effective than risking a lethal conflict where blood and treasure are expended on both sides.
Hadshiev’s Bulgaria case study lists eight conditions that indicate a nation is susceptible to Russian interference (Hadzhiev 2020).
- A country has been mismanaged and cannot fulfill its essential functions.
- Divisions in population which can be easily exploited with soft power.
- The potential attacker holds a certain attraction for a part of the attacked-country population and can therefore use soft-power instruments.
- The country borders the attacker and cannot control its borders.
- The attacked state has no significant and reliable allies.
- The attacker has a degree of credibility in the international community, allowing it to influence the international community with its version of events.
- Disputed historical past and relations between the two countries.
- Certain form of economic dependence exists.
As one looks at Colombia for indications of Russian interference in the gray zone, systematically using Hadshiev’s conditions can be used as a structure for identifying Colombia’s vulnerabilities.
Colombia has dealt with an over half-century long left-wing insurgency brewed over socioeconomic disparity and civil injustice. Rural areas were left to fend for themselves with little support from the national government, leaving a void filled by Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Battling the insurgency, the government has been accused of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. In 2016, the country’s oldest armed guerrilla insurgency (FARC) signed a peace accord with the government, ending a 60-year-old conflict (International Crisis Group 2020). Still, the Colombian government has encountered difficulties in keeping their end of the bargain by not effectively providing security and basic governmental support to the rural parts of the country.
Exacerbating the mistrust and lack of support in the current government under President Ivan Duque, a staunch U.S. ally, is the COVID-19 crisis. The Duque administration has struggled to get the pandemic under control, causing a recession and despair among the people of Colombia (International Crisis Group 2020). Daily protests and calls for his resignation have become the norm. Political opponents like left-wing Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro have capitalized on the mayhem, gaining popularity in the polls throughout the crisis (Bronner 2021).
The Venezuelan turmoil has spilled into Colombia, causing over two million refugees into its borders, and creating further dilemmas for the Duque administration (International Crisis Group 2020). Venezuela’s nominal President, Nicolas Maduro, maintains a combative posture towards Duque’s Colombia for its alliance with the U.S. The tension between the two South American nations dates to Venezuela’s now deceased former President, Hugo Chavez. Chavez was elected President of Venezuela in 1998 and immediately fostered a strong alliance with Cuba, implementing its socialist style of government. Venezuela and Colombia’s hostilities originated when Chavez’s disdain for Colombia’s democratic and capitalistic traits aligned more with the U.S. and less with the self-proclaimed Bolivarian state. Venezuela’s support for the Colombian guerrillas transcends Chavez, continuing under the Maduro regime (InSight Crime 2019). His insistence on harboring Colombian rebels within its borders and unacknowledged protection while they conduct attacks on Colombian security forces has deepened the rhetoric between the two nations.
Using Hadshiev’s model, the previous paragraphs hit on five of the eight conditions for a nation to be vulnerable to Russia’s style of nonlinear warfare. Although we do not see the final point (a certain form of economic dependence), one can argue that condition six (The attacker has a degree of credibility in the international community, allowing it to influence the international community with its version of events) can be achieved by Russian proxy.
Russia and Venezuela’s relationship has grown since Hugo Chavez and the “Pink Tide” occurred at the beginning of the 21st century when a substantial portion of Latin America elected socialist and leftist governments (Bronner 2021). Socialist ideology, and alliance with Russia’s historical regional partner, Cuba, fostered a natural bond between the two nations. Russia’s interest in Venezuelan oil investments, military sales, and advocacy on the international stage have helped prop up both Chavez and Maduro while suffering from U.S. economic sanctions and astronomical inflation (Shuya 2019). Venezuela has enjoyed Russian arms sales and posing as a little-brother-figure to Russia in challenging America’s provocations. In return, Moscow uses Venezuela as a hub in the Western Hemisphere to project military power and challenge America’s long-standing regional influence.
Venezuela’s reputation has suffered immensely over the years, due to the handling of its political situation and human rights record. As a result, elections have been called into question, and Maduro’s legitimacy is significantly damaged at home, and internationally. Still, Russia provides advocacy in the United Nations Security Council, which can be leveraged on Venezuela’s behalf in a conflict with Colombia.
If Hadshiev’s indicators are accurate, Colombia is increasingly vulnerable to Russia’s tactics. Conducting asymmetric activities outside of Eastern Europe requires an evolution in its doctrine, potentially relying on proxies to execute aspects of Russia’s nonlinear warfare. A combination of Russia’s breadth of experience coupled with Venezuela’s geography, relationship with irregular actors such as Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, and desperation for a powerful ally, could lead to a new era in Russian competition.
Russia’s attraction for influencing Colombia is no secret. As has been previously articulated in this paper, Russia is keenly aware of the ramifications of a lost U.S.-Colombia alliance (Marulanda 2021). Decades of investment and security cooperation could instantly evaporate. Moreover, losing Colombia’s partnership would create devastating geopolitical repercussions to U.S. foreign policy. Colombia has endured many challenges throughout its history, but its democratic backbone has persisted throughout. Displacing Colombia from America’s sphere of influence would clear the way for Russia’s continued path of achieving its goals of redefining a multipolar world order and diminishing U.S. international leadership (Barnett S. Koven 2019).
Colombia and Venezuela’s adversarial relationship is considered a threat to Russian relations in the hemisphere which could signal its interest in creating chaos in Colombia (Fleischman 2021). After the U.S., Venezuela’s most prominent military threat is arguably Colombia. Russia considers the U.S. support to the Baltic States and countries of the former Soviet Union to be an existential threat to its sovereignty. The Kremlin perceives America’s support of Ukraine as a threat to their security, which must be disrupted (Barnett S. Koven 2019). A more ingrained Russia in Latin America provides strategic negotiation space with the U.S. on Western presence in Ukraine and Eastern Europe (Shuya 2019).
Furthermore, suppose Russia’s potential gray zone approach is proven successful in Colombia. In that case, Russia could validate their Western Hemisphere strategy and continue to seize opportunities targeting vulnerable countries in the region, slowly depleting years of U.S. partnerships and influence. While focusing on competing with America, a successful nonlinear warfare campaign could also open the hemisphere to Russia’s goals of seeking economic opportunities in Latin America.
Based on the elements explored in the previous case studies, if Colombia has fallen prey to Russian nonlinear warfare, several indicators will exist:
- Sudden spike in political unrest (organized online protest using trolls and bots).
- Increased violent acts to destabilize the security situation and degrade political legitimacy (e.g., terrorism, crime, mass migration).
- Cyberattacks (e.g., DDoS on government infrastructure, defacing public websites).
- An abrupt surge of intelligence and subversive operations.
- Fake news, propaganda, and disinformation substantially increase.
- An exponential rise in social media posts against the current political party.
- Increase in articles related to lack of security, political turmoil, corruption, and socioeconomic inequality.
- Russian state-run media (RT Español and Sputnik Mundo) amplify disinformation.
- Deployment of Russian special forces or mercenaries in the region.
- Direct or indirect support for an opposition candidate that would be critical of the U.S.
Colombia and the U.S. suspect that the South American nation was the victim of Russian election meddling during its 2018 presidential campaign (Alsema 2018). Russia allegedly used disinformation and social media to sow discord and cause confusion. Moreover, according to Colombia’s Defense Minister at the time, they had received over 50,000 attacks on their National Voter Registry, which was traced back to proxy servers in Russia and Venezuela (Arostegui 2018). A Colombian Intelligence official also indicated that Russia was using Venezuela as a base of operations to launch covert action against the U.S. throughout Latin America (Alsema 2018). Fortunately, Russia’s antics were unsuccessful in 2018, but they may have adapted and could implement the lessons learned during the 2022 election cycle.
Colombia is experiencing the highest level of upheaval since the peak of its insurgency. Over the past three years, the Duque administration has dealt with a variety of undermining efforts to weaken his tenure. Understanding Russia’s nonlinear warfare strategy in Eastern Europe and supposing that it has designed new procedures to compete outside of their near-abroad, this article will identify surrogates and proxies that are augmenting Russia’s weak points in the region.
First, Cuba, a historical Russian ally dating back to the height of the Cold War, could be used as a subversive and intelligence substitute for Moscow. Cuban intelligence is arguably the savviest and best-trained intelligence agents in Latin America. Russia has invested decades in Cuba’s craft and would glean a high return on investment in their Latin American asymmetric approach.
Second, Venezuela’s physical position in South America grants Russia a location to stage covert operations and coordinate their regional campaign. Conversely, Venezuela’s promotion of refugees' access to Colombia exacerbates its neighbor’s internal security vulnerabilities. Furthermore, the heavy traffic on the Colombian/Venezuelan porous border provides would-be subversive elements the ability to easily transit between the two nations after operational acts.
Finally, Colombia’s long-standing leftist insurgencies enable Russia the capacity to conduct acts of terror and reduce security in Colombia with the cloak of plausible deniability. Historically, Russia has used gray-arms dealers to sell Russian weapons to these guerrillas, while Russia and Cuba have provided enabling support to their armed struggle.
The following section illustrates existing nonlinear warfare evidence in Colombia’s affairs using the established indicators
The COVID-19 crisis has magnified traditional unrest in Colombia, but since President Duque’s 2018 election, the country has experienced something internally foul.
Indicator 1: Protests and marches have become the norm, but a shadowy, violent undertone has shifted the paradigm of civil dissent. Students, trade unionists, indigenous people, and others are frustrated with the current administration. But many of these usual peaceful protests have suddenly erupted into violence; vandalizing, burning public buildings, and disrupting public transportation systems. Local Colombian media reveal that a nation-state, seemingly, Cuba and Venezuela, are clandestinely coordinating protests. Colombian magazine, Semana, obtained a secret Colombian government document that states Cuba plans to interfere in the upcoming Colombian election, mirroring destabilizing activities in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador (FFHRIC 2021). The protests in Colombia demonstrate the features of Cuban subversive techniques. The secret report further denotes concern of an axis between Cuba-Venezuela-Russia to sway the Colombian election in favor of a friendlier candidate (FFHRIC 2021).
Indicator 2: 2021 has seen an exceptionally high rate of violence in Colombia. Twenty-seven thousand citizens have been displaced due to violence, marking a 177 percent increase from the year prior (Global Americans 2021). Attempts at the President’s life, car bombs in military and police headquarters, inter-insurgency bloodshed, and a flood of exiled Venezuelan migrants have contributed to the concerning security situation. The Colombian Government partially blames Maduro and the Venezuelan regime for promoting and supporting these brutal acts.
Indicator 3: In May of 2021, Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano accused Russia of conducting cyberattacks against its Army and Senatorial infrastructure. In the past two years, Colombia has witnessed a sharp increase in sophisticated cyberattacks against its energy, military, and political sectors that only a few nations have the ability to employ (Fleischman 2021). Some of the attacks have been traced back to Russian and Venezuelan proxy servers.
Indicator 4: In March of 2019, a Cuban medical staff member was expelled from Colombia for spying on an air force base (Translating Cuba 2019). In December 2020, two Russian diplomats were expelled from Colombia after spying on the nation’s energy industry (Reuters Staff 2020). Although Russia protested the act, media reports indicate that Moscow has increased its embassy staff, surmising growth in intelligence officers. Moreover, Semana magazine reveals Cuban collusion with left-wing insurgents to stoke violence and finance violent protests (Semana 2021). The article further illustrates growth in Cuban diplomatic presence in Colombia, many known as experts in intelligence and subversive actions.
In May 2021, Omar Rafael Garcia Lazo, the Cuban Embassy’s first secretary, was expelled for breaching the Geneve Convention’s article on diplomatic relations (Reuters 2021). Colombia’s foreign minister did not elaborate on the details that led to the expulsion. Still, many believe that Lazo was complicit in fomenting anti-government protests, as have been done by the Cubans throughout the region (Reuters 2021).
Indicator 5: Of the nearly 51 million people in Colombia, almost three-quarters are connected to the internet, notably through mobile devices (Emblin 2021). On April 28, 2021, protesters took to the streets in response to a tax proposal and abysmal COVID-19 response. Since then, arguably with the subversive support of external actors, Colombia has seen a tidal wave of misinformation and disinformation envelop the nation. News clips of Colombian security forces using disproportional violence and accusations of human rights violations have swept the internet. As investigations into the spike in activity progressed, a trend of recycled videos from years past, doctored footage, and misrepresentations presented itself (León 2021).
In 2019, over 7,000 troll accounts on social media were engaged in disinformation targeting Colombia. In addition, six million digital interactions related to protests in Colombia, geolocated from troll farms in Venezuela, possibly ran from servers in Russia and China (Emblin 2021). In early 2020, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez accused Russia and Venezuela of fomenting protests and discord using social media platforms (Jakes 2020). A study conducted on South American digital disinformation and influence campaigns by the Constella Intelligence group explained that a small number of online accounts generated most of the volume associated with Colombian unrest (Constella Intelligence 2020).
Russia’s state-run news outlet, RT, ranked 2nd in influence and 8th in most shared media in Colombia. The social media platform, Telegram, was effectively used to encourage violent acts, such as planting simulated bombs to disrupt public transportation or obstruct critical infrastructure, some even established by news networks like RT and Venezuela’s TeleSur TV. Networks like RT and TeleSur encouraged protests and amplified media coverage of those events.
Facebook and Twitter played a profound role in Colombia's social unrest, with one in three events related to the protests organized from external countries. Ramirez explained that social media trolls were encouraging violent protests to undermine Duque’s government (Retana 2020). In addition, the U.S. State Department reported that Colombia is one of the main targets for Russian disinformation operations in the region, and they intend on leveraging social media to amplify confusion (Retana 2020).
Indicator 6: Beginning in 2019, Russia initiated the deployment of approximately 100 military personnel to Venezuela. Media reports indicate that the delegation included Russian intelligence, cyber, and special forces (Spetsnaz) personnel (Sukhankin 2019). Furthermore, in April of 2021, the Colombian Minister of Defense made a veiled comment alluding to Russian soldiers and mercenaries operating in the Apure State of Venezuela, bordering Colombia (Hunter 2021). These comments by the Colombian high command come to light as recent satellite imagery reveals the presence of Venezuelan soldiers with Russian-made drones and rocket launchers along with Russian soldiers, likely Spetsnaz, conducting paramilitary-like activities throughout Venezuela’s border region (Hunter 2021).
Indicator 7: With the already tumultuous circumstances in Colombia, former Mayor of Bogota, and former M-19 guerrilla, Gustavo Petro is leading in the polls. Petro is infamously known as one of the guerrillas that orchestrated the Supreme Court's violent takeover in 1985 (Bronner 2021). Colombia has never elected a far-left candidate due to its conflict with its leftist insurgency, alliance with the U.S. during the Cold War, and capitalistic history. Still, the security, economic, and social concerns have projected Petro as the front-runner. In January 2020, Petro was accused of being an accomplice of Nicolas Maduro by Venezuela’s opposition leader and widely perceived legitimate President of Venezuela, Juan Guaido (The City Paper Staff 2021). In addition, 2006 leaked U.S. Embassy cables paint Petro as a radical populist in the likes of Chavez (Goodman 2021). Petro’s socialist ideology and contempt for America’s influence in Colombia make him an ideal partner for Russia’s Western Hemisphere malign strategy.
Circumstantial yet compelling evidence indicates that Colombia is a victim of a determined covert assault. Thorough understanding of Russia’s modus operandi and existing indicators, present a plausible argument indicative of a coordinated Russian nonlinear warfare campaign. The political and economic conditions and civil discontent present Moscow with the optimal conditions to wage their plan. Unwedging Colombia from America’s grasp of influence becomes an unquestionably attractive option in Russia’s attempts to weaken U.S. authority and legitimacy. In addition to Hadshiev’s conditions of susceptibility, it is clear that there are non-organic events taking place in Colombia that promote uncertainty and reduce confidence in the government. Russia’s non-contact methods, undeclared special forces, cyber, and intelligence presence on Colombia’s border is a preamble of military support to nonlinear warfare. Moreover, Russia’s strategy adaptation outside of Eastern Europe by using regional allies to operationalize aspects of its indirect conflict has presented new challenges to sovereign nations in the hemisphere. Venezuela, Cuba, leftist Colombian insurgents, and socialist Colombian politicians function as strategic pawns in the Kremlin’s nonlinear warfare campaign.
Using Colombia as a theoretical model, one can deduce comparable logic to other nations in Latin America. Already, similar activities demonstrated in the political processes of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia display the characteristics of Russian interference. As a wave of left-leaning candidates propel onto the world stage, particular attention on Colombia (election May 2022), and Brazil’s (election October 2022) atmospheres should retain priority leading up to their respective presidential elections. These nations are regional economic leaders and stabilizers in Latin America. Therefore, the model developed in this study should be applied to predict nefarious activities during future democratic processes. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to plague Latin American nations’ political conditions, providing Russia and its accomplices, namely Venezuela and Cuba, opportunities to encourage malign behavior and attempt to tip the hemispheric balance in their favor.
The Russian Federation has continued to refine its techniques and has become adept at leveraging technology and the internet to force multiply their traditional expertise in information warfare and active measures. Moscow has tested and enhanced its ability to synchronize and disaggregate capabilities nonlinearly as necessary to achieve its political objectives. Additionally, Russia has learned that it is more costly and less effective to use traditional armed conflict to accomplish its geopolitical goals in many circumstances. As a result, the Russian government has reevaluated its strategy.
Moscow has evolved in the 21st century, increasingly favoring a deniable approach to warfare where military hardware and physical global reach come second to cyberspace and influence operations. Further research is required to unequivocally surmise the presence of nonlinear war in the Western Hemisphere. Still, a substantial body of evidence offers an assessment that Russian nonlinear warfare is not only present, but effective. Moreover, the manifestation of Cuban and Venezuelan destabilizing factors, in conjunction with their objectives against the U.S., signal their complicity. One of the Kremlin’s aims is to challenge America’s presence in Eastern Europe and reduce its hegemony in the region, while Venezuela and Cuba’s focus is the latter. Progress in Russian military presence and hardware and unchallenged physical access is evidence of positioning for a protracted irregular operation in the hemisphere.
The U.S. and Latin American nations must remain cognizant of factors that impose unwelcomed consequences on their sovereignty. Accordingly, these nations must reinforce a more vigorous cyber security posture, social media monitoring, reliable fact-checking sites, and sophisticated intelligence operations. It is paramount to acknowledge the cognitive battle that is waging. But most importantly, to suppress these threats, dependable governance and citizen resiliency will be the most effective deterrent against nonlinear warfare.
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