Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tour of Latin America, which has included stops in Cuba and Nicaragua as well as Brazil, is leading to speculation about Russia’s renewed interest in the region.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, behind, and Cuba's President Raul Castro attend a ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Soviet Internationalist Soldier in Havana. Photo: AP

The Russian press recently published an extensive list of trade and economic agreements signed during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Latin America. But this dry rundown sheds no light on the Russian president’s true objective during a trip that forced him to journey halfway across the world to a region long described as “America’s backyard” and to break away temporarily from the more pressing issue of Ukraine.

Putin’s primary purpose in Brazil may simply have been to assume the mantle of FIFA World Cup host, as well as to meet with the leaders of the BRICS and, separately, with Germany's Angela Merkel, but there were other economic and political issues at stake as well.

Russia renews its relationship with Cuba

Regarding trade and economic ties between Russia and Latin America, a case in point is the state of relations with Russia’s traditional partner Cuba. Trade turnover between the two countries in 2013 amounted to just $185 million, and in the period January-April 2014 fell short of $26 million, less than half last year’s figure. Putin's visit to Havana saw the signing of roughly 20 agreements.

Chief among them was perhaps a deal to prospect for oil at the Boca de Jaruco field. Under the 25-year agreement, this year will see the launch of six new wells in addition to those already on stream. According to state-owned Cubapetroleo, the country’s offshore reserves total 20 billion barrels.

Competing with Russian oil firms for a slice of the Cuban shelf are companies from Spain, Norway, Venezuela, China and Canada. But Russia is safe in the knowledge that, after 20 years of declining Russian-Cuban upstream cooperation, Russia’s Zarubezhneft is making a return to the island.

On the eve of his visit to Cuba, Vladimir Putin took a decision that was, for Havana, long awaited. He decreed that 90 percent of Cuba’s external debt, accumulated over decades, be written off as a sign of a new era of “unbreakable friendship” between Moscow and Havana. This act of “forgiveness” was worth no less than $35 billion, while Cuba promised to invest the remaining $3.5 billion in joint projects with Russia, particularly the development of the island’s first “free economic zone” located in Mariel, west of Havana.

However, such a noble gesture was most likely dictated not just by Russian interests in Cuba, but also by cold pragmatism: Havana would never have paid off its debt in any case. Moscow lacks the resources to invest in the Cuban economy, while Cuba has no money to pay the bills. What’s more, potential investors are being scared off by a tax minefield: Along with plans to open up a free economic zone, Havana has decided to hike duties on a range of important imports.

What other strategic interests does Moscow have in Cuba? The sideline discussions may have included the possibility of a new Russian naval base in Cuba. After all, was this prospect not voiced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the not-too-distant past?

But here, too, lies a lot of uncertainty. As witnessed by CNN’s man in Havana, Patrick Oppmann, when Russia talks shop over a naval base, Cuba drags its feet.

“Following the crisis in Ukraine, Russian officials said they were looking to establish new naval bases in a handful of countries, including Cuba,” Oppmann said. “While Cuban officials have said little about the Russian overtures, they have several times allowed a Russian spy ship to dock and resupply in Havana's port. It remains to be seen how significantly the two countries can aid one another as both Cuba and Russia have to deal with flagging economies and the impacts of U.S. trade sanctions.”

Putin makes an unannounced visit to Nicaragua

The Russian president also made a sudden, very brief detour to Managua, where, without leaving the airport, he discussed with Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega plans to deploy base stations for Russia’s GLONASS system and cooperation in the field of pharmacology. But was his visit confined to these objectives?

What other strategic plans does Russia have in this part of the world?

Perhaps there was another motive behind this galloping visit. Back in 2008, Nicaragua was one of just four countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Could it be that was Putin leaning on Ortega to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and to support Moscow's position on Ukraine?

Russia looks to Latin America to end its international isolation

Let’s take a broader look at the situation. In the context of Russia’s increasing economic and political isolation over the conflict with Ukraine, Putin is desperately seeking allies to smooth over the international ostracism against Moscow. And Latin America is fertile ground in that regard. It remains one of the few continents where Putin is received honorably and respectfully, as befits a head of state.

Moreover, countries there are traditionally opposed to any military action taken or sanctions imposed by the U.S., and any kind of economic embargo. The inherent anti-Americanism in the southern continent creates a welcoming environment for Russia and its president.

For the time being, though, Latin American leaders are in no hurry to back Russia’s position on Ukraine and Crimea. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner did cautiously raise the topic, but not to recognize Crimea as Russian territory.

She simply drew a comparison between Crimea and the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands, which once belonged to Argentina, but were then occupied by the British. She said: “If the West criticized the referendum in Crimea, why was it so opposed to such a referendum on the Malvinas?”

The best that Vladimir Putin could hope for in Latin America was political neutrality — no one there is going pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Russia’s sake.

The White House reacted with measured indifference to Putin’s latest trip. The Russian president is unlikely to “tickle American nerves,” it was reported. However, the U.S. would more than just bat an eyelid if, instead of GLONASS stations, it detects nuclear missiles south of its borders, as in Cuba in the 1960s. But Putin is prudent enough not to startle the Americans that way. Everyone still remembers how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s recklessness half a century ago brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.