Russia has been keeping relatively quiet on the global stage of late, particularly as it has issues closer to home to focus on including political reforms and economic revival, but make no mistake about it, the country’s influence across the world is far-reaching and important.

Russia might display a foreign policy approach in which it doesn’t appear to want to “interfere” in the domestic affairs of other nations or to see regime change; In January in his State of the Nation address, President Vladimir Putin insisted that “we don’t want to impose our point of view on anyone.”

Nonetheless, similarly to other superpowers like the U.S. and China, Russia has spread its economic and geopolitical influence by supporting (and indeed, propping up) rulers and regimes, like Syria’s Bashar Assad, or plowing money into infrastructure projects (like energy infrastructure in Europe) and by giving both tacit and overt military and economic support to other states around the world, as seen in Venezuela.

It matters where Russia chooses to intervene, invest, “interfere” and even annex because its influence is a direct challenge to the West, or more specifically, the U.S. It is also a way to allay the humiliation of the past, experts say.

“The U.S. and China are competing for economic dominance; meanwhile, Russia is asserting its role on the geopolitical stage, where it wants to compete on a par with the U.S.,” Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told.

“For Russia, being present on the global stage and defending what it considers as its backyard represent crucial steps to overcoming the humiliation that the country perceived that it suffered after the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S. was left as the sole global superpower.”

Here are the regions that Russia is invested in, both politically and economically:

Latin America

Unsurprisingly for a country that has a long history of Communist rule in the 20th century, Russia has had long ties with several Latin American states that have socialist or communist regimes, like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

It has sought to develop these relationships largely with diplomatic support, arms sales and energy investments. But it has also recently strengthened economic and political ties with regional powers Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

Nonetheless, Russia’s relationship with Venezuela is the most prominent, and antagonising, for the West. Russia has long supported the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and has been seen as a key power propping up the socialist government, helping to ward off a U.S.-supported coupled by opposition leader Juan Guaido in 2019.

Russia has also supported Venezuela on the military and economic front; Caracas is believed to have bought billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from Russia, paid for with loans from Russia, whose state oil company Rosneft has also invested heavily in Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.

Russia’s government and Rosneft have given Venezuela at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006, according to Reuters calculations. Russia restructured Venezuela’s debt in 2017, to allow it more manageable repayments.

“Russia is Venezuela’s main geopolitical ally and has also established considerable economic ties in the country, particularly in areas such as energy and defence. The energy sector saw investments by many of Russia’s main oil and gas companies, such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Lukoil, but Russia’s involvement in armaments has been more heavily publicized,” the EIU’s Demarais told.

However, she noted that “Russia’s economic involvement in Venezuela, unlike China’s, has paled against its political investment in securing the survival of the Maduro regime.”

This has largely been part of a broader geostrategic interest of challenging the U.S. in different parts of the world, she said, and, “given the Chávez/Maduro government’s anti-American rhetoric, this was a natural beachhead for Russian interests in the West.”

She said proof that Moscow views its relationship with Venezuela mostly along geopolitical lines is the fact that Venezuela still has considerable unpaid financial obligations to Russia, of around $3 billion.

As U.S. sanctions (that Russia calls illegal) continue to bite, Russia continues to support Venezuela and on Friday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the country.

Lavrov’s visit, which was preceded by trips to Cuba and Mexico, was also a show of defiance against U.S. sanctions, something that Russia knows all about given international sanctions on the country for its own misdemeanours including its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

The foreign minister met Maduro and other top ministers to discuss deeper cooperation on energy, mining, transport, agriculture and defence, as well as discussing steps “to counteract illegal unilateral sanctions.”

Africa

Europe, the U.S. and China’s investments in, and aid to, Africa are well established but what’s less well known is that Russia had a strong influence in the continent during Soviet times, but this waned following the collapse of the union in 1991.

With China forming investment partnerships around the world, and particularly Africa, as part of its Belt & Road Initiative, widely seen as a way for China to increase its global influence and economic reach, Russia looks keen to increase its own trade relations with Africa and access the country’s vast mineral wealth and grab commercial opportunities.

In October 2019, President Vladimir Putin hosted a Russia-Africa summit and economic forum for over 40 African heads of state in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Ahead of the summit, Putin told TASS News Agency that only Russia would respect the sovereignty of African governments and he played on the long history of relations.

“We see how an array of Western countries are resorting to pressure, intimidation and blackmail of sovereign African governments,” Putin said, adding that Russia was ready to provide help without “political or other conditions.”

“Our country played a significant role in the liberation of the continent, contributing to the struggle of the peoples of Africa against colonialism, racism and apartheid,” he said. “Although ties deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, traces remain: the Mozambique flag, for instance, carries the Kalashnikov rifle.”

At the summit, Putin said Russia’s trade with Africa in 2018 amounted to over $20 billion, having doubled in the previous five years, but that the aim was to increase this

“We believe that trade, economic and investment cooperation is an important element in Russia’s relations with African countries,” Putin told the audience.

Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft, is not convinced that the Russian state’s reach in Africa is that extensive, arguing that private Russian companies had done well in the continent, such as those connected to the military contractor Wagner Group and linked to Russian businessman and a close associate of Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“From what I can see of the engagement in Africa, a number of individuals and companies particularly those connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin and (the) Wagner group have done very well out of mineral concessions, but I’m not sure that I’d call that a win for the Russian state, per se. Then again, the use of deniable, private sector mercenary firms means that the Russian state is, on paper at least, not really putting much in,” he said.

The success of private firms then allowed the Russian foreign ministry to follow “in the wake of a successful engagement to trumpet the foreign policy ‘success’,” McDowell told.

Middle East

Russia has rapidly expanded its geopolitical and military ties in the Middle East in the last decade, not only with Syria but with the region’s most powerful kingdom, Saudi Arabia, particularly (but not only) in terms of the OPEC alliance with Russia and other non-OPEC producers to limit oil output in a bid to stabilise oil prices.

In fact, Russia is one of the few countries that has managed to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and its arch-nemesis, Iran.

Russia has repeatedly criticised the U.S.′ re-imposition of sanctions on Iran following its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Aside from Russia’s relationships with fellow oil producers, which could be expected, its relationship with Syria is perhaps the most infamous one it has in the region.

Russia’s military presence in Syria and support for Assad came to the fore in recent years during the allied campaign against the terrorist group Islamic State, on the one hand, and preventing the attempts of rebel forces in a civil war trying to overthrow the Assad regime, on the other. Russia has repeatedly said it does not want to see regime change in Syria.

Russia’s support is seen as a way for the country to expand and maintain its influence in the Middle East; it has also benefited from a U.S. administration under President Donald Trump that does not want “boots on the ground” in the Middle East (although it appears keen to still shape government policy, most recently seen in Trump’s peace plan for Israel and Palestine).

Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.