Mexico’s careless flippancies with Russia imperil its relationship to its most important ally.
As the war in Ukraine coils toward a nuclear “Armageddon,” the U.S. and its major allies have consolidated by tightening sanctions around Russia and increasing their support to Ukraine. Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador, on the other hand, has progressed his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to a “friendship.” Russia’s geopolitical game in Latin America is centered around stroking anti-U.S. sentiment and advancing its own interests. Mexico’s geographical proximity to the U.S. and its role as America’s most important trade partner make the country an attractive target for Russia as Putin tries to stoke anti-American sentiments in Latin America. What López Obrador views as “friendship,” however, is instead a one-sided scheme that has “Z” — a symbol used by the Russian army — written all over it. López Obrador is playing with fire, and the U.S. might be the one to get burnt.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine set off the largest military mobilization in Europe since World War II. Despite facing significant disadvantages, Ukraine has been able to build a strong defense. This is largely due to the considerable investment from the U.S. and its allies in NATO. Other countries — in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and most in Latin America — have resisted the European Union’s lobbying efforts and have chosen to stay neutral. López Obrador’s flirtations with Russia and open rhetoric blaming the U.S. for escalating conflicts in Ukraine for “hegemonic interests” call into question Mexico’s official position of “neutrality” Even if Mexico did decide to join the West in sanctions, it wouldn’t fundamentally change what’s at stake for Russia or shape how the conflict progresses.
Neutrality, though, went quickly down the drain. In March, the MORENA party, Mexico’s left-wing political party, launched the Mexico-Russia friendship caucus and invited Russian ambassador Víktor Koronelli, making clear that Mexico would not be joining in sanctions. In response, members of the U.S. Congress threatened to revoke the visas of any Mexican legislator who supported and participated in the Russian-Mexico caucus.
López Obrador has also gone as far as to say Mexico is benefiting from the war. According to López Obrador, Mexico is expected to receive large inflows of foreign investment capital that would otherwise have been sent elsewhere. To López Obrador the war — which has resulted in human and economic woes — means “more investment, more growth [and] more employment.”
The traditional left in Mexico has most often supported policies that counter Western imperialism while still questioning liberalism. Taking this into account, MORENA’s response isn’t surprising. From their view, sanctions are a form of imperialism and are part of an endeavor to corner Russia. Mexico’s left has swallowed and regurgitated anything Russia has given to them, from disinformation and propaganda to becoming a spokesperson for Russia’s attempts to disseminate war crimes committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.
Earlier this year, the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, introduced a peace proposal that would achieve a “truce” between Ukraine and Russia for “at least five years.” Unsurprisingly, Mexico’s futile peace plan was met with vast criticism. The master plan consists of creating a “committee for dialogue and peace” to mediate a conversation between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Members of the proposed committee include Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Pope Francis and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted shortly after: “[López Obrador], is your plan to keep millions under occupation, increase the number of mass burials and give Russia time to renew reserves before the next offensive? Then your ‘plan’ is a [Russian] plan.” Mexican Twitter users have responded, calling the proposal “another circus to divert attention from the real problems in Mexico” and telling López Obrador to fix the problems in Mexico before “opening his mouth.” Ukraine’s ambassador to Mexico also rejected the project and strongly urged the Mexican administration to cease its relations with the Kremlin. López Obrador defended his proposal, claiming that the backlash he received from “a lot of people” was “due to sectarianism or elite interests.”
Given that Mexico trades significantly more with the U.S. than with Russia, assessing priorities is crucial. The Biden administration recently published the National Security Strategy, a key goal of which is to counter the expanding influence of Russia and China. Mexico’s resources, industries and territory will be crucial in achieving this aim. López Obrador’s responses to the war in Ukraine don’t signal a strong ally. For the sake of the U.S. and Mexico, American lawmakers should be more concerned.
Critics claim that the polarizing strategy put forth by López Obrador is likely to transform the bilateral relationship. After all, in supporting Russia, Mexico is siding with America’s biggest rival. And if the relationship became seriously threatened, it would likely be reconstituted by Mexican opposition before the details reached Biden’s desk. This line of thinking leaves out that López Obrador is leading under heavy-handed, ineffective institutions that are unlikely to adapt or respond. In the past decades, when it comes to global affairs, Mexico’s diplomatic payload has been sloppy and incongruent, particularly when compared to other powers. During his presidency, López Obrador has managed to remove checks and balances, weaken autonomous institutions and seize control of the military budget with no significant resistance from the Mexican congress or other authorities. This will remain true if López Obrador decides to advance his relationship with Putin at the expense of the one with the U.S. This should be a huge red flag for American lawmakers.
López Obrador has brought Mexico’s diplomatic relations to a new low, risking the country’s important relationship with the U.S. and other allies. Mexico has little to lose from the war itself, but it runs the risk of losing its most important partner. Mexico’s main costs won’t come from its relationship with Russia — they will come from U.S. retribution. As America’s neighbor and main trade partner, López Obrador should wake up and see that Mexico has more to lose from its so-called, very much pro-Russian “neutrality.”