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Argentina Really Needs a Friend and It's Found One in Russia

Energy investments, defense memorandums, and rumors of arms deals: Observers say Argentina is cosying up to Russia because it it is seriously short of international allies.
May 7, 2015, 11:55am
Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AP

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been chumming up to Russia as she prepares to end her controversial time in office at the end of the year.

On a recent trip to Moscow, President Kirchner signed a "strategic partnership" agreement with Russian leader Vladimir Putin which included agreements for Russian funding for hydropower and nuclear plants in Argentina, oil and gas deals, and a memorandum of cooperation on defense.

Argentina is in serious need of foreign investment thanks to the country's long-running legal battle with American "hold-out" hedge funds who are preventing the country from restructuring its defaulted debt. Official statistics claim the country is not in recession, but independent economists don't believe them.

Related: Talons Out: Argentina Desperately Fighting "Vulture Funds" Over Debt

There are also unconfirmed reports that Argentina has been purchasing Russian military helicopters, patrol boats, and training sailors at the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. Defense News has reported that Argentina was planning to lease 12 Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer bombers and supply ships from Moscow in return for beef and wheat from the Pampas region.

Russia and Argentina also recently signed a pact to classify their joint military research and development, including "experimental" equipment, according to América Economía.

On a recent visit to Moscow, Kirchner announced that the Argentine and Russian militaries would hold joint maneuvers for the first time ever. Kirchner has opposed Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine, too. Russia has been boosting its arms exports to the region, too, according to the Center for Security Policy.

Aside from cash concerns, the strengthened alliance could boost both nations geopolitically, as fellow rivals of both the US and the UK. Britain has taken the rumors of Argentina's military buildup seriously enough to beef up the garrison on the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, in the South Atlantic. Britain won a bloody war with Argentina over ownership of the islands in 1982.

Argentina's increasingly close military ties with Russia appear as if they might present a problem for Britain, said Mark Jones, a political science fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas. But it's a diplomatic bluff, he said.

The Argentine military is a shell of the force that sent French-made jets against British ships in the war, claimed Jones, saying a few surplus Russian jets and boats wouldn't change anything. "Argentina's military has degraded to a level that even for a pacifist would be sad," Jones told VICE News.

Kirchner's theatrics with Russia are more of a thumb-in-the-eye to American and European bankers and politicians who are waiting to see her fate when she loses her judicial immunity as president, said Jones. In the meantime, she's taken a page from Venezuela's late president Hugo Chavez, an anti-American firebrand who critics said used the US and Britain as straw men to distract people from their country's bigger problems.

"She almost relishes this confrontational approach to foreign policy where she has sought out countries that are either pariah states, like Iran and Venezuela, are at least seen as adversaries of the US and the Western democracies, like Russia," said Jones.

Related: Argentina Wants Americans to Think Alberto Nisman Was Full of Shit

Kirchner's second term in office expires in December. Argentina's constitution bars her from running for a third consecutive term.

Her successor will inherit a contracting economy, high inflation, a corruption investigation into an allegation by prosecutor Alberto Nisman that she helped cover up Iran's orchestration of the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, and a rolodex of Russian military contacts. Nisman was found dead in January, hours before he was due to present his accusations to the Argentine Congress, sparking fevered speculation around the world.

The next Argentine president, no matter who wins the election, would likely reverse Kirchner's anti-American, pro-Russian policies in order to get into the good graces of bankers in New York and London, Jones argued. With the help of some Chinese financing, Kirchner has managed to keep the government solvent. Her successor might not be so lucky.

"If Argentina is going to dig itself out of the hole where it finds itself today it's going to need foreign investment and access to foreign debt markets," Jones said. "You're not going to get to those things if you are constantly antagonizing the United States and the European Union."

_Follow John Dyer on Twitter: _@johnjdyerjr