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Canada Russia's war with Ukraine made it a global pariah — but it still has friends in Mexico

11:51  06 april  2022
11:51  06 april  2022 Source:   cbc.ca

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to have spent much of his Tuesday phone conversation with his Mexican counterpart discussing Ukraine.

According to the official Canadian readout, "the Prime Minister invited the President to participate in the 'Stand Up for Ukraine' campaign pledging event on April 9, which he is co-convening with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to raise funds for Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people."

There was no word on whether Mexican Pres. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — usually known as AMLO — accepted the invitation. He has appeared to lack enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine and his MORENA party has had a number of pro-Putin eruptions since the February 24 invasion.

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On Tuesday — in what Mexican critics of Lopez Obrador's "Fourth Transformation" movement called a new low — the newspaper that's often seen as the unofficial organ of the ruling party shocked many Mexicans with its front-page take on the murder of civilians in Bucha and other newly-liberated cities in the periphery of Kiev.

The headline in La Jornada translates roughly to: © CBC News The headline in La Jornada translates roughly to:

"Russia demands the UN tackle staged massacre in Ukraine," reads the headline in La Jornada.

Subheadings repeated various Kremlin claims — including one alleging the corpses in Bucha are living actors and that one of the victim's hands can be seen moving in a video. (It can't.)

Friendship group

While much of the world was reacting with outrage to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a group of legislators from Mexico's governing MORENA party and the allied Labour Party decided it was a perfect time to set up a new "friendship group" with Russia.

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Russia's ambassador to Mexico Viktor Koronelli celebrated the occasion on March 23 by meeting with about two dozen pro-government lawmakers while opposition members protested outside the chamber with signs saying "No to war."

"For us it's a sign of support, of friendship, of solidarity," said Koronelli, "in these complicated times for my country, facing not only a special military operation in Ukraine but also a tremendous media war."

"Russia didn't start this war. It is finishing it," he told his Mexican hosts.

Speaking on behalf of the governing party, Congressman Armando Contreras Castillo lavished praise on the Soviet Union, which he said had given Mexico "a new way of thinking about society and economy, a new way of understanding the world and life." Castillo said Mexico also wanted to draw closer to the modern Russia of Vladimir Putin.

"Our goal is today to strengthen Mexican-Russian relations," he said. "We are ready to do everything to fortify the friendship between Mexico and Russia and establish new ties."

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Two faces of the AMLO government

Mexico has a highly professional diplomatic corps and currently holds a seat at the UN Security Council. There, Mexico "has continuously condemned the acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian Federation in Ukraine, while recognizing its sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity," said Oscar Mora of the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa.

And at the General Assembly, Mexico co-sponsored with France a motion that blamed Russia for the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine.

Images from devastation in Ukraine are displayed during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. © John Minchillo/AP Images from devastation in Ukraine are displayed during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

"Mexico has also expressed its support for the call from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to conduct an independent probe into the atrocities in Bucha, identifying those who are responsible to get justice," Mora told CBC News.

Mexico has sent flights to Romania with humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and is currently hosting about 400 Ukrainian refugees — many of them are seeking status in the U.S.

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"Rest assured that Mexico's condemnation will remain clear and loud, particularly as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, and we will continue to work with Canada and other like-minded countries to restore peace in Ukraine as soon as possible," said Mora.

People walk by an apartment building destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Borodyanka, Ukraine on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. © Vadim Ghirda/AP People walk by an apartment building destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Borodyanka, Ukraine on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

But Mexican journalist Jose Diaz Briseno, the Washington correspondent for Reforma, said that the Mexican government's position is best described as "ambivalent."

"There's one thing for the outside world, at the UN Security Council, and there's another position that the president himself and his allies present to the Mexican public," he said.

"Basically, the president is trying to cater to the most extreme elements within the MORENA coalition, which are very anti-U.S. and believe that any expression of support of Ukraine is 100 per cent support of all U.S. actions in the world."

'Our posture is neutrality'

Following criticism of the new friendship group, Lopez Obrador said that "we are not going to participate either in favour or against" the war in Ukraine.

"Our posture is one of neutrality," he said.

"The president seems trapped," said Diaz Briseno, "between the official position that his diplomats are taking at the UN and the flirtations that some of the elements within his party have with Russia.

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"There are elements of the MORENA Party and the Labour Party who have visited Russia, who've talked to Russian officials, and Russian propaganda in the Spanish language is very widespread in Mexico.

"Russian media are helping in many cases to spread some of the conspiracy theories about the U.S. being against AMLO."

US: Mexico embassy a nest of Russian spies

United States Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar was quick to respond to the friendship group with a public statement that said "we must be united with Ukraine."

In Washington, the response came even faster as Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the U.S. military's Northern Command, went before a U.S. Senate committee and dropped a bombshell about the Russian presence in Mexico.

"I would like to point out that most of the GRU members in the world are in Mexico at the moment," he said. "Those are Russian intelligence personnel."

GRU, or Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie, is the Russian military's foreign intelligence service.

Sunflowers are placed in front of the Russian Embassy during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Mexico City Thursday, March 24, 2022. © Marco Ugarte/AP Sunflowers are placed in front of the Russian Embassy during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Mexico City Thursday, March 24, 2022.

VanHerck said officers of GRU's main directorate use cover positions at the Russian Embassy in Mexico City to spy on the U.S., among other tasks. (The U.S. already has expelled several Russian diplomats it accused of using their diplomatic postings in Washington as cover for espionage.)

Asked about those allegations at one of his regular news conferences, Lopez Obrador said his government had no information and advised others to stay out of Mexico's affairs.

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"We must send them telegrams warning them that Mexico is not a colony of any foreign country," he said.

Putin apologists

The president has himself avoided praising Vladimir Putin publicly or justifying the attack on Ukraine. He has said that Mexico will not allow arms to be sent to Ukraine or participate in any sanctions against the Putin government.

But on Mexico's left, traditional anti-Americanism and tolerance for autocratic regimes has blended with a conspiratorial mindset to drive support for Russia and suspicion of pro-Ukrainian narratives — and some members of Lopez Obrador's party have been more openly supportive.

One example was its youth wing in Mexico's biggest state, which published a paean to the Russian dictator following the February 24 invasion:

"We reaffirm our moral and political support for the difficult decision that forced the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin to engage in the legitimate defence of his people and, seeking to avoid a larger military conflict and preserve world peace, militarily intervene in Ukrainian territory to weaken the neo-Nazi, coup-lead forces," wrote the Morena Youth of Mexico State.

The statement blamed the U.S., EU and NATO for causing the conflict by tempting Ukraine to unite with the West "with the sole excuse of spreading democracy."

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his visit to the Aeroflot aviation training complex outside Moscow on March 5, 2022. © Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his visit to the Aeroflot aviation training complex outside Moscow on March 5, 2022.

And just hours before Canada closed its airspace to Russian aircraft, Lopez Obrador's Transport Minister Miguel Torruco put out a string of tweets celebrating Russia's state airline.

"Warm greetings to our friends at the prestigious airline @aeroflot, hoping for prompt connectivity between nations and of course to Mexico City. I remind you that tourism is a synonym of peace, friendship and understanding between people," he wrote in one of them.

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'A disgrace'

The pro-Putin musings of MORENA members have provoked anger in the U.S. and from Ukrainians.

Ukraine's ambassador to Mexico, Oksana Dramaretska, called Lopez Obrador out on Twitter and described the Friendship Group as "a disgrace," prompting calls from some AMLO supporters for her expulsion.

And on Monday, a Democratic congressman from Texas called on the Biden administration to cancel the U.S. visas of all politicians who joined the group.

Rep. Vicente González wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas that the Friendship Group's members "took this opportunity to shun the free world and stand with Putin."

Mexican journalist Diaz Briseno says Monday's coverage in La Jornada was a sad development.

"On a personal note, it's very sad to see this on the front page of a major outlet in Mexico," he said. "This is not something you see in other countries, and it speaks to how some elements of the ruling coalition in Mexico have sympathy to Russian claims."

Russia's ambassador Viktor Koronelli, on the other hand, has welcomed Mexican support.

"In Russia, we say that it's in hard times that you learn who your friends are," he said.

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