In April 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Serguéi Lavrov visited Latin America’s Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan dictatorships. He also went to Brazil to strengthen ties with leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who—high on the prospect of being a geopolitical kingmaker—welcomed Lavrov with open arms.
Lula’s pivoting foreign policy is undermining ties with Brazil’s second and third trading partners (after China): the United States and the European Union. Further, by rolling out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin, Lula has given Russia a diplomatic victory over the United States.
In his return to power, Lula—who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010—has pledged to make the country a diplomatic powerhouse. For this reason, Lula has been vocal on international events, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On April 26, at a news conference alongside Spanish President Pedro Sánchez, Lula called for the creation of a “peace group” to reach an agreement between Russia and Ukraine and pitched himself as a mediator. Lula argued “both countries took the path of war [emphasis mine],” which revealed his bias toward Russia. He also suggested that Ukraine should give in to Putin’s demands in exchange for a semblance of peace.
Lavrov’s visit to Latin America seeks to discomfort the United States—Ukraine’s most steadfast ally—in its backyard. Adding Brazil to the same diplomatic tour of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela also suggests Brazil is now under Russia’s thumb. This entails undermining Western hegemony, promoting a multipolar international system, and protecting Russian interests overseas.
Caving In to Moscow’s Interests
Brazil has had a longstanding tradition of avoiding intervention and remaining neutral in armed conflicts around the world. While Lula’s intention to mediate for peace is understandable, his speech giving Ukraine shared responsibility is indicative of a departure.
In a news conference in the capital city of Brasilia on April 6, Lula claimed that Ukrainian President “Volodymyr Zelensky cannot expect to have everything.” In other words, to achieve peace he should abandon any claims to Crimea. During Lula’s visit to China in mid-April, he blamed both Washington, DC, and Brussels for “fueling the war” instead of seeking peace.
Lula’s statements offended US security officials. In response, John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said: “Lula is parroting Russian propaganda.”
Lula seeks to become a purported promoter of peace by tipping the balance in favor of Russia and becoming an accomplice of Putin’s regime. Nevertheless, after the United States and the European Union criticized Brazil’s stand, Lula toned down his rhetoric.
Lula asserted that he “condemns Russia’s invasion” and added that “war must stop regardless of who is right and wrong.” In this way, Brazil’s president avoided blaming Moscow while simultaneously supporting Ukrainians’ right to defend themselves and their territory.
Lula’s ambiguous speech hinders Brazil’s so-called return to international diplomacy, especially with its Western partners, who celebrated his electoral victory in 2022. With Brazil’s closer ties to Moscow, Lula demonstrated his anti-imperialist mentality, deeply rooted in Latin America’s left, and his support for Russia’s efforts to undermine US influence in the region.
While visiting China, Lula proposed the creation of a currency to trade within the BRICS block—made up of Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa. With this intention, Brazil joins the rebellion against the US dollar, led by China and Russia. Both shifted from the dollar to the yuan and ruble for trading Russian gas in 2022.
A Dangerous Game
Lula’s alignment with Russia and China does not stem exclusively from his socialist ideals. Three economic and political reasons explain the orientation of his foreign policy.
Russia supplied 13 percent of the fertilizer used in Brazil in 2022, second to the level coming from China. However, Russia is not among Brazil’s top 10 trading partners.
China receives 39 percent of Brazil’s total agricultural exports. Although China is Brazil’s top trading partner (accounting for 26.8 percent of exports and 23 percent of imports in 2022), the United States and the European Union are second and third, respectively. Together, the United States, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and Italy accounted for 25 percent of exports and 23 percent of imports in 2022.
Given weak constituent support for Lula in Brazil (36 percent in April), he is trying to offer patronage to the agricultural sector, which is politically influential. Channeling economic support to this industry via international trade could bring political stability to the Lula administration.
Lula has downplayed the fact that the European Union and the United States together contribute almost the same as China to Brazil’s economy and that these commercial partnerships could increase. By strengthening ties with China and Russia, Lula is condemning the country to corrosive capital inflows. The latter makes reference to financing coming from authoritarian regimes.
The European Union is close to establishing a trade agreement with Mercosur that has been negotiated by the parties involved for two decades. US officials should work harder to engage soft power with Brazil and Mercosur. Economic alliances have consequences, and the United States could offer cooperation and trade benefits to Brazil. In particular, the agricultural sector merits attention, since this is where China dominates and where Lula is seeking long-term patronage.
Lula has failed to understand that the economic boom that Brazil enjoyed during his first term is long gone. His strategy of disrespecting his long-standing allies and Western commercial partners, while increasing the economic dependence on China and Russia, is shooting himself in the foot. He appears willing to let Brazilians suffer for his ideological predilections.
Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón. Follow @asdp250.