In a remarkable diplomatic display on Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who resisted national calls as well as pressure from US officials to cancel his visit to Moscow, sat knee to knee with Putin and said Brazil was “solidarity” with Russia. Putin then designated Brazil as Russia’s most important partner in Latin America.
Bolsonaro did not specify how Brazil stood in solidarity with Russia, but his words and his visit to Putin will certainly be interpreted as tacit support for Russia at a time when the West is calling it a belligerent military power ready to take the plunge. Europe in the war.
For Brazil, the meeting represented a remarkable about-face for a president who has spent years kissing the American flag, cultivating a network of Republican contacts and evoking Soviet-style socialism and communism as global ills that Brazil must repudiate. It also again betrayed Bolsonaro’s personalistic approach to foreign policy. He loved America when President Donald Trump was in charge. He loves him much less without him.
Now he has brought Latin America’s largest and most powerful country into an embrace with one of the United States’ greatest foreign adversaries.
“We stand in solidarity with Russia,” Bolsonaro told Putin. “We are keen to collaborate in many areas – defence, oil and gas, agriculture. The meetings are happening.”
The meeting reflected Putin’s apparent bet to forge stronger relations in Latin America, away from Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, thus foiling attempts by the West to isolate his country. In recent weeks, Putin has called several Latin American leaders and welcomed Argentinian President Alberto Fernández to the Kremlin. When they met, Fernandez noted it is “constantly working to rid Argentina” of its dependence on the United States, according to the Kremlin.
Putin’s meeting with Bolsonaro also hinted at how chilled relations between the United States and Brazil have been since Trump’s 2020 election defeat. Bolsonaro first echoed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that a Widespread fraud had undermined the presidential election. He was then one of the last foreign leaders to recognize Joe Biden as president. More than a year into Biden’s term, the presidents of the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies have yet to speak.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said there were at least two high-level US attempts to persuade Bolsonaro to cancel the trip. Bolsonaro was told such a trip would give Russia legitimacy and make it less isolated just as the West was unifying to prevent a possible Russian invasion. But Bolsonaro, apparently unhappy with what he perceived to be a cold relationship with Washington, decided to press on with the trip.
Neither Bolsonaro’s presidential office nor Brazil’s foreign ministry responded to requests for comment.
News of the Moscow meeting dominated Brazil, where concerns about potential diplomatic repercussions had been simmering for weeks. Brazilian officials have repeatedly said Bolsonaro will avert the Ukraine crisis. They said he wanted to talk about energy and agriculture. Should Ukraine run, Bolsonaro said he would only support peace, diplomacy and the sovereignty of all countries. Also seeking to demonstrate neutrality, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a message touting Brazil’s relationship with Ukraine.
The trip was nonetheless risky, said Felipe Loureiro, a historian at the University of São Paulo. “I said one of my biggest fears was that Bolsonaro might say something in this extremely tense moment that would go against Brazilian diplomacy,” he said. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
As soon as Bolsonaro entered Russian airspace, he brought up the military crisis. He posted a photo of a CNN chyron on Twitter showing news of a possible Russian withdrawal of troops from Ukraine’s borders. His allies then immediately jumped on the tale, giving Bolsonaro credit for averting a war. The hashtag #BolsonaroAvoidedAWar has become trending on social media. Former environment minister Ricardo Salles tweeted a fake Time magazine cover claiming that Bolsonaro had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Analysts said Bolsonaro’s comments on Wednesday would undermine the Brazilian government’s defense that it is not taking sides in the Ukraine crisis and again underlined the risks of conducting impromptu diplomacy at the highest level.
“Misguided words or impulsive actions can have unintended questions,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “It was a mistake that will have negative repercussions in the West. … In the context of the current crisis, this can be interpreted as a statement of Putin’s support for Ukraine.”
Economically, analysts say, the decision to go to Russia makes little sense. Russia and Brazil have many trade ties, and Brazil sells approximately $1.6 billion worth of goods to Russia every year. But Brazil sells about $31 billion worth of goods to the United States each year, far exceeding all the business Brazil has with distant Russia.
Against the backdrop of Brazil’s tumultuous political landscape, however, the rationale for the trip seems clearer. The pandemic and subsequent economic convulsions have left Bolsonaro politically wounded. His approval ratings are in the 20s and he is soon heading for a polarizing re-election campaign. It needed a show of international force, analysts say, to legitimize its position as a world leader.
But Loureiro said the talks troubled him. For months, Bolsonaro has sought to undermine the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system. The Brazilian president has said he will be plagued by widespread fraud that will help his opponents. The only way he can lose, Bolsonaro has said in the past, is because the election is stolen. Loureiro said he didn’t believe Bolsonaro would easily relinquish power.
A topic Bolsonaro discussed with Putin? Cyber security.
“We know that Russia is one of the best equipped and knowledgeable countries in the world when it comes to digital weaponry and has a good track record of election interference in foreign countries,” Loureiro said. “And that worries me.”
Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report.