Brazil’s Lula is right on global politics and wrong on Ukraine

The Brazilian president should support Ukraine; this would be an expression of the South-South solidarity he has pledged to pursue.

Brazil's Lula meets Chinese President Xi in Beijing
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and China’s President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 14, 2023 [File: Ricardo Stuckert/Handout via Reuters]

When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in in January, many policymakers in the West breathed a sigh of relief. Four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s reactionary politics had undermined Western engagement with Brazil and worried Western liberal democracies about the resurgence of far-right politics in South America.

The staunch support Lula received from Western capitals, especially from Washington, when Bolsonaro’s followers attacked government buildings in the Brazilian capital shortly after the inauguration, was meant to solidify this “reset” in relations.

But when the United States and its European allies pressed the Brazilian president to take a stance on the raging war in Ukraine, the response they got was not what they had hoped for.

Apart from voting in favour of a United Nations resolution condemning the Russian aggression, Brazil under the new administration did not take a clear side in the conflict.

Lula refused to enter the anti-Russia camp by joining the sanctions regime or arming Ukraine and continued to toe the neutrality line set by his right-wing predecessor.

To expect Brazil to fully align with the West on the war in Ukraine is, of course, naïve. From a Global South perspective, Lula’s stance makes sense. He is not only defending vital national interests related to Brazilian agribusiness, but is also ideologically consistent with the neutral position Brazil occupies in global politics.

Yet, domestic concerns and diplomatic continuity should not prevent the Brazilian government from extending solidarity to Ukraine, the victim of aggression by a former colonial power.

Domestic considerations

During his election campaign in 2022, Lula banked on his previous success and raised hopes among Brazil’s poor that his new administration will repeat past socioeconomic policies.

During his first two terms (2003-10), the global boom in commodity prices allowed his government to boost public spending. The extra revenues were redirected to massive income transfer policies, like Bolsa Familia, the social programme which became his trademark and which lifted about 36 million people out of extreme poverty.

But today, the situation in Brazil is quite different, considering the internal political polarisations and difficult economic situation marked by high inflation, slow growth and a sluggish private sector.

That is why, when putting together his foreign policy, Lula has to keep in mind the economic interests of industries, which contribute large chunks of state revenue. When examining relations with Russia, one of the key sectors to consider is agribusiness, which accounts for about 25 percent of the Brazilian gross domestic product (GDP) and 48 percent of the country’s total exports.

The productivity of Brazilian agriculture depends on the massive use of fertilisers, especially NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium compounds). Brazil is the largest importer of NPK in the world, and Russia is its biggest seller, meeting 22 percent of Brazilian demand.

Joining the Western sanctions regime on Moscow would certainly disrupt the steady supply of Russian fertilisers and affect agricultural exports. This in turn would not only anger big agribusiness which has a sizable lobby in the Brazilian parliament, but would also affect the government revenue stream from agricultural exports.

Lula’s calculations are simple: To finance social policies and recover the electorate that swung to the extreme right, he needs economic stability and sources of revenue; the trade relationship with Russia plays a significant role in this equation.

Non-alignment in the 21st century

Brazil under Lula is not alone in pursuing its own interests when considering its position on the war in Ukraine. Governments across the Global South do not want to get involved because they think they stand to lose a lot if they do.

Last year, the war and the subsequent sanctions took a toll on poorer countries as the prices of grains and fuel skyrocketed. Developing nations can ill afford to stoke the crisis further by taking sides in a war that concerns them little and potentially threatens their supplies of grain.

Across the Global South, there is a general feeling that Europe and the US are disregarding global economic stability and the wellbeing of poorer nations in their rush to arm and aid Ukraine.

Many also perceive the Western backing for Kyiv as a continuation of the long record of Western interventions across the world. In this sense, the Brazilian government and others in the Global South do not see the West as having the moral authority to demand support for their military efforts in Ukraine. The locus classicus of this line of reasoning is the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Washington launched, despite having no authorisation from the UN Security Council.

In the context of growing tensions between the West and China and Russia, Lula has attempted to establish a geopolitical ground analogous to the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. In foreign visits, he has emphasised Brazil’s neutrality and has called for South-South solidarity, even calling for the de-dollarisation of international trade.

He has appealed for peace, proposing a new initiative – a “peace club” in an effort to jumpstart negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

Moscow has given a nod to the initiative, but Kyiv has rejected it outright, while the US has accused the Brazilian leader of “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda”.

Lula’s subsequent comments that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are both to blame for the war and that Ukraine will have to give up its claim on the Crimean Peninsula have not helped. Attempts at damage control by the presidency, clearly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and declining the Russian invitation to participate in the St Petersburg Economic Forum have not worked.

Lula’s attempt at conjuring a new non-aligned movement has failed and, in the process, he seems to have lost some of the international standing he had built during his previous terms.

The pitfall of Third-Worldism

There is a contradiction in Lula’s appeal for a 21st-century Third-Worldism vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine. Although he is right to criticise Western interventionism, his critique falls short when considering Ukrainian history and current standing.

The country, one of the poorest in Europe, has a brutal colonial past similar to Brazil’s and the rest of Latin America’s. It is not, by any means, a nation of the Global North, which has enriched itself through the domination of other peoples.

At the same time, Ukraine cannot be reduced to a victim of forced Westernisation or a NATO puppet. Doing so would ignore the Ukrainian struggle for national liberation and independence and would legitimise Russian aggression and colonialist pretences.

In this sense, were Brazil to extend support to Ukraine, it would be an expression of South-South solidarity – one that sees through the propaganda from Western, but also from Eastern powers.

In extending a hand to Kyiv, Lula can reject not only the simplistic Western narrative of “Western liberal democracy vs Eastern authoritarianism”, but also the equally hypocritical discourse of “the West vs the rest” that turns a blind eye to aggression by regional powers, autocratic brutality, and repression of minorities in the Global South.

The Brazilian government also cannot ignore the growing evidence of shocking war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, which is refuting any claims of symmetry within this conflict. Lula cannot present himself as a messenger of peace, leading a country historically committed to human rights and social justice, while disregarding major violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine and the apologetic narrative of the Kremlin are challenging the legitimacy of the international legal system that the Brazilian state, a UN founding member, has supported since 1945. Putin’s multi-imperialist vision of the world in which nuclear powers divide it into spheres of influence directly contradicts the multilateralism and egalitarianism that Brazil has defended for the past 75 years.

Lula seems to be trapped in old Cold War dilemmas in a world that is no longer bipolar. The alternative to the unilateralism of US President George W Bush that marked the invasion of Iraq in 2003 cannot be the multi-imperialism of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

If the Brazilian president really wishes to promote multilateralism and uphold international law, then he must unequivocally express solidarity with Ukraine and condemn Russian aggression. From this position, he can then proceed to lead multinational mediation efforts, putting together a coalition of willing partners along with China and India.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance