Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Do Brazil and Russia Want From Each Other?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro met last week in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L-R) in a trip that the United States has criticized. U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Russia has begun an invasion of Ukraine. // Photo: Brazilian Government. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro met last week in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L-R) in a trip that the United States has criticized. U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Russia has begun an invasion of Ukraine. // Photo: Brazilian Government.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro met Feb. 16 in Moscow with Russian leader Vladimir Putin after the Kremlin invited him in December to discuss strengthening bilateral cooperation. Bolsonaro made the trip despite the reported urging of U.S. government officials that he cancel it at a time of growing concern from the West about a potential Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine. What does the visit to Moscow mean for Russian influence in Brazil, and why did Bolsonaro proceed with it despite the criticisms? What do Brazil and Russia stand to gain from stronger bilateral ties between the two, and what are the drawbacks of such a move by Brazil? How are geopolitical tensions in Europe affecting economic recovery and stability in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Bartłomiej Znojek, Latin America analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs: “Brazil and Russia have a sound record of high-level bilateral contacts facilitated by their two-decade-old strategic partnership and cooperation in the G20 and BRICS groupings. Jair Bolsonaro’s recent visit to Moscow would be just another occasion for him to meet Vladimir Putin, if not for the timing. Regardless of the Brazilian president’s actual motivations to proceed with the trip, he helped to legitimize the Russian leader and his deceitful narrative that it is a country that abides by international law and seeks peace. An important question here would be about the limits of such concepts as neutrality or equidistance in foreign policy of Brazil and of other Latin American countries. Are these ideas still valid to justify cooperation with Russia, which has once again openly and blatantly violated international law and the sovereignty of its neighbor? Brazil may argue that what happens in Europe is far away, but Russia’s revisionist stance has repercussions for Latin America. Russia has been consolidating the status of a key political partner for Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela—it helped Nicolás Maduro’s regime to survive international pressure. Russia has improved its image in Latin America as the supplier of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, but what will matter to the region more in the long run is an expanding Russian influence in the information sphere. Russia has used its state media (RT, Sputnik) and various social media assets in Latin America to justify official claims and narratives, using misinformation and discrediting the United States and the European Union, among other democratic actors. These attempts will be even more intensive now.”

Valentina Sader, associate director and Brazil lead at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council: “Historically, Brazil and Russia have maintained lasting diplomatic relations. Russia is a strategic partner multilaterally at the United Nations, G20 and the BRICS. Although not a major trading partner of Brazil, Russia is particularly relevant to the agribusiness sector, a motor of growth for Brazil’s economy and a large base for President Bolsonaro. Russia is a significant supplier of fertilizers to Brazil. Last year, Russia limited its exports of fertilizers to supply its domestic needs, which had the potential to drive up the costs of food production in Brazil. Amid increasingly higher levels of inflation, these higher costs could further harm the country’s economic recovery and President Bolsonaro’s political interests. President Bolsonaro’s trip to Russia was an attempt to appeal to his base domestically, during an election year in which polls suggest he will not be re-elected in October. The trip was also intended as a show of force. Given President Bolsonaro’s personalistic tendency toward foreign policy, associating himself with Putin amid the cooling of relations between Brazil, the United States and the European Union is a mechanism to show his own power, international presence and global influence. He placed himself and Brazil in the front and center of a major power competition. As a major non-NATO ally, President Bolsonaro’s sympathy toward Russia, at a moment of escalating tensions with the West, was not well received in Washington. In the short term, the trip might be seen as a win for revitalizing agribusiness in Brazil, helping further economic growth. However, in the long run–especially given Russia’s actions in Ukraine–Brazil might be further isolated internationally, particularly from the United States and Europe, which are among its largest partners.”

Vladimir Rouvinski, director of the Center for Inter-Disciplinary Studies at Universidad Icesi in Colombia: “For some experts, Bolsonaro’s visit to Moscow came at the wrong place and the wrong time. Since the tensions in Ukraine were rising rapidly, he risked associating himself fully with Vladimir Putin’s strategy toward the United States and the Western countries. However, the main objective of Bolsonaro’s trip to Russia was different. First, he wanted to signal to Washington that the United States should be paying closer attention to its neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere and those that have proven to be valuable U.S. allies in the region, particularly when it comes to security and trade. Moreover, with Russia expanding its ties beyond Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, the failure to establish working communication between Brasília and the Biden administration would be a window of opportunity for Moscow. Additionally, the Brazilian leader wanted to demonstrate that he is capable of advancing the nation’s global foreign policy agenda, downplaying the critics who claim that Bolsonaro’s international reach is limited. At the same time, the latest visit did not bring any significant breakthroughs in terms of bilateral trade and commerce, since Brazilian and Russian industries often compete for the same segments in the international markets, like in the case of aircraft industries. For Vladimir Putin, diversification of contact with Latin America is one of the keys to Russia’s policy toward the region. From the reciprocity perspective, it is a chance to show Washington that Moscow engages with the U.S. neighborhood on its terms, and that the attempts to internationally isolate Putin are doomed.” 

Editor’s note: The Advisor requested a commentary for this issue from Brazil’s embassy in Washington. The embassy referred questions to Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, which did not respond to the Advisor’s request for comment.

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