Balancing act

Lula attempts to simultaneously court Russia, US, Europe and China, but will he succeed?

Russia’s relationship with Latin America is a complex web of history, politics, and economics that has evolved over centuries. From the colonial era to the present day, Russia’s interest in Latin America has waxed and waned, reflecting changing global circumstances and shifting regional dynamics. Today, Russia is an important player in the Latin American geopolitical landscape, with deepening economic ties and a growing diplomatic presence across the region.

This was evident recently when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, (“Lula”), president of Brazil, ruffled the feathers of US senior officials and Western allies when he said that the US should stop encouraging war and start talking about peace. The White House accused Lula of “parroting propaganda” while Ukraine, enraged by the visit of Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, called on Lula to visit Ukraine to grasp the consequences of Russia’s actions.

An Argentine journalist and political analyst couldn’t believe what he was hearing, “Effectively endorsing Putin was incomprehensible from the point of view of Brazil’s interests and is making decisions based on an ideology from the last century. Today, the reality is that Brazil has almost no economic dependency on Russia, trade is just USD 9 billion out of a total of more than USD 300 billion. It has far more ties with the US and Europe than with Russia. The key variable here, however, is China. China is Brazil’s main trading partner and perhaps this could explain some of this shift.”

“Effectively endorsing Putin was incomprehensible from the point of view of Brazil’s interests and is making decisions based on an ideology from the last century.”

Political analyst and journalist, Argentina

Lula’s comments pleased Lavrov who said that Russia was “grateful to Brazil for its understanding of the genesis of the situation” and stressed Brasília’s willingness to contribute to find ways to settle the situation. Lavrov continued his official Latin American tour with visits to Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba attempting to further alienate these countries from the US sphere of influence. His diplomatic efforts were also intended to limit the economic damage inflicted by the economic sanctions imposed by the West.

Despite the controversy caused among Western allies, Lula’s position is based on a two-fold strategy: protecting Brazil’s international trade interests and avoiding the alienation of the traditional pro-Bolsonaro agribusiness regions in Brazil. In this context, Brazil entered into an agreement with Russian companies for the provision of liquified natural gas, oil, and fertilisers, which will be completed in Chinese yuan.

A professor at a leading private university and think tank in Brazil warned against judging Lula too early, “Lula is an experienced diplomat and make no mistake his only priority is Brazil’s interests. Right now he needs to be seen as open to the markets, otherwise he will have no chance for re-election, as business elites and the agricultural sector are more prone to vote for right-wing options. Russia and Brazil collaborate in strategic sectors such as defence, oil and gas, and agriculture, upset Moscow and Beijing and these sectors will suffer. It is not unreasonable for Brazil to take a non-aligned position in the conflict, but the mistake Lula made is that he embraced some of the Russian propaganda. He has subsequently changed his approach to the conflict following these initial clumsy comments and you can see this in his most recent statements condemning the invasion and explicitly saying that Russia is at fault.”

“It is not unreasonable for Brazil to take a non-aligned position in the conflict, but the mistake Lula made is that he embraced some of the Russian propaganda. He has subsequently changed his approach …”

Professor and political think tank director, Brazil

Several days after Lavrov’s visit, Lula travelled to Portugal and Spain where he affirmed that he never intended to distribute the blame between Moscow and Kiev, highlighting the fact that Brazil voted on a UN resolution against the Russian invasion in Ukraine. At the same time, Lula sent Ambassador Celso Amorim to Ukraine to meet with President Volódimir Zelensky to smoothen its relations with Kiev. Nevertheless, Ukraine insists that Brazil is still far from being able to position itself as a peace broker as long as it does not readdress some of its previous comments.

While Kiev has adopted a “strategic patience” approach to restore bridges with Brazil, Lula is aiming for the US to recognise Brazil as a regional leader. He wants the Biden administration to further engage in regional problems such as the fight against de-forestation of the Amazon while securing additional investments in industrial and infrastructure investments considered strategic for Brazil.

“The reality is that the US has much more power than in the previous ‘pink tide’.”

Political analyst and journalist, Argentina

The Argentine journalist explained the status of US influence across the region, “Latin America is going through a severe economic and political crisis and despite the enthusiasm of many to say that it has gone red (left) again, the reality is that the US has much more power than in the previous ‘pink tide’. The IMF has control over Ecuador and Argentina. Venezuela is quietly strengthening its ties with the US more and more every day. President Petro after only weeks in power, realised how strong the dependence of Colombia on the US is and had to moderate its rhetoric. President Boric, a young progressive leftist, likewise, fully supports the US.”

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