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Why Lula Is Doubling Down On His Ambiguous Stance On Russia And China

Though he campaigned for his return to the Brazilian presidency as a pro-Western reformer, since coming into office Lula da Silva has reverted to the classic positioning of a 20th century Latin American leftist.

Image of Brazilian President Lula holding a microphone and speaking at a seminar.

Brazilian President Lula during the Strategic Seminar for the Brazilian Economy.

Lula Marques/Agência PT
Marcelo Cantelmi


BRASÍLIA — One hundred days into his third presidential term, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has made the war in distant Ukraine into his government's cause célèbre. Observers like The Economist are wondering if this is because of diplomacy or naivety — or both.

Why, one wonders, has Brazil's socialist president waded into the Ukrainian quagmire, inclining toward the Russian version of events? Lula says he is restoring Brazil to its proper place in world affairs, which it enjoyed 20 years ago in his first two terms. Nostalgia — or a glamorizing vision of those days — is perhaps blinding him to the pitfalls of today. Domestic challenges could soon make him even less perceptive.

Lula was elected over his right-wing predecessor Jair Bolsonaro by a tiny margin, as shown by the fact that he lacks a parliamentary majority and works with a center-right cabinet. He can be said to have been chosen simply as a less radical option, as the middle class tired of Bolsonaro's antics, fanaticism and misogyny. While campaigning, Lula seemed to have understood that Brazilians did not want a 20th-century-style, leftist leader.

Perhaps he feels uncomfortable in this middle ground and the war in Ukraine is to be used as another galvanizing cause for the Left. It's a questionable shift back to the past and likely strongly influenced by Lula's adviser Celso Amorim, a former foreign minister. The regional Left has decided to see events in Ukraine as part of a wider, U.S. assault on Russia, the successor state to the feared — or yearned-for - Soviet Union.

China, the main target

Yet Lula's bigger interest is China, as his domestic concerns are now chiefly economic. Brazilian officials have duly noted the United States' irritation with this diplomatic shift, but believe America should put its money where its mouth is. While Lula's recent trip to China led to $U.S. 10 billion's worth of investment commitments, his meeting with U.S. President Biden (last February) yielded nothing specific. Worse are warnings of an imminent departure of U.S. investments from Brazil (such as carmakers Ford).

Lula is seeing classical warfare.

Diplomatic sources told me Lula wants to turn the investment promises into a full-blown economic alliance with communist China. This part one can understand, but not the clumsiness over Ukraine. Is it a diplomatic price he has been asked to pay? At the close of his trip to Beijing, Lula said Russia and Ukraine were equally to blame for the war: that sounds like confusing attacker with victim.

If it isn't clumsiness it must be cynicism, shown before his reelection, when he told Time magazine that Ukraine's Zelensky wanted war, or he would have negotiated "a bit more" before it erupted. Negotiated?! Again, Lula is seeing classical warfare where there was an invasion.

And since that invasion, Russia has reduced parts of Ukraine to rubble, murdered civilians, and flattened their homes, hospitals and schools, all to show that it has a "right" to be heeded in all the former territories of the Soviet Union. This isn't Vietnam or the Korean peninsula, and most of the world is with Ukraine.

Image of \u200bRussian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva shaking hands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Kremlin official page

Wasted diplomatic chances

By galumphing his way into this affair, Lula (not unlike Bolsonaro) has hurt Brazil's standing abroad as a bastion of rights, alienating the Europeans who cheered his return. He made things worse criticizing Western powers for arming Ukraine. Was he oblivious to, or cynically mindful of, the fact that Russia would have won by now without those arms?

The United States was keen to find an ally to block China.

Days ago in March, Amorim spoke to the U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to try and dispel any "misunderstandings," and assure him Brazil did not share China's vision of the war.

The White House had high hopes when Lula arrived, after the frosty ties it had had with his predecessor, again in part because of his cordial ties with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Biden hastened to congratulate Lula on his election, effectively dismissing Bolsonaro's claims of fraud.

He was invited to visit Washington, which he did after taking office in January. Both states were concerned with the degradation of democracy in the hemisphere, and the United States was keen to find an ally to block China's, and to some extent Russia's, advance into the region. All this is spoiled now.

Nuclear submarines and factories

Brazil's ties with China are unstoppable. Like Argentina, Brazilian telecommunications, and millions of household and consumer goods, will run on Huawei's 5G mobile technology. There may be a bigger clash looming over Lula's ties with Russia.

The president wants to buy nuclear fuel there for the reactor powering its nuclear submarine, due to be operational within a decade, and may also entrust Russia's Rosatom with finishing the Angra 3 plant.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed these plans, and Ukraine, with Brazil's foreign minister and Lula himself on April 24. The West found these discussions jarring.

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