Brazil’s Bolsonaro meets Russia’s Putin in Moscow amid Ukraine crisis

In a remarkable diplomatic display Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who resisted domestic appeals as well as pressure from US officials to cancel his visit to Moscow, sat knee to knee with Putin and declared that Brazil was in “solidarity” with Russia. Putin then named Brazil as Russia’s most important partner in Latin America.

Bolsonaro did not specify in what regard Brazil was in solidarity with Russia, but his comments and visit with Putin are certain to be interpreted as tacit support for Russia at a moment when the West is calling it a belligerent military power poised to plunge Europe into war.

For Brazil, the meeting rose to a remarkable about-face for a president who has spent years embracing the American flag, cultivating a network of Republican contacts and evoking Soviet-style socialism and communism as global evils that Brazil must repudiate. It also again betrayed Bolsonaro’s personalistic approach to foreign policy. He loved the United States when President Donald Trump was in charge. He loves it 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 are in solidarity with Russia,” Bolsonaro told Putin. “We very much want to collaborate in many areas — defense, oil and gas, agriculture. The meetings are happening.”

The meeting reflected Putin’s apparent gambit to forge stronger relationships in Latin America, far from Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, thus outflanking the West’s attempts to isolate his country. Putin in recent weeks has made calls to several Latin American leaders and has welcomed Argentine President Alberto Fernández to the Kremlin. In their meeting, Fernández said he is “consistently 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 become since Trump’s 2020 electoral loss. Bolsonaro first echoed Trump’s unfounded claims that widespread fraud had undermined the presidential election. Then he was one of the last foreign leaders to recognize Joe Biden as president. More than one year into Biden’s term, the presidents of the two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere still have not spoken.

US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said there were at least two high-level US attempts to persuade Bolsonaro to cancel the trip. Bolsonaro was told that such a trip would grant legitimacy to Russia and make it look less isolated just when the West was unifying to forestall a potential Russian invasion. But Bolsonaro, reportedly discontented by what he perceived to be a chilly relationship with Washington, decided to push ahead with the trip.

Neither Bolsonaro’s presidential office nor Brazil’s Foreign Ministry responded to requests for comment.

News of the Moscow meeting has dominated Brazil, where concerns over potential diplomatic repercussions have simmered for weeks. Brazilian officials repeatedly said Bolsonaro would steer clear of the Ukraine crisis. They said he wanted to talk about energy and agriculture. If Ukraine came up, Bolsonaro said he would support only peace, diplomacy and the sovereignty of all countries. Further seeking to show neutrality, the Foreign Ministry released a message touting Brazil’s relations with Ukraine.

The trip was nevertheless risky, said Felipe Loureiro, a historian at the University of São Paulo. “I’ve been saying that one of my biggest fears was that Bolsonaro could 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 on Twitter of a CNN chyron showing news of a possible Russian withdrawal of troops from Ukraine’s borders. His allies then immediately jumped on the narrative, crediting Bolsonaro with averting a war. The hashtag #BolsonaroAvoidedAWar began to trend on social media. Former environment minister Ricardo Salles tweeted a fake Time magazine cover proclaiming that Bolsonaro had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Analysts said Bolsonaro’s comments Wednesday will undermine the Brazilian government’s defense that it is not taking sides in the Ukraine crisis and again underscored the risks of conducting impromptu diplomacy at the highest levels.

“Ill-advised words or impulsive actions may 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, it may be interpreted as a statement of support of Putin in regard to Ukraine.”

Economically, analysts said, the decision to visit Russia makes little sense. Russia and Brazil have many business ties, and Brazil sells about $1.6 billion worth of goods every year to Russia. But Brazil sells about $31 billion in goods to the United States annually, far exceeding any business Brazil has with faraway Russia.

In the context of Brazil’s tumultuous political landscape, however, the rationale behind the trip seems more clear. The pandemic and ensuing economic convulsions have left Bolsonaro politically wounded. His approval ratings are in the low 20s, and he is soon heading into a polarizing re-election campaign. He needed a show of international strength, analysts said, to legitimize his standing as a world leader.

But Loureiro said the talks left him troubled. For months, Bolsonaro has sought to undermine the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system. The Brazilian president has said it will be pervaded by widespread fraud that will help his opponents. The only way he will lose, Bolsonaro has said in the past, is because the election is stolen. Loureiro said he does not believe Bolsonaro will give up power easily.

One subject Bolsonaro discussed with Putin? Cyber ​​security.

“We know that Russia is one of the most well-equipped and knowledgeable countries in the world in digital weaponry and is well experienced in electoral interference in foreign countries,” Loureiro said. “And that worries me.”

Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report.

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