While visiting Beijing last weekend to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, made comments about Russia’s war with Ukraine that ruffled feathers in the West and caused consternation in Kyiv. Lula’s remarks, which were very warmly received in both Beijing and Moscow, did not occur in a vacuum. To properly assess the significance of his remarks, it is necessary to examine them in context, and from several perspectives.
What Lula said
On Saturday, April 15, while in Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping, Lula said that the United States should stop “encouraging” Ukraine to continue fighting and encouraged the European Union to “start talking about peace.” In a joint statement with Xi Jinping, Lula called negotiation “the only viable way out of the crisis in Ukraine.”
Lula’s endorsement of peace talks runs counter to the position of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has rejected peace talks with Russia while Vladimir Putin remains in office.
In contrast to the US and EU, Brazil has resisted calls to send weapons to Ukraine, and Lula has previously accused Zelensky and NATO of being partially responsible for the war. In January, Lula received German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz in Brasilia, who attempted to solicit Brazilian support for Ukraine. Lula spurned Scholz, publicly suggesting that while Russia had made a “mistake” by invading Ukraine, it was not clear who was to blame for the conflict. Lula instead proposed bringing nonaligned countries like China, Brazil, India, and Indonesia into the conversation as a means of finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict. It is noteworthy that excluding Indonesia, the countries Lula mentioned are all members of BRICS.
Why Russia now wants peace talks
In the estimation of many Western military experts, Russia’s armed forces have likely reached high tide in terms of capturing territory in Ukraine. When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Moscow believed its ground forces would not meet serious resistance, and that its military would achieve its objectives in a matter of days. This, however, was not what happened. Russia overestimated its capabilities while underestimating Ukrainian capabilities and Western resolve in opposing Russia’s “special military operation.”
Although Russian forces succeeded in making some initial headway in the south, capturing Mariupol and Kherson, they were completely driven out of northern Ukraine and, thanks to a surprise Ukrainian offensive, driven away from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Despite the hurried and haphazard infusion of untrained and poorly equipped conscripts, and the commitment of Wagner Group mercenaries, the results of Russia’s 2022 Winter offensive proved underwhelming.
Bolstered by infusions of Western military equipment, ammunition, and logistical support, the Ukrainian armed forces are now poised to strike back at the exhausted invaders. Realizing that they’ve probably achieved what they can achieve on the ground in Ukraine, Russia’s leadership has recently indicated a willingness to negotiate with Kyiv.
The timing of President Lula’s comments calling for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine was therefore not accidental. On Monday, April 17, during a visit to Brasilia that came hard on the heels of Lula’s statements in Beijing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly thanked Brazil for its advocacy of a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine.
Brazil is the “B” in BRICS, an acronym that stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and serves as a counterweight to the advanced economies of the Group of Seven, or G7. BRICS is not just a symbolic organization; in 2015, its members created the New Development Bank to compete with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Along with other BRICS partners, Brazil advocates using China’s yuan over the dollar.
Most significantly with regard to Lula’s comments, not one BRICS member state has sanctioned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Significant philosophical and political differences of opinion between BRICS and the G7 may well explain why Japan has excluded South Africa (the “S” in BRICS) as invited guest from its planned G7 summit in May 2023 and invited the African Union to represent the continent instead.
Brazil and China
China is Brazil’s largest trading partner, a fact that will continue to grow after Lula, a leftist, recently succeeded his conservative predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, as President of Brazil after a contentious and disputed presidential election. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s relations with China had been frosty at best, and one of the presumed objectives of Lula’s visit to Beijing was to reinvigorate Brazil’s economic ties with China; prior to Lula’s arrival in Beijing, a couple hundred Brazilian businesspeople had traveled to China to conclude business deals with their Chinese counterparts.
Brazil and Russia
Unlike China, which has never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Brazil has only issued tempered criticism of Russia for invading Ukraine. In February, Brazil supported a UN resolution that called for peace in Ukraine and for Russia to withdraw its troops from that country.
Brazil’s mild criticism of Russia may be linked to the fact that Brazil’s sizable agricultural industry relies on Russia for around 25 percent of its crucial fertilizer imports. Following a $60 per barrel oil price cap set for Russian oil by the Price Cap Coalition of the G7, Russian trade with Brazil hit its peak in 2022 as Brazil sought to take advantage of a Russia neglected by the West.
Dashed Western hopes for Lula
Since taking office earlier this year, President Lula’s foreign policy decisions have raised questions about Brazil’s stance towards autocratic regimes. While his electoral victory over conservative former military officer Bolsonaro had raised hopes of Brazil aligning more closely with Western democracies, Lula’s recent actions have caused consternation in some quarters.
Despite Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lula has not taken a more vocal stance against Moscow. Brazil’s decision to allow Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro has been viewed with suspicion by some, while Lula’s senior advisor’s meeting with Venezuela’s leader, Nicholas Maduro, has been seen as an affront to Western efforts to isolate the Maduro regime.
What it all means
President Lula is about as diametrically opposed to his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, as one could imagine. Former military officer Bolsonaro was a conservative isolationist, whereas Lula is a leftist who very much wants to see Brazil’s economy benefit from increased trade, and its global standing and role geopolitical affairs increase significantly.
With a population of 213 million, Brazil has more citizens than three of the five UN Security Council members (Russia, Britain, and France) combined. Lula supports creation of a new, multipolar world order where the US has a diminished role, and where the dollar is no longer the world’s dominant currency.
His advocacy of negotiations also aligns nicely with BRICS partners China and Russia, two countries with which Brazil has growing economic ties. And when Lula previously served as President of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, Brazil’s economy improved considerably, largely spurred by increased sales of beef, soybeans, and other agricultural commodities to China.
Finally, calling for peace talks also comes easily to Lula because he sees himself as a consensus-builder, rather than a confrontational figure, a view he hopes to continually leverage on the world stage. While Lula’s comments about a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine clash with the views of most governments in the West or in Ukraine, the timing and wording of the sentiments he expressed in Beijing align very nicely with the publicly stated views of fellow BRICS nations Russia and China.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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