The rights and wrongs of Lula’s strategy in the Ukraine war

Analysts and diplomats interviewed welcome Brazilian neutrality in the conflict, but say that Lula misunderstands the tone of some statements

Analysts and diplomats interviewed welcome Brazilian neutrality in the conflict, but say that Lula misunderstands the tone of some statements

Photo: ANDRE BORGES/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock / BBC News Brasil

Statements by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) that Western powers were encouraging war in Ukraine — a nation invaded by Russia — provoked strong negative reactions from the United States and the European Union.

On the one hand, foreign policy analysts and diplomats heard by BBC News Brasil consider that the government’s strategy of maintaining neutrality and trying to contribute to peace in the conflict is correct and follows the Brazilian tradition of valuing multilateralism. The country thus seeks a balance between the great powers, since, on the one hand, the US and the European Union have supported Ukraine, while Russia has maintained a good relationship with China.

“Brazil is a medium power. We don’t have particularly relevant military or economic strength. So, we need a world, as far as possible, multipolar, in which there is more than one strong power, to balance it out,” a source at the Itamaraty, when explaining Brazil’s decision not to align itself with any side of the conflict.

“Brazil is not interested in a unipolar world, in which the country is at the mercy of what the United States dictates, nor that anyone else dictates. It is not a question against the United States. It is a systemic question of preventing just one country in the world rules things”, he added.

On the other hand, experts criticize the tone of Lula’s recent speeches, considered undiplomatic. Some of them, like the retired ambassador Rubens Barbosa, also question whether the president should put so much energy into a complex issue that is far from Brazil, instead of concentrating efforts on issues that Brazil has greater potential for leadership, such as the environmental and food security.

The quarrel with the western powers, however, is seen as “surmountable” by the interviewees. A visit by Lula or the president’s special advisor, Celso Amorim, to Kiev would be an interesting gesture in that sense, according to this assessment. The Brazilian leader has already been officially invited by the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Questioned by BBC News Brasil, Itamaraty said that “the best time to respond to the invitation is being evaluated”.

The Speeches of Discord

The strong reaction from Western powers came after Lula stated, during a visit to China last week, that the United States and the European Union were encouraging the war by sending weapons to Ukraine. These countries, however, argue that they are supporting Ukraine’s defense against aggression from Russia, which invaded the country in early 2022.

A spokesperson for the American government even said on Monday (17/04) that the Brazilian position “is deeply problematic” and that the country would be “parroting (automatically repeating) Russian and Chinese propaganda” about the war.

After the negative reactions, Celso Amorim stated that it is “totally absurd” to say that Brazil parrots the Russian position, in an interview with Globo News this Tuesday (18/04).

During a visit to China, Lula (in the photo, next to Xi Jinping) stated that the US and the European Union were encouraging war by sending weapons to Ukraine

During a visit to China, Lula (in the photo, next to Xi Jinping) stated that the US and the European Union were encouraging war by sending weapons to Ukraine

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

Lula, however, seems to have recalibrated his tone. After meeting in Brasilia with the president of Romania, Klaus Werner Iohannis, whose country borders Ukraine, he again criticized the Russian invasion, without saying that the Ukrainian government would also be responsible for the conflict, as he has done in some speeches in recent weeks. .

“While my government condemns the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, we support a negotiated political solution to the conflict,” the president said.

The president also defended the creation of “a group of countries that tries to sit at the table with both Ukraine and Russia to find peace”.

Political scientist Hussein Kalout, a researcher at Harvard and adviser to the Brazilian Center for International Relations (Cebri), does not see recent statements by Lula “as an automatic alignment with China and Russia”.

“Brazil is not a country that admits the objective subordination of interests. Not even the Itamaraty admits that, and not even the current government admits that,” he told the report.

However, Kalout considers that some statements may affect the “credibility and reliability” of Western powers in Brazil.

“I think that maybe Brazil should present a more proactive approach in the sense of calling on Brazil’s historical partners and friends, such as Europe and the United States, to work together for peace, and not infer or allude to who is fueling the conflict or not” , he further stated.

The delicate Brazilian balance

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022. One of the arguments used by the Russian side to try to justify the attack would be to prevent what it classifies as a siege of its border with Ukraine’s possible accession to NATO — a military alliance of 30 countries led by by western powers, which expanded throughout Eastern Europe, including today 14 countries of the former communist bloc.

Putin also accuses, without evidence, the Ukrainian government of genocide against Ukrainians of ethnic Russian origin living in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. He alleges that the invasion attempts to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine.

On the other hand, Ukraine and other observers see in the war an attempt by Russia to re-establish the zone of control and influence of the former Soviet Union, something seen as disrespect for the sovereignty of Ukraine, which should have the right to decide its fate and its alliances.

More than a year after the conflict, the Russian government is accused of having committed war crimes, including the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. Because of this, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued on March 17 an arrest warrant against the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

In the midst of this delicate conflict, which divides great powers, Itamaraty has maintained balance in its positions at the UN. Brazil supported, for example, two United Nations resolutions against Russian action. The most recent, in February, condemned the Ukrainian territorial invasion and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops.

Buildings in Irpin near Kiev affected by Russian bombing

Buildings in Irpin near Kiev affected by Russian bombing

Photo: SERGEY DOLZHENKO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock / BBC News Brasil

This resolution obtained 141 votes in favour, seven against and 32 abstentions among the 193 member states of the UN. The countries that voted against the text were Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali and Nicaragua. Among those who abstained were China, India, Mozambique, Angola and Cuba.

According to the experts heard, the Brazilian position was consistent with its tradition of following the principles set out in the UN Charter, respecting the territorial integrity of countries, promoting peace and preventing aggression between nations. The document, signed by Brazil in 1945, is the treaty that established the United Nations.

On the other hand, respect for the Charter also explains Brazil’s decision not to support the sanctions imposed by the western powers on Russia. According to Itamaraty’s interpretation of this document, international sanctions are only legal if approved by the UN Security Council.

Developed countries, however, disagree with this interpretation and point out that it would not be possible to approve sanctions against Russia in the Security Council because the country is a permanent member and has veto power.

“Brazil is interested in sanctions being limited to the collective security mechanism because it does not have the capacity to apply unilateral sanctions and fears being the target of this type of measure. Powerful countries, on the other hand, do not fear being targets and are capable of applying painful sanctions to others,” he notes. a diplomat interviewed by the reporter.

‘Lula’s speeches clash with the official position’

For retired diplomat Rubens Barbosa, former ambassador in London and Washington, “the position of equidistance (in the conflict) is the only possible one for Brazil”.

“Taking into account that Brazil is a western country, with a very close relationship with the United States, but which today has great interest in Asia. Also taking into account the dependence that we have on importing fertilizers from Russia, exporting products agricultural products for China”, he pointed out.

In his view, the problem with some of Lula’s speeches is that they are at variance with official Brazilian neutrality.

“I mean, you have a position from the Itamaraty, which defines the position of the Brazilian government in the UN vote condemning Russia because of the invasion, and now you have some phrases from the president that are being interpreted as a change of position, as he did (former president Jair) Bolsonaro”, he compared.

“He (Bolsonaro) said one thing and Itamaraty did another. In the environment, in (relationship with) Russia, in (relationship with) China. So Lula is repeating Bolsonaro”, he added.

‘Shudder is surmountable’

Despite considering the statements negative, Rubens Barbosa does not believe that the statements made so far are sufficient to cause any relevant damage in the relationship with the United States and the European Union, in view of Brazil’s good historical relationship with these countries and the fact that the country’s official position at the UN has not changed.

Another factor that may contribute to overcoming the episode is the desire of the western powers to reinforce this good historical relationship with Brazil, after some tensions during the government of Jair Bolsonaro, notes Hussein Kalout.

In his view, Lula has in his favor the fact that he is seen internationally as a democrat, in contrast to his predecessor.

“This moment of apparent shivering is absolutely surmountable because there is a greater convergence of agenda and more acute complementarity of interests between Lula and Europe and the (American Joe) Biden government”, he said.

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