President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been a prominent figure in Brazilian politics for decades, with a significant support base and a history of leadership on the country’s political left.
In addition to his position in Brazil, Lula, as president for two consecutive terms from 2003 to 2010, promoted a foreign policy that placed Brazil in a leading global position, engaging in dialogue with nations, mediating conflicts such as the one between the U.S. and Iran, being heard by both Palestine and Israel, and earning so much respect internationally to the point of that for years Brazil has been campaigning for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Now in his third term, however, Lula’s position in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict has generated controversy and criticism. He has expressed support for Russia in its actions in Ukraine, slightly shifting the tone in the different countries he recently visited, but clearly siding with the country that has invaded a sovereign neighbor and criticizing those who are trying to aid the clear victim of the war. While stating that he seeks peace and would like to be a mediator, Lula welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with state-like pomp in Brazil in April.
Lula blaming Ukraine for the war prompted the foreign minister to say that “the views of Brazil and Russia are similar”—despite the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs promoting the Russian visit as a sign of Brazil’s “independence.”
On an earlier visit to China, Lula called on the United States to “stop encouraging war,” again blaming Ukraine and its allies for the conflict. Lula also stated that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “cannot want everything,” in reference to Ukraine’s demand that Russia return all the territories it seized from the country, namely the Donbas and Crimea. For Lula, Ukraine should simply accept the loss of territories as a way of achieving peace.
Lula’s position towards Ukraine not only has been criticized for its lack of consideration of geopolitical realities and the principles of national sovereignty, but has also resulted in the diminishing of the enchantment over the geniality of the Brazilian president who puts ideology before the interests of his own country and its main allies.
While Brazil is part of the BRICS economies, which includes China and Russia, on the other, the country has always maintained close relations with the U.S. and the European Union and could put such relations in danger if it insists on uncritical support for the Russian aggressor.
By suggesting that Ukraine make territorial concessions to Russia, Lula is ignoring fundamental principles of international law and supporting a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Moreover, his position goes against Brazil’s vote on the U.N. resolution demanding an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, which weakens Brazil’s position as a reliable mediator on international issues.
Guilherme Casarões, professor of political science and international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a think tank and institution of higher learning based in Rio de Janeiro, explains that the world today is different from the one in which Lula had a prominent position in foreign policy. “U.S. predominance has given way to Sino-American commercial, technological and military dispute. Democracy and liberalism have receded worldwide,” he told Latino Rebels over the weekend.
He further explains that “not wanting to look bad with Russia, with whom we have a positive historical relationship and with whom we share certain worldviews —multipolarity, south-south cooperation— Lula went out of his way to create false symmetries between Russia and Ukraine. Since we are facing a war of aggression, the discourse is objectively wrong. But it reveals the fantasy that sectors of the left —and the Worker’s Party, in particular— still have about Russia as a bastion of the struggle against U.S. imperialism. So it is a speech that goes down well with his political base.”
The core of Lula’s barely disguised support for Russia, even in the face of an invasion in violation of international law and clear indications of crimes against humanity, is explained by the ideology with almost childish overtones that dominates the Brazilian left as well as far-left and communist parties in various countries even in Europe that have dubious or even openly pro-Russian positions. It is a vision that refuses to overcome the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the U.S.S.R., which, in the vision of an outdated left, has been reincarnated in Vladimir Putin‘s Russia. In this vision, Putin is not a war criminal, a notorious financier of extreme right-wing parties and formations throughout Europe, surrounded by nefarious figures, including Nazis —such as the leadership of the paramilitary Wagner Group— but a left-wing leader who wants to rescue the Soviet image and lead the world to the left.
Added to this is the distrust —not without historical reason— that Brazil and much of Latin America have of the U.S. and NATO. Military dictatorships throughout the region were sponsored, if not financed and even orchestrated, by the U.S. during the second half of the last century.
“Lula’s victory in the 2022 elections was celebrated in the main capitals of the world,” writes Felippe Ramos, a political analyst at the New School for Social Research in New York. “U.S. President Joe Biden was encouraged by Brazil’s return to diplomatic protocols and democratic normality. American pressure was even important in dissuading military officers from supporting destabilization attempts against the newly elected government. Europeans were anxious for the return of a president with a commitment to the environmental agenda. It is incomprehensible that the president has chosen to confront the West on the most important geopolitical issue.”
Maybe things are not that incomprehensible.
The combination of a leftist delusion and dated anti-Americanism, as well as a false discourse of “anti-imperialism,” result in an incongruous ideological position that causes broad sectors of the left, Lula included, to defend an authoritarian leader committing war crimes after invading a sovereign state. It is this same ideological confusion that keeps part of the Latin American left stuck in the past and supporting dictatorial regimes like those of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, while calling for the defense of human rights and democracy in their own countries.
“Even if Brazil doesn’t buy Russia’s hideous theses about the reasons for the conflict —Ukraine never existed, only has Nazis, etc.— the mere equivalence between aggressor and aggressed is a full plate for Putin, who strengthens the narrative and legitimizes the continuation of the war,” says writes Casarões. “Putin knows this, and his foreign minister, smart as few others, makes a point of leaving no room for ambiguity even when there is no certainty.”
Despite all the criticism he has been receiving, Lula refuses to give in. On a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Lula said that Ukraine also bore responsibility for the war alongside Russia and that the U.S. and Europe contributed to prolonging the conflict.
In Lisbon, Lula had been invited to speak on April 25, the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution which brought an end to Portugal’s military dictatorship in 1974, but his statements on Ukraine ended up sparking protests from groups of Ukrainians and opposition parties such as the center-right Social Democratic Party. Lula ended up being disinvited to speak in the Portuguese Parliament, declaring, despite all the evidence, that he “never equated” the responsibilities of Russia and Ukraine in the conflict.
The fact is that Brazil’s image, already extremely damaged during the four years of former President Jair Bolsonaro‘s extreme right-wing government, continues to be tarnished. With the country no longer isolated as it was under Bolsonaro, who engaged with only a few international pariahs, Lula has endangered Brazil’s return to the international scene by acting irresponsibly and supporting an aggressive country, thus alienating the country’s main allies.