In the wake of the strong, swift, and unified response of Europe, Western democracies, and most of the international community against the Russian war on Ukraine, the world witnessed what was unthinkable until a few days ago. Germany severed ties with its most important supplier of gas and announced multi billion dollar investment on its military. Norway froze Russian investments in its trillion-dollars sovereign fund. Sweden broke its traditional neutrality to supply weapons to Ukraine. Switzerland froze Russian investments and assets in its banks. Saudi Arabia announced the “discovery” of new gas fields to supply the demand that Russia will leave unmet. Turkey has called “all nations” (meaning Russia) to avoid sending warships through the Bosphorus.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro maintains a stance of fierce neutrality amidst the most serious threat to world peace and security in the twenty-first century. He has attempted to justify his position by arguing that Brazil traditionally keeps neutral in conflicts and seeks to mediate instead of becoming directly embroiled in them. Is he speaking the truth?
To answer this question, we need first to understand Bolsonaro’s recent visit to Moscow in mid-February, when Putin was already amassing troops on the Ukrainian border. There was strong opposition to this trip in Brazil, even among members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet. Brazilian military commanders feared that Brazil could be involved in a conflict in which it does not have enough at stake. Moreover, Bolsonaro was elected with a discourse of bringing Brazil closer to the capitalist West. Allying with Putin against the West would appear to contradict his stated position.
Bilateral trade is not significant to justify such a risky move. Russia accounts for roughly 2% of Brazil’s imports and only 0.7% of its exports. Exports have been decreasing steadily since 2017. Russia is a member of BRICS, but Bolsonaro has not paid attention to Brazil’s long efforts to enhance multilateralism and partnership among developing countries. On the contrary, China, Brazil’s biggest trade partner, has consistently complained about Brazil’s contempt toward it. Brazil’s foreign policy under Bolsonaro has broken the strong historical tradition and international esteem of the Itamaraty–the highly professional body of the country’s diplomats. Instead of strengthening durable ties with countries, Bolsonaro has invested in personalistic ties with autocrats and right-wing populists like Orbán, Trump, Netanyahu and Putin.
What could he possibly want from Putin, then? Here we must look inward to Bolsonaro’s short term, short-sighted and unscrupulous political calculations rather than his supposed long term foreign policy vision.
Next October, Brazil will hold general elections. Former left-wing president Lula da Silva has a 20 percentage point lead over Bolsonaro in the polls. Bolsonaro has been perceived as an incompetent leader who mishandled the pandemic by advocating for miraculous cures and by opposing vaccines. Brazil’s economy faces high inflation, and soaring poverty rates and unemployment. With Lula banned from running, Bolsonaro won the 2018 elections by presenting himself as the outsider who champions law and order amidst the long political crisis in Brazil. While Lula leads the polls, Bolsonaro, far from delivering on his grand promises, has mostly his failures to present.
I hypothesize that what Bolsonaro was seeking in Russia was Putin’s favors in October. The cyber capabilities that Putin either controls or has leverage over would be a fundamental weapon for Bolsonaro’s campaign. Russians are well-known for interfering in elections abroad, from the UK to the United States. Indeed, his son Carlos Bolsonaro, a mere councilman in the city of Rio de Janeiro, sat beside his father in meetings with Russian authorities. Carlos is widely known for unofficially overseeing the political communication strategy of the president, with a focus on social networks.
Bolsonarismo is above all a digital movement specialized in producing and spreading fake news and hate speech through a wide network of real and fake profiles (Facebook), accounts (Twitter) and channels (YouTube). Brazilian authorities, mainly from the Supreme Court and the Higher Electoral Court, are alert and have taken important steps to hinder Bolsonaro’s digital might. Some of his core supporters had their digital outreach blocked or suspended by social media companies, either in compliance with court’s rulings or preemptively to display their commitment to combating disinformation. As a result, Bolsonarists have sought safe haven on Telegram – the Russian app that mostly does not interfere or oversee the circulation of information regardless of the content. The court has tested the willingness of Telegram to comply and cooperate with Brazilian authorities. Due to a court injunction, Telegram banned the most famous digital supporter of Bolsonaro who is a fugitive in the United States avoiding prosecution in Brazil. Although not exactly controlled by the Russian government, the cooperation between Telegram and Russian authorities has increased in the previous years. In any case, private and state-run Russian digital capabilities are an asset that Bolsonaro is seeking to secure.
By shifting the lens from the complex conundrum of international affairs to the only thing that Bolsonaro is skilled at, the digital arena, we can better understand why he is willing to forgo Brazil’s history of diplomatic excellence for a possibly illegal foreign support.
Brazil insists on neutrality because Bolsonaro perhaps promised it to his fellow strongman Putin. If this hypothesis is true, Brazil may be sacrificing its historical commitment to the values of sovereignty of nations, multilateralism, non-aggression, collective security, international law, and peace, in exchange for benefits to be reaped by a powerholder who likely is incapable of pointing Ukraine out on a map.
Felippe Ramos is a Brazilian PhD Student in Sociology at The New School for Social Research.