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Brazil, the BRICS, and the War in Ukraine: Are Russia’s Relationships in Danger?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

How will the Russian invasion of Ukraine affect Brazil's election, and what does it have to do with Donald Trump? Why doesn't BRICS's future look too bright? And what can Australia's COVID-19 policy teach us about China-Brazil relations? In the latest Wikistrat Insider episode, Fabricio Vitorino discusses Brazil's reaction to the war in Ukraine, as well as the country's relationship inside BRICS, with the US, and with China.

Fabricio Vitorino holds a master's degree in Russian culture from the University of São Paulo. He also works as a journalist, covering technology, education, and trending events around the world.


Full Transcript:

Marina Guimarães:

The invasion of Ukraine in February has led to several sanctions against Russia coming from important partners. Russia has had its diplomatic ties severely harmed after this event. However, another important partner of the Kremlin has not yet positioned itself in the UN and outside of it. This is the case of Brazil. Here, we will discuss Brazil's reaction to the war in Ukraine, as well as the country's relationship inside the BRICS, with the US and with China. Stay tuned.


Marina Guimarães:

Today, we're going to talk about Russian and Brazil's relations in the context of the war in Ukraine. Russia and Brazil are important trading partners. Here we'll discuss the future of their relations and how Brazil positioned itself after the invasion of Ukraine. Our guest today, to talk about Russia and Brazil relations, is Fabricio Vitorino, an MMA and specialist in Russian language at the Sao Paulo University. Mr. Vitorino, thank you so much for being here.

Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, thank you for having me, Marina.


Marina Guimarães:

So Brazil is Russia's main trading partner in Latin America. Both countries cooperate in robotics, chemical industry, among others. Can this factor explain the fact that Brazil has not voted against Russia in the UN assembly?


Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, actually not. Just a little bit of context for starting. Brazil and Russia, they have this commercial relationship of about 5 billion USD per year. Just to put it in perspective, Brazil and China, we have $125 billion US per year. So the commercial cooperation between Brazil and Russia is not what's relevant for the matter. Brazil has a long tradition of standing for peaceful negotiations and standing against sanctions, so I think it was pretty clear from the very start, from the very beginning, that Brazil would not take side on this war between Russia and Ukraine, and pledging and fighting for peaceful negotiations. So we don't see any reason why Brazil would vote for Russia. I don't think that Brazil's relationship with Russia has any sort of influence on this position that we took in the United Nations.


Marina Guimarães:

Brazil has elections coming up this year, where Workers' Party Lula and far-right President Bolsonaro, are the two main favorites. How can the results of these elections affect Brazil and Russia relations? Can they?

Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, it's not very clear that any kind of Brazilian's position would be influenced by Russia or the war, because moving back in time, every single Brazilian president from the '90s, I mean Fernando Henrique, Lula, Temer, Dilma, every single Brazilian president so far has paid a visit to Russia. So despite the fact that we have been alternating parties in power, we have had a center-left with the Fernando Henrique, we have had far left, the Workers' Party with Lula two times, we have had Dilma, one and a half term, we had Temer, which is a center-right, and we have Bolsonaro, which is a far-right president we have in Brazil. So every single Brazilian president has paid a visit to Putin, to Russia. So we don't see any clear relation between the visits of President Bolsonaro and any kind of influence that the war may have in Brazil in the election.

Fabricio Vitorino:

So of course, there's a whole context of Russia being connected to communism, to socialism. But I think this is more an imaginary picture, some sort of a stereotype that Brazilians have about Russians, that Russia is a communist country, it is a socialist country. Of course, that plays a huge role. When you think of such a polarized election in Brazil, that we are going to have this year between the far left and the far right, and the role that communism plays in this election, between Lula and Bolsonaro. But this confusion that Russia awakens in Brazilian elections, I think it plays an important role in favor of Bolsonaro, because Bolsonaro had visited Putin two, three months ago and Putin is seen as a strong man, as a strong president, as a strong leader, not as a dictator, not as a tyrant, but Putin still seen as a family man, conservative politician, so it helps Bolsonaro more than it helps Lula.

Fabricio Vitorino:

So when Bolsonaro tries to attach his image to Putin, he's actually trying to put up a collegian of far-right, an axis of far-right presidents, leaders from Russia, Hungary and France. We've seen Le Pen's rise in France. So there's this axis of far-right, and I think Bolsonaro is trying to play an important role in South America and Latin America of a leader of the far-right collegian in Latin America. So despite the fact that it has no direct influence on our elections, we have clear evidence that it helps Bolsonaro to be attached to such an important and tough president, a tough leader, a resilience leader as Putin. So I think the conclusion is pretty clear on this matter.

Marina Guimarães:

You mentioned that Bolsonaro traveled to Russia right before the invasion of Ukraine. What does that say in relation to Brazil's relationship with Russia and with the US? Because he visited Russia right before the invasion. What does that say about the current relationship between Brazil and the US?

Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, taking a step backward, we must remember that Bolsonaro was elected in a trend that put President Trump in power. So both Trump and Bolsonaro were very aligned. They share the same ideals, they share the same beliefs, they have the same personality. They are very talkative people. They really enjoy being in the media and raising critical issues and discussing those critical issues with no sort of shame in the public media. So Bolsonaro had this close, this deep alignment with President Trump. When Trump left power, he was not elected, and President Biden became the president of the United States. Of course, it pushed Brazil away from Washington, so relations between Brazil and Washington cooled out.

Fabricio Vitorino:

We must remember that President Putin paid a visit to Bolsonaro in 2019, if I'm not mistaken. So of course, Bolsonaro set up this trip to Russia before the war in order to provoke, to rise some sort of animosity between Brazilians and Biden, and to show that he was not aligned to the new US policy. So Bolsonaro takes off, goes to Russia, meets up with Putin. He took some positions in Russia that were very tough to Brazil. He literally said that Brazil showed some solidarity with Russia's position, so that put Brazil in a difficult spot in relation to the United States.


Fabricio Vitorino:

So long story short, Bolsonaro had to pay back this visit that Putin took to Brazil in 2019. It was a programmed visit, but it was an unnecessary moment. It was bad timing that Brazil showed his position, marked his territory against any contradiction of the position that was set up by President Biden. And plus, after the meeting with President Putin, Bolsonaro took some time to visit President Orbán in Hungary, and that was the cherry on the top of the cake.

Fabricio Vitorino:

So, okay, you go to Russia, you meet up with President Putin, you have to pay this visit back. It was programmed. It would be bad diplomacy to cancel this visit, and you go there and you talk some very rude stuff, bad stuff for diplomacy. But to go to Orbán right after Putin, it was a direct blow to President Biden. So it was completely unnecessary, completely bad timing, and completely unexpected. Even President Orbán in Hungary, he was not ready for President Bolsonaro. They had to set up this special room with the improvised flags. They were not ready for the visit. Even the Hungarians, they did not believe that President Bolsonaro would pay a visit to Budapest. We must remember that the Polish president, he canceled, he did not want to talk to Bolsonaro at that time, so the visit itself to Putin was bad timing, but the visit to President Orbán was a clear message to President Biden, "We are not aligned to the US international policy."

Marina Guimarães:

So Brazil and China are important trading partners, among the main items traded are telephones, semiconductors and broadcasting equipment. And despite that, people very close to Jair Bolsonaro made several comments about China that worried specialists regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, so they mentioned that it was a Chinese virus and the Chinese embassy here in Brazil also condemned this comment. How is this relationship right now?


Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, you see, it's like they say, it's easier said than done. And then we have this saying in Brazil, which goes like "the fish dies by the mouth". So Bolsonaro is a very talkative person, and we have said this before, but we must understand that China's investments in Brazil are not short-termed, are not medium-termed. We have a longstanding relationship with China. We have a longstanding commercial relationship with China. And in 2019, China became the most important commercial partner in Brazil, even bigger in commercial terms than the United States. So with this picture that we have a long-term partnership with China, whatever President Bolsonaro may say or do, it doesn't seem relevant in the long term once again. So this very talkative president that we have here, he acts in some occasions pretty much more like a standup gig. So he goes to the press conferences and he says things that are not very aligned with the Brazilian policy, with Brazilian commercial teams, with the Brazilian diplomacy. He just says whatever comes to his mind.

Fabricio Vitorino:

Fortunately, we have had a very, very competent minister, Ms. Tereza Cristina, which runs the agriculture ministry, and she's been working very hard in the shadows and the underground. She's been working very hard to build up, to sometimes rebuild this relationship we have with China. We have had a few setbacks in this relationship over the last years. So Ms. Cristina, she managed to improve some old agreements that we had with China and set up new ones. And even sometimes she acted as a firewoman, putting away some fires that President Bolsonaro ignited.


Fabricio Vitorino:

Plus, we have this Chinese Brazilian commission in high level of cooperation with China. This commission was in some ways deactivated. It has been in not working operational for the last six or seven years, and Vice President Mourão, he went to China and he put this commission running up again, and China somehow received that message. Of course, China, over the last two years reduced significantly this amount of investment in Brazil, as China did in the whole world to the pandemic. So we have this solid long-term relationship with China. And no matter what President Bolsonaro, no matter what kind of atrocities that President Bolsonaro may say or may do, I think Brazilian tradition with China will endure.


Fabricio Vitorino:

We must remember here the Australian case, which is a very, very important case that we might bring to light. Australia and China, they have a very solid and very long-term commercial relationship, just as Brazil does. But since the start of the pandemic, Australia has been accusing China of deliberately creating the virus, the COVID virus. So it's been a very uncomfortable, unpleasant diplomatic issue. But the commercial relationship between the two countries is up and running, is very solid. So China is not up for playing. China is serious, is the real deal, China is a serious business partner. But whatever may be the results of the Brazilian elections in this year, I think China is up to continue, it's going to be the Brazilian number one commercial partner for the next decades. So China will survive Bolsonaro.


Marina Guimarães:

And as I mentioned earlier, Brazil and Russia cooperate in the technology area, but Russia also cooperates with other countries as well, like Israel, which is a reference when it comes to technology. And also, Israel offered to mediate the conflict. How is this relationship right now when we talk about technology, the relationship between Russia and Israel?

Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, Russia became one very important technology hub in the world. We must remember that the Soviet Union had a long tradition of technology teaching, technology development, which was in a different direction than the United States and Europe took in the '70s and in the '80s. They have managed to build up stuff and put up technology in a different way. So the brains that Soviet Union had, they migrated to United States, to Europe and mostly to Israel. That's point one.

Fabricio Vitorino:

Point two, the brains that stayed in Russia after the collapse of Soviet Union, they managed to somehow create this huge, important technological hub in Russia, which is Skolkovo, which is the Silicon Valley of Russia. And that Russian Silicon Valley managed to keep Russia and then very relevant in the technologies global scenery. So that's point two. We have the brains that immigrated to United States and to Israel, and we have a Skolkovo, which is a Russian Silicon Valley.

Fabricio Vitorino:

And due to this historical connection between Soviet Union and Israel, the cooperation was enormous. Especially in the '90s and in 2010 and the last decade, the cooperation between Russia and Israel is very deep and very profound. And it's important to remember that the cooperation between Israel and Russia and Ukraine as well, because there are so many Ukrainians and so many Russians and so many Russian speaking people living in Israel and working for the technology market, and that connection, Brazil, we don't play any role in that connection. We are not relevant in the technology international global scenery. So whatever Russia built with Israel, it can't be mined, even by an incident like a war with Ukraine. I think the cooperation between the two countries is going to continue to be relevant within the next decades.

Fabricio Vitorino:

So I think technology is an important bond that keeps countries and people and nations and companies together. We have seen very curious cooperations between the Russian Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv and California. You have this flow of people coming from Russia, going to California and coming from Tel Aviv and going to Russia. And it's some sort of technology triangle, and of course that helps in this cultural interchange that goes between the three countries. Unfortunately, Brazil has not managed to find its way into this pipeline over the last years. Brazil seems to be more interested in any sort of military cooperation with Russia, which is of course an alternative to the United States, which is very protective to its military technology.

Fabricio Vitorino:

But even that military cooperation with Russia was outshined by, I've seen a lot of times Russian delegations in Brazil. We have this huge military affair, which is LAAD, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro, and Russians are not very into selling their technology. They are more into showing enough. In the other hand, Israel is very, very proactive in selling and making business, and we have seen this cooperation between Brazil and Israel. And the security issue, Israel has been selling those special devices that goes through mobile phones and hacking into systems, related to privacy issues. So long story short, Brazil dreams about military cooperation with Russia, but the real thing is that Brazil cooperates even more with Israel and it doesn't seem to have any perspective of changing within the next years.

Marina Guimarães:

And the last question, Brazil and Russia are part of the BRICS, together with China, India, and South Africa. They form the roots of the five major emerging economies. India and China have offered to mediate the relations between Russia and the West. My question is what can we expect for the future of the relation inside this group? Most of them abstained from voting against Russia in the UN, so what can we expect for the future relations inside the BRICS after the war or during the war?

Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, BRICS is a very curious organization in the global scenery because you have clearly Russia, very deeply profoundly aligned with China and India. Russia is setting up an alternative to the SWIFT system, which is a bank system that has been used globally. So Russia is setting up its own system with India and China, which is just about to be put in operation within the next days. So you have Russia, China and India, very profoundly aligned. And you have of course, Brazil, which is geographically very distant to this triangle. We have aspirations of making business with India, President Bolsonaro visited India. It was the first visit of Bolsonaro. China, we have the commercial relationship, which is a very long term.

Fabricio Vitorino:

We don't seem to have any deep bond with Russia, but those three items, the C, the I, and the R, which is Russia, China and India, they are very profoundly connected. And you have South Africa, which is a very unaligned country. Its President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared that he's not going to be aligned with the European community and the United States. He blames NATO for the invasion. It's curious because he blames NATO for the invasion that Russia started. It's very curious, like a third actor was blamed. It's a very cynical position by President Ramaphosa.

Fabricio Vitorino:

So he put South Africa in a very tough spot right now. Because South Africa is geographically related, it's not a very close part with China, with India. It's like a secondary third market to countries. I think we have the sensation that South Africa was not due to compromise. He tried to stand for a neutral position out of the blue. So in a way, we have China, India and Russia, very aligned. You have South Africa in a position of isolation, and you have Brazil, which has a long diplomatic tradition of being against sanctions and being pro-diplomacy, ruled by a far right president. And Brazil didn't find its place in the current geopolitics, so we have this tendency of separating the S and the B, and you keep... And the BRICS more, some sort of a RIC, Russia, India and China, very deeply aligned, and the B and the S somehow being outcast. So I think it's going to be interesting to see what's up for the BRICS organization.

Marina Guimarães:

Well, that was very clarifying, Mr. Vitorino. Thank you so much for the clarification.


Fabricio Vitorino:

Well, it was my pleasure. Anytime.


Marina Guimarães:

This is Marina Guimarães for Wikistrat.

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