democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Why Bolsonaro may want to think twice about Putin’s support

As Brazil’s elections loom, President Bolsonaro finds himself behind in the polls and isolated internationally. Can Russia help his campaign?​​

Manuella Libardi
3 April 2022, 12.00am
Bolsonaro's visit to Moscow a week before Russia's invasion of Ukraine generated confusion in Brazil
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Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

Presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Vladimir Putin have one thing in common – they’re both in need of friends.

While Putin is facing the full force of sanctions imposed upon Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, Bolsonaro is fretting over his own political future: Brazil’s presidential elections are scheduled for October, and he is consistently trailing in the polls behind former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

While many world leaders have cut ties with an increasingly ostracised Putin, Bolsonaro’s refusal to condemn Russia over its war in Ukraine has raised several questions over the strategy and direction of his election campaign.

Bolsonaro’s courting of Putin is not surprising. Internationally, the Brazilian leader is now treated as a pariah – as illustrated by last October’s G20 summit in Rome where he was unable to secure a meeting with any leader except for Italy’s Sergio Mattarella, who, as president of the host country, was obliged to meet with all those present.

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In fact, Bolsonaro has looked increasingly isolated on the international stage ever since Donald Trump lost the US elections in 2020. He has diplomatically distanced himself from President Joe Biden, who has criticised the Brazilian president over the preservation of the Amazon, and even threatened Brazil with economic sanctions.

Bolsonaro’s aggressive extractivist policies and attitude towards the COVID-19 pandemic, which many believe contributed to making Brazil the country with the world’s second highest death toll, have also led to his ostracisation.

Having lost Trump’s support, Bolsonaro appears to be aiming to fill the void by attempting to create a relationship with Putin. Bolsonaro’s actions were called into question in mid-February, when he made an official visit to Moscow amid rising tensions in the region and in the face of warnings from the Biden administration. His decision drew particular concern as it appeared to jeopardise the country’s expected stance of condemnation.

Having lost Trump’s support, Bolsonaro appears to be aiming to fill the void by attempting to create a relationship with Putin.

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Although Brazil condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the United Nations General Assembly vote on 2 March, its position appeared inconsistent with that of Bolsonaro, who, only days earlier, had stated that Brazil should remain neutral, citing the importance of Russian fertilisers as a reason for his position.

“We have to be very responsible, because we have special agreements with Russia. Brazil depends on fertilisers”, he told the press, noting that “the fertiliser issue is sacred.” Brazil purchased US$3.5bn in fertilisers from Russia in 2021, equivalent to 23% of the total imported, making Russia its main source of fertilisers.

Bolsonaro also took advantage of the situation to press for the approval of a bill that would allow “the exploitation of mineral, water and organic resources on Indigenous lands”, arguing that it would solve Brazil's dependence on Russian potash. It has also been revealed that Bolsonaro used his trip to Russia to ask Putin for support in advancing Brazil’s nuclear submarine project, after the US refused to cooperate following lengthy negotiations.

But Bolsonaro’s true interest in forging an alliance with Putin probably goes beyond fertilisers and nuclear submarines. For seasoned observers, he is likely to be much more concerned with guaranteeing access to Russian disinformation networks ahead of the October elections.

Russian involvement in the 2016 US election

Bolsonaro took one of his sons, Carlos, as part of his presidential entourage on his trip to Moscow. The presence of Carlos, a municipal councillor, caused indignation, leading the federal Supreme Court to examine the matter. His presence also raised concerns due to Carlos's alleged involvement in the so-called “office of hate”, a digital disinformation network linked to the Brazilian government. This suggests Bolsonaro has cyber-strategic interests in Russia – as former Brazilian congressman Jean Wyllys contended in his openDemocracy video-column.

Bolsonaro has denied the existence of this “digital militia”, which reportedly spreads fake news from the presidential palace, and is currently under investigation by the federal police. Bolsonaro claimed he needed Carlos in Russia to manage his online presence. “He helps me a lot with social media […] He does an exceptional job, hence the witch hunt against him. Hence the fabrication of the ‘office of hate’,” he said in his weekly livestream on 24 February.

In view of Russia's involvement in the 2016 US elections, it’s not surprising that Bolsonaro is interested in friendly relations with Putin. Russia hacked the campaign of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and disseminated propaganda via the internet and social media.

Bolsonaro employed similar tactics – possibly aided by the same agents – during his bid for president in 2018. Bolsonaro's son, Eduardo, a congressman, claimed they had the help of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, whom he met extensively throughout the campaign. Bannon denied involvement, but declared support for Bolsonaro, calling him “brilliant” and “sophisticated”.

Regardless of any formal association, the extensive ties between the Bolsonaros and Bannon show that the man who helped take Trump to the White House provided, at the very least, “informal advice” to the family. Last August, Eduardo met Bannon in the US, a meeting in which they both confirmed a partnership to re-elect Bolsonaro this year.

Similar philosophies

Despite the historic differences and geographical distance between Russia and Brazil, their current leaders share similar philosophies. Both Putin and Bolsonaro see themselves as ‘strongmen’ and both seem enthralled by what their countries once were. Putin is increasingly obsessed with restoring Russia to former glories. And while Brazil hasn’t revelled in the same grandeur as the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, Bolsonaro rose to power on promises that he would restore “order” in Brazil, a nod to the repressive military dictatorship that ruled between 1964 and1985.

Just this week, Bolsonaro praised Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a member of the military government who in 2008 was convicted of torture and kidnapping. It wasn’t the first time. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has hailed the bloodthirsty colonel as a personal hero before. This time, he cited Ustra while promoting the notion that he is engaged in a fight of “good against evil”, not of “the Right against the Left”.

Putin has certainly shown interest in strengthening alliances in Latin America – sometimes across ideological lines. Just days before Bolsonaro arrived, the Kremlin hosted Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, a Left-leaning politician and longtime Kirchnerist. Also in February, Russia sent its deputy prime minister to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, countries whose authoritarian, socialist governments have long aligned with and depended on Moscow’s support.

However, it is unclear whether Russia will continue to invest in this rapprochement with Latin America amid its increasing – and unexpected – difficulties in Ukraine.

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It is also unclear whether Putin favours Bolsonaro over frontrunner Lula, who has placed greater emphasis on forging relationships with the global south during his presidency. This includes strengthening ties with fellow BRICS countries – Russia, India, China and South Africa. Lula met with the Russian ambassador, Alexey Labetskiy, as recently as October, to discuss the future of the regional bloc.

In fact, Lula has avoided expressly denouncing Putin or Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. On 3 March, Lula condemned the war, while also seemingly criticising conflicts started by Western nations. “I am and will be against all wars and any invasion of one country by another country, whether in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, anywhere on the planet. I will always defend peace and the sovereignty of each nation in the face of external aggression”, Lula wrote on Twitter.

Lula and Putin are no strangers. While Russia and Brazil do not have strong historical ties, the relationship between the two countries deepened under Lula’s leadership (2003–10). Putin might see advantages in forging an alliance with Bolsonaro, but if the current Brazilian president was banking on Moscow’s support, he may yet have a rude awakening.

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