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Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro shake hands during a meeting at the Planalto Palace on Nov. 14, 2019. Credit - Konstantin Zavrazhin—TASS/Getty Images
The timing has proved awkward. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far right leader, touched down in Moscow on Tuesday for a visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, defying the Biden Administration and critics at home who wanted him to cancel the trip amid concerns that Russia is planning an invasion of Ukraine.
The Brazilian government accepted Russia’s invation for the meeting, designed to strengthen bilateral cooperation between the two countries, in December, scheduling it alongside a meeting in Hungary between Bolsonaro and fellow rightwing populist Viktor Orban. Bolsonaro’s team, it’s fair to say, couldn’t have anticipated that Russia would send more than 100,000 troops to encircle Ukraine’s borders over the following weeks.
Read More: The Untold Story of the Ukraine Crisis
Bolsonaro says the meeting with Putin, scheduled for Wednesday, is all about trade: Brazil wants to increase imports of Russian fertilizers to support its massive agricultural sector, which is facing rising fertilizer prices due to a global shortage. “We know the region is having a difficult moment, [but] we have business to discuss with them,” the Brazilian President said Monday.
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, though, hinted that geopolitics would be on the table. “It will be a good occasion to share opinions on current issues in today’s global order,” he said Monday.
Putin and Bolsonaro have long enjoyed warm relations. At a 2020 summit of the BRICS countries, Putin praised Bolsonaro for his pandemic leadership—which included flouting social distancing rules and refusing offers by vaccine manufacturers. “The gentleman expressed the best qualities,” the Russian president said in a video shared on Twitter by Bolsonaro, “Masculinity and determination.”
Putin has in recent months stepped up diplomatic outreach to Latin American leaders. He has made a series of phone calls to leaders not only in countries like Venezuela and Cuba, which have had links to Russia since the Soviet era, but also those, like Brazil and Argentina, which have normally pursued closer ties with Washington and Europe.
Brazilian politicians and media have warned that going ahead with the Russia trip will put those Western relationships at risk. “The presence of the Brazilian [president] in the midst of the crisis, without a visit to Kiev, tends to be read as tacit support for Russian demands to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO,” wrote a columnist for the Folha de São Paulo, the country’s largest daily, dubbing the visit “the most dangerous trip of Bolsonaro’s presidency.”
A deliberate snub
Brazilian media reported in late January that White House representatives had asked their counterparts in Bolsonaro’s Administration to cancel or delay the trip. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed concern over the message it could send to Putin and the rest of the world about Brazil’s allegiances on a call with Brazil’s foreign minister in late January, according to the reports.
But that diplomatic push against the trip probably backfired, says Thomas Traumann, a political consultant and columnist for Brazilian magazine Veja. Bolsonaro has a well-documented obsession with protecting Brazil’s national sovereignty, visible in spats with European leaders over their attempts to stop deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. “The fact that the Americans were so furious with him, that’s what made Bolsonaro want to do it,” Traumann says, “to show that he is independent from Biden and nobody tells him what to do.”
Traumann says it’s unlikely, though, that Bolsonaro’s trip will lead to more explicit moves in support of Putin, such as voting with Russia on the U.N. security council, where Brazil is a non-permanent member. On Jan. 31, Brazil voted in favor of a U.S. motion to discuss the Ukraine situation, which Russia opposed.
Speaking to supporters outside his official residence on Monday, Bolsonaro said he hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis, but suggested it was none of his business. “The whole world has its problems. If you start wanting to fix other people’s problems….,” he said. “We want peace but we have to understand that everyone is human. Let’s hope it works out. If it depended on a word from me, the world would have peace.”
A way out of isolation
As well as a chance to stick a thumb in President Biden’s eye, analysts say Bolsonaro’s Russia trip guarantees Bolsonaro a rare photo op with a major world leader ahead of Brazil’s October elections. Ever since he alienated European powers like France and Germany early on in his term with his destructive environmental policy in the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian president has become increasingly isolated on the global stage. He lost his closest ally when Donald Trump lost the U.S. 2020 election, and took more than a month to congratulate Biden on his victory. Remarks by Bolsonaro and his sons on the origin of COVID-19, which he suggested could be “chemical warfare” have chilled relations with China. And a wave of leftwing election victories in Latin America in the past year has put him at ideological odds with most of his neighbors.
Bolsonaro’s isolation culminated in uncomfortable scenes at last year’s G20 summit in Rome in November, where he wandered the crowd of leaders alone, ate by himself, and did not appear in the farewell photo. A week later, his main opponent at October’s election, leftist former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, received a warm welcome from European leaders on a tour of the region. Members of Bolsonaro’s team began casting around for possible foreign trips that same month, according to Traumann.