Brazilian diplomacy signaled favorably to Russia at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council this week. At the same time, Brazil is trying to maintain its supply of fertilizers and also to buy heavy weapons from Moscow (such as missiles, anti-aircraft defense systems and boats), as well as nuclear technology.
In doing so, Brazil adopts a position similar to that of other countries in the Brics bloc, such as South Africa and India. Coincidence? It’s too early to say, but at least in Ukraine there is already a perception that Brazil is aligning itself with Moscow. At least, that’s what I noticed in more than two months of journalistic coverage in Ukrainian territory.
Regardless of who is rooting for or against this, what will be the risks and opportunities, if Brazil really decides to adopt this position? Or even: is Brazil bluffing when signaling to Russia, with the aim of obtaining more advantages in negotiations with its traditional western allies?
Brazil has always been seen abroad as a “pendulum country”. That is, it adopts a position called pragmatic, it does not support any power automatically. Stay on the fence until you are sure which side will offer the most advantages.
The fame comes, in part, from the Second World War. Brazil did not enter the conflict essentially because it disagreed with Nazism, but because it had ships sunk by the Germans and because of an offer of resources from the United States for the construction of the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional.
The pendulum posture is possible because the country is not committed to a network of international alliances, as is the case with many Western countries.
But, back to the context of the Ukraine war. Itamaraty has been adopting an apparently contradictory position. On the one hand, it has been condemning the Russian invasion in forums such as the Security Council and the UN General Assembly, and on the other hand, it has been working so that Russia is not isolated – as the Western powers want. The country abstained, for example, in the vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. The Itamaraty says that this is a position of “balance” and not of “neutrality” – whatever that means.
This week, Brazil maneuvered to void a UN Human Rights Council resolution, according to UOL columnist Jamil Chade. The idea was to remove from the text direct accusations against Russia in relation to alleged war crimes and impacts of the conflict on the current world food crisis. The argument is that, before making accusations against Russia in promoting the war, an investigation is necessary.
Thus, the action can be interpreted as an attempt to defuse tempers and prevent further escalation of the conflict.
Asked by War Games about the action of its diplomats at the 34th Special Session of the Council last Thursday (12), Itamaraty stated that “Brazil supports a strong, independent and impartial Human Rights Council”.
“During the debates, Brazil considered it necessary to carry out, as soon as possible, independent, objective and transparent investigations of alleged human rights violations in Ukraine, with emphasis on the role of the Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council for this purpose, with the support of Brazil”, said the ministry.
“During the negotiations, Brazil proposed suggestions for improving the language, with the objective of ensuring the impartiality of the Council, avoiding excessive polarization, promoting balance and preserving the spaces for dialogue necessary for a negotiated solution to the conflict”, said the Itamaraty by middle of note.
But the move could also be seen as an attempt to exploit the opportunity to support Moscow at a difficult time – with the aim of gaining advantages, as the other BRICS appear to be doing.
The most obvious opportunity is to maintain the purchase of fertilizers. Russia is the source of about a quarter of the fertilizers consumed by agribusiness in Brazil. Moscow has already announced that it would limit exports to “hostile” countries, but Brazil was left out of this list and now receives not only its pre-war quota, but part of the inputs that would be destined for Europe.
In theory, Brazil would not necessarily need to buy its fertilizers from Russia. The Russians are home to two of the world’s largest supplier companies, but there are at least eight others spread across the United States, Europe, China and Israel.
Because fertilizer is a commodity, its price tends to vary homogeneously, regardless of the supplier. But replacing suppliers is not a simple task and depends on a lot of negotiation. Not to mention that Russia can offer more competitive prices as it is in an embargo situation – it has already been doing that with oil.
For now, the operation to buy fertilizers from Russia does not put Brazil at risk of Western sanctions. That’s because while the West is trying to isolate Russia economically, there is fear of a global food crisis. Therefore, the United States stated that it is not prohibited to buy fertilizers from Russia.
Gun purchase controversy
But there is a much more contentious point at stake than the fertilizer issue: the purchase of heavy weapons from Russia.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s entourage that visited Russia before the war was not just about trade. Specialist members discussed the Brazilian interest in purchasing satellite launchers and hypersonic missiles, guided missile systems, anti-aircraft defense batteries and ocean-going patrol ships.
They also showed interest in negotiating Russian technology for small nuclear reactors, capable of boosting civilian vessels or generating electricity in remote areas of the country.
Some of these technologies have been denied to Brazil for years by its western partners. But if the bargaining chip for getting them from Russia is diplomatic and commercial support, what guarantee is that Moscow will live up to its end of the deal?
Just to remind you, Vladimir Putin’s government denied until the eve of the war that it had any intention of invading Ukraine. Today, it is known that the war had been planned for years.
It does not interest the United States that Brazil has state-of-the-art military technology. But that does not make Russia an automatic ally, as Moscow is not interested in sharing sensitive military technology either.
At least until before the Ukraine war, there was great distrust of Russia towards Brazil and vice versa, according to retired Air Force Colonel Jorge Schwerz. He coordinated negotiations for the purchase of Russia’s Pantzir air defense system during the Dilma Rousseff administration. Today he is the author of the channel specialized in defense Ao Bom Combate, on YouTube.
“This mistrust came from the Cold War, Brazil was seen as a country under strong North American influence. There was mistrust on both sides,” he said. According to Schwerz, the fear of the Russians was to share the technology with Brazil and, after a change of government here, these secrets would be passed on to the Americans.
In the case of Pantzir, the negotiation was not concluded for budgetary reasons, but the distrust caused great delays in the negotiations and in the exchange of information about the equipment.
However, according to the colonel, this was a pre-war reality in Ukraine. In his opinion, it is not possible to know whether or not, in the current context of international isolation and need for financial resources, Russia would be willing to sell advanced military technology.
And there is another point to be considered: in periods of peace (in Brazil), the priority should be to develop and sustain a strategic industrial base for the country, according to Professor Eduardo Siqueira Brick, a researcher at the Defense, Innovation, Training and Industrial Competitiveness of the Fluminense Federal University (UFFDefesa).
“This means prioritizing the development of national defense products and acquiring them for the Armed Forces over time, making continuous updates during the process. Acquisitions abroad, only if they are going to contribute to the development of national products, via some technology transfer not dominated by the country”, he said.
For example, Brazil has very limited air defense systems – which only serve to protect small regions or military units.
If Brazil were to buy the S-300 long-range anti-aircraft defense system from Russia (which has been used in the Ukrainian war by both sides), without having any prior research in the area or a company capable of absorbing the new technology, in a few years it would become obsolete and scrap.
“In the case of the S-300, as we have low competence in this sector, this would only consume resources without the desirable transfer or absorption of critical technologies”, said Brick. According to him, purchases of this type would only be justified when a conflict is imminent, which is not the case in Brazil.
“Any acquisition of foreign product would fit the same logic. Periods of peace must be used to develop their own industrial and technological capacity. Any purchase of defense products abroad that does not contribute much to this capability should be avoided. That’s because the budget is limited and these purchases simply suck up all available resources,” he said.
“This is what has happened in many cases in the last 50 years. Important companies such as Engesa and Mectron went bankrupt, but Brazil acquired used tanks and missiles abroad,” said the professor.
A successful case was that of the Air Force. Brazil has bought foreign jet planes over the years, such as the Xavante in the 1970s, which was licensed by an Italian company and produced in Brazil. The same happened with the AMX in the 90’s. These experiences gave support for the Embraer company to develop its own technology, becoming today competitive in the international market of military jet aircraft.
In other words, it is not desirable to treat the purchase of heavy weapons as “off the shelf” products. In addition, the purchased system must adapt to existing systems. In other words, it is not advisable to make opportunity purchases (because of the current unfavorable situation in Russia). It takes a whole country preparation and strategy that can take decades to complete.
Brazil has, for example, a previous survey of hypersonic missiles at the FAB, called 14-X. This project could benefit from a transfer of Russian technology. But Russia is the only country in the world that has this technology in operation – it was first tested in battle in Ukraine this year. Would Moscow really pass on this kind of technology?
The risk is that Brazil burns itself in the diplomatic scene supporting Russia, with only a series of promises as a guarantee. Wouldn’t it be better, as in the case of fertilizers, to demand that the technology be sent before trying diplomatic juggling at UN forums?
Not to mention the ethical dilemma of supporting a country that has invaded a peaceful neighbor and allegedly committed war crimes against civilians in doing so – even though Russia was motivated by an allegedly predatory NATO (western military alliance) expansion eastward.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that Brazil is bluffing. Itamaraty tried to assuage criticism of Russia at the UN Human Rights Council, a body that has very limited practical importance compared to other forums. The changes suggested by Brazilian diplomats were not even accepted and Brazil ended up voting for a final negative text for Russia.
In this case, diplomatic action would not be support for Moscow, but a message for the West. He says Brazil is open to negotiating with anyone, regardless of past links with Washington.
This could make the United States and its allies act more friendly in relation to Brazilian affairs. This hypothesis is more like Itamaraty, but it is still a dangerous game.
So, I leave the question: is Brazil being naive or pragmatic? It is up to the reader to respond.
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