Brazil-Russia relations since 2022: Strategic partners without a strategic partnership?

Laura Trajber Waisbich

Brazil and Russia, the two giants of South America and Eurasia, emerged in the 21st century as major protagonists of the non-Western world, central to the multipolar and multiplex world in-the-making. Bilateral ties (political, economic and societal) remain relatively weak and unstable. Yet geopolitics have brought both countries together in a shared unease with (and, in the Russian case, in open opposition to) a Western-dominated world that both consider, albeit in different ways and degrees, unfair. Officially, both countries are strategic partners. Announced in 2002, this strategic partnership nonetheless lacks a more clearly defined strategic content and more tangible results.

Brazil’s insistence on playing a mediating role in the current war conflict undoubtedly serves its status aspirations to be recognized as a great power. More importantly, however, ending this war is seen as a condition to bring back a certain normality to global politics while galvanizing support for much-needed global development against the backdrop of unfulfilled goals. This is why countries like Brazil and India have constantly drawn attention to the socioeconomic consequences of the war on the Global South and resent the current marginalization of the development agenda in global politics.

The Brazil-Russia strategic partnership has remained in many ways latent. Located in a continent that traditionally meant little to Russia, in geostrategic and geoeconomic terms, Brazil became an important partner for Moscow in recent years and a peer friend from the BRICS group. The South American giant has remained, nonetheless, less aligned to Russia’s core strategic interests than other emerging powers, like China and India, countries who also share membership with Russia in other security and economic organizations. Trade relations are also less important between Brazil and Russia than between Russia and other large emerging economies in Asia.

In many ways, the strategic partnership between the countries seems to have survived the test of time and significant power shifts in Brazilian domestic politics – indeed, it is worth noting that both right- and left-wing political parties in Brazil are eager to maintain and develop relations with Moscow. Yet it appears that the continuation of such bilateral relations is being driven by diffuse geopolitical dissatisfaction with the Western-led order – the same that brought the BRICS group together back in 2009 – rather than by a shared vision of an alternative world order or a concrete plan to strengthen bilateral ties and operationalize the strategic partnership between these two giants. In the context of extreme global volatility and turbulence, Brazil and Russia are yet to grant their strategic partnership meaningful strategic content.

Bilateral ties (political, economic and societal) remain relatively weak and unstable. While Russia has gained in geopolitical relevance for Brazil since the early 2000s and even more so since the creation of the BRICS group, it remained a political, economic and military partner of limited importance. Geographical and cultural distance, coupled with political and economic change or instability in both countries, as well as Russia’s direct and indirect involvement in geopolitical tensions and conflicts in its immediate neighborhood and elsewhere in Eurasia, partially explains why a formal strategic partnership between the countries has yet to live up to its potential. At the same time, geopolitics have also brought both countries together in a shared unease with (and, in the Russian case, in open opposition to) a Western-dominated world that both consider, albeit in different ways and degrees, unfair. It remains to be seen whether and how Brazil and Russia will work to give content to their strategic partnership in the years to come, in times of global political instability and change.

A strategic partnership lacking content

Brazil and Russia share a long history of political, scientific and technical cooperation in sectors such as energy, defense, and science and technology. Both countries are vocal promoters of multipolarity, multilateralism and the reform of global governance. Alongside other so-called emergent economies, they established the BRICS (now BRICS+) group and the New Development Bank.

Under the rule of the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil between 2003-16, Russia gained strategic and geopolitical relevance. Much of this is attributable to the creation of BRICS and the numerous high-level meetings and political dialogue between the two countries that emerged within this coalition on a series of issues and themes of global relevance. A different kind of partnership took shape during the presidency of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro (2019-22). Bolsonaro, a close ally of then-US President Donald Trump, cultivated a personal sympathy and even proximity to Russia’s strongman Vladmir Putin based on shared values, such as religious conservatism, anti-liberalism and anti-globalization (Andrade 2022).

At the same time, under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s foreign policy sought to emphasize Brazil’s “Western and Christian” credentials and proximity to the Euro-Atlantic world, including its major institutions like North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)(Casarões and Barros Leal Farias 2022; De Sá Guimarães and De Oliveira E Silva 2021). In the end – in line with the overall priority given by the Bolsonaro administration to trade-promotion – the country’s main priority in its bilateral agenda with Russia during this time was access to Russian markets for Brazilian agrifood products.

For Russia, strengthening ties with Brazil, its main partner in Latin America, also fitted its own broader geopolitical goals of reaching out to partners in the Global South to ease its international isolation, particularly since 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. In the case of Brazil, this also includes open support for Brazil’s historic bid to be on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

In the context of the current war in Ukraine,
“Brazil has adopted a somewhat middle position between open condemnation of Russia, alongside Western powers and their closets allies, and the “pro-Russian neutrality”
(Apolinario Jr. and Branco 2022) adopted by other emerging powers, including China, India and South Africa. These and other countries in the Global South not only avoided condemning Russia’s actions and adopted Moscow’s rhetoric about the conflict, but also intensified commercial relations with Russia.

Brazil was the only BRICS country (the others abstained) to vote to condemn Russia over Ukraine at the UN in the early days of the war: at the Security Council (S/RES/2623, from February 2022), in the General Assembly (Resolution A/RES/ES-11/1 and Resolution A/ES-11/L.5, also from February 2022) and in a resolution in the Human Rights Council in July 2022. Brazil’s diplomatic position tried to reflect its own quest for autonomy vis-à-vis this conflict, joining in the international condemnation of Russia but with reservations, critically highlighting a perceived “unbalanced” or “unfair” isolation of Russia by Western powers.

With the return of the Workers’ Party to power in 2023, Brazil’s relations with Russia are evolving once again. President Lula da Silva himself and his main international advisor, Celso Amorim, have since offered to help mediate a negotiated solution to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Still, maintaining neutrality to stay on good terms with Moscow without undermining relations with the US and other Western powers has become increasingly difficult. The prolonged war in Ukraine has been a major test for the new administration in its quest to find and finetune its own autonomous, “actively nonaligned” voice from the South in global affairs (Heine et al. 2023; also Waisbich 2023).

The main diplomatic challenge for Brazil is to keep true to its own foreign policy principles and to try to forge a critical proximity to both camps, less out of a strong affinity for either side or unconditional alignment with Putin, but more to speak up against what it has for long denounced as global interstate asymmetries (Allès and Brun 2023), alongside a perceived hypocrisy in the Western-led order, with its many double standards when it comes to upholding international rules and principles (Spektor 2023; Stuenkel 2023). Brazil has also been a long-standing critic of the usage of economic sanctions by Western powers, as well as of abuses of power by Western great powers and NATO to justify regime change (see Kenkel and Destradi 2019 on the debates around Responsibility to Protect/Responsibility while Protecting in the context of the Arab Spring), and will remain so in the context of the current war in Ukraine.

Brazil’s insistence on playing a mediating role in this conflict undoubtedly serves its status aspirations to be recognized as a great power (Esteves et al. 2020). More importantly, however,
“Ending this war is seen as a condition to bring back a certain normality to global politics while galvanizing support for much-needed global development against the backdrop of unfulfilled goals.”
This is why countries like Brazil and India have constantly drawn attention to the socioeconomic consequences of the war on the Global South and resent the current marginalization of the development agenda in global politics.

Besides the current war in Ukraine, it is important to highlight that on international peace and security matters Brazil and Russia tend not to fully align. Taking the heated UNSC agenda in 2011 as an example, both countries abstained on the resolution on Libya (Res. 1973) and voted in favor of Res. 1984 on Iran and Res. S/2011/24 on Israel-Palestine; however, Russia abstained on Res. 2023 on Eritrea, whereas Brazil voted in favor, and with regard to Res. S/2011/612 on Syria, Russia voted against it, while Brazil abstained. The rising powers’ votes in the UNSC, both in 2011 and beyond, illustrate a lack of clear alignment and articulation among BRICS countries on security matters in the UNSC. Often, the two permanent members Russia and China vote together, and the same goes for IBSA, the countries all nonpermanent members of the Security Council. At the end of the day, it seems like power logic and dynamics within the UNSC still matter more than any emerging alliance in the context of a loose coalition such as BRICS (Apolinario Jr. and Branco 2022). This can be contrasted to the recent findings of Nurullayev and Papa (2023), which show that BRICS states tend to vote similarly at the UN General Assembly. Further research is needed on this divergence.

Modest trade relations despite economic complementarity in key strategic sectors

Economically, there is complementarity between the countries. Brazil’s exports to Russia have largely revolved around food and agricultural goods, notably beef but also soybeans, tobacco, coffee, nuts and fruits, as well as aluminum oxide. Brazilian agribusiness exports to Russia reached around $1.2 billion each in 2019 and 2020. Russia mainly exports to Brazil fertilizers (NPK nitrogenates, phosphatides and potassium), widely used to power Brazil’s most lucrative industry – agribusiness. Since 2018, the trade balance favors Russia. In 2020, Brazil’s trade deficit with Russia was $1.16 billion.

Bilateral trade peaked in 2008, when it reached $8 billion, but has since decreased to an average of $5 billion. Brazilian diplomats claim that overall exports to Russia have declined in the 2010s partly due to Western sanctions and partly due to Russia’s own phytosanitary bans on Brazilian beef (Ministério das Relações Exteriores 2021a; Agência Senado 2021). The Brazilian government seeks to diversify its exports to Russia, into agricultural goods with more value added, as well as toward a range of other manufactured goods, from jewelry and shoes to airplanes (Ministério das Relações Exteriores 2021b). There is also a desire to further expand fruit exports to Russia (Agência Senado 2021). Since 2022, while other developing countries were ratcheting up their imports of Russian petroleum, Brazil has increased its imports of Russian fertilizers, which currently constitute a quarter of Brazil’s total imports of fertilizers and 75% of all Russian exports to Brazil (Ministério das Relações Exteriores 2021a). Trade data compiled by The New York Times shows an increase of 106% in the monthly trade volume between Russia and Brazil in 2022 versus the monthly average in 2017-21 (Gamio and Swanson 2022). This represents a significant increase, even if the total amount remains rather insignificant.

When it comes to investment, Russian foreign investment in Brazil is more significant than Brazilian capital flowing to Russia. Russian investment is concentrated in the energy and mining sectors, with growing flows directed toward infrastructure and agrobusiness, particularly in fertilizer companies. Brazil is particularly keen to attract Russian investment in soy and fertilizer logistics and supply chains. There have been discussions on expanding investment in the oil and gas sector, as well as economic and technological cooperation to develop reserves in Brazil or in Russia. While the complementarity in strategic sectors is there, it remains to be seen whether trade and investments flows beyond fertilizers will grow again in the years to come.

Two largely mutually unknown societies

At the societal level, despite the historical migration from the Russian Empire and the Soviet space to Brazil and the political ties between the countries throughout the 20th century, including between left-wing political parties, organizations and intellectuals during the Cold War, both societies remain poorly connected and largely unknown to each other.

While educational, cultural and scientific cooperation, including in space technology, has increased since the early 2000s, exchanges are still comparatively small (Ministério das Relações Exteriores 2021a). Existing public polls on elite and popular opinion on Brazil’s international affairs rarely mention Russia. A pioneer scholarly public opinion study, called Brazil, the Americas and the World, running since 2010, seldom includes Brazil-Russia relations among its surveyed topics. In the few instances Russia was mentioned in the 2017 report, data showed low public and elite trust in Russia’s ability to main world peace when compared to other P-5 countries, i.e., the US, China, the UK and France (Almeida et al. 2017). More recent data will most certainly repeat this trend, considering the events in Ukraine since 2022.

Whether the prolonged war in Ukraine is or will create challenges for deeper connections and better mutual understanding between the societies in the near future remains unclear. A recent 2023 Ipsos worldwide public opinion survey on the Russia-Ukraine war, including 1,000 respondents from Brazil, showed that over
“70% of surveyed Brazilians believe their country should avoid getting involved in this conflict, either by supporting Ukraine militarily or economically boycotting Russia.”
The poll also shows comparatively low agreement in Brazil over openly supporting Ukraine in the war (56% among Brazilians versus 81% in India and the UK) but comparatively high agreement (79%) with giving Ukrainians asylum in Brazil, among the higher rates of support across all countries surveyed and the highest among non-European countries (Ipsos 2023).

Conclusion

The Brazil-Russia strategic partnership has remained in many ways latent. Located in a continent that traditionally meant little to Russia, in geostrategic and geoeconomic terms, Brazil became an important partner for Moscow in recent years and a peer friend from the BRICS group. The South American giant has remained, nonetheless, less aligned to Russia’s core strategic interests than other emerging powers, like China and India, countries who also share membership with Russia in other security and economic organizations. Trade relations are also less important between Brazil and Russia than between Russia and other large emerging economies in Asia.

In many ways, the strategic partnership between the countries seems to have survived the test of time and significant power shifts in Brazilian domestic politics – indeed, it is worth noting that both right- and left-wing political parties in Brazil are eager to maintain and develop relations with Moscow. Yet it appears that the continuation of such bilateral relations is being driven by diffuse geopolitical dissatisfaction with the Western-led order – the same that brought the BRICS group together back in 2009 – rather than by a shared vision of an alternative world order or a concrete plan to strengthen bilateral ties and operationalize the strategic partnership between these two giants. In the context of extreme global volatility and turbulence, Brazil and Russia are yet to grant their strategic partnership meaningful strategic content.
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  • Laura Trajber Waisbich

    Departmental Lecturer in Latin American Studies and Director of the Brazilian Studies Programme at the University of Oxford

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