Brazil’s welcome of Russian minister prompts US blowback

April 17, 2023 GMT
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Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives to Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, April 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
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Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives to Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, April 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday expressed gratitude to Brazil for its approach in pushing for an end to hostilities in Ukraine — an effort that has irked both Kyiv and the West, and by afternoon prompted an unusually sharp rebuke from the White House.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has refused to provide weapons to Ukraine while proposing a club of nations including Brazil and China to mediate peace.

On Sunday, Lula told reporters in Abu Dhabi that two nations – both Russia and Ukraine – had decided to go to war, and a day earlier in Beijing said the U.S. must stop “stimulating” the continued fighting and start discussing peace. Earlier this month, he suggested Ukraine could cede Crimea to end the war, which the spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, Oleg Nikolenko, and others rejected.

After meeting Brazil’s foreign minister on Monday, Lavrov told reporters in a short press conference that the West has engaged in “a rather tough struggle” to maintain its dominance in world affairs, including economics and geopolitics.

“As for the process in Ukraine, we are grateful to our Brazilian friends for their excellent understanding of this situation’s genesis. We are grateful (to them) for striving to contribute to finding ways to settle it,” Lavrov said, sitting alongside his Brazilian counterpart, Mauro Vieira.

Lula’s recent comments, particularly ascribing any blame to Ukraine for Russia’s invasion in Feb. 2022, run counter to the position held by the European Union, the U.S. and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And any talk of a ceasefire is viewed as an opportunity for Russia to regroup its forces for a new offensive. Zelenskyy told The Associated Press last month that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.

Vieira, for his part, told reporters that Brazil sees sanctions against Russia as causing negative impacts for the global economy, particularly developing nations, and that Brazil supports an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.

Following the meeting, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby blasted Brazil’s approach to the war and for its officials having met Lavrov and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in person, while thus far only speaking to Ukrainian officials by phone.

“Brazil has substantively and rhetorically approached this issue by suggesting that the United States and Europe are somehow not interested in peace or that we share responsibility for the war,” Kirby told reporters in Washington. “In this case, Brazil is parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda without at all looking at the facts.”

Kirby said the Biden administration hoped Lula and others will urge the Russians “to cease the bombing of Ukrainian cities, hospitals and schools, halt the war crimes and the atrocities and, quite frankly, to pull back Russian forces from Ukraine.”

Both foreign ministers were meeting with Lula in the afternoon.

As part of his effort to end the war, Lula also has withheld munitions to Ukraine, despite a request from Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Lula has said that sending supplies would mean Brazil entering the war, which he seeks to end.

His administration is seeking to simultaneously develop ties with China, Europe and the U.S. while keeping an open door to Russia. However, his recent remarks may have undermined his effort to secure these competing objectives, said Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

“It’s not a good look, when you have the Russian chancellor side by side, and it’s the Russian position,” Garman said by phone. “The optics do diminish Brazil’s credibility as an independent arbiter, but I think that the import is larger precisely because of the current storms that Lula stoked with his comments in China and the UAE.”

There were already indications that Moscow had appreciated Lula’s stance. One of roughly 50 leaked classified documents on the platform Discord that have been viewed by the AP said that, as of late February, Russia’s foreign affairs ministry supported Lula’s plan to establish a club of supposedly impartial mediators, as it “would reject the West’s ‘aggressor-victim’ paradigm.” The item cited electronic surveillance as the source.

Critics have argued that Brazil’s position aims to avoid confronting a key supplier of fertilizer for its soybean plantations, exports from which are largely destined for China. Both Russia and China hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, and Brazil for decades has sought to join them. Lavrov told reporters on Monday that Russia is backing Brazil’s bid.

Vinicius Vieira, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank, said Lula’s comments on Ukraine have been “badly calibrated” and that saying Kyiv should cede Crimea would appear to favor Russia.

“The issue of fertilizers is fundamental, but that would be well resolved with Brazil staying neutral, calling all sides to speak, but without saying Ukraine owes something to Russia,” Vieira said.

After his stay in Brazil, Lavrov will travel to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

In an article published on the website of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, as well as in Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, Lavrov appeared to cast the Latin American countries’ trade relationship — notably that between Russia and Brazil, especially concerning fertilizers — as a backdrop and source of leverage for possible discussions regarding Brazil’s continued refusal to provide weapons to Ukraine, which Moscow would like to ensure.

Brazil’s foreign minister told reporters that Russia accounts for one-quarter of the South American nation’s fertilizer imports, and that he and Lavrov discussed measures to guarantee its influx.

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Madhani reported from Washington. AP videojournalist Kostya Manenkov contributed from Tallinn, Estonia, and journalist Elise Morton contributed from London.