Undertones: Brazilians are embracing Russian narratives when convenient

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter, and written by Brazilian journalist Marcelo Elizardo. Subscribe to Undertones here.

When Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s army to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Brazilians first expressed shock on social media. The early reactions online condemned Russia’s aggression and showed support for Ukrainians. There were a few exceptions, such as some of the supporters of the president of the time, Jair Bolsonaro, who were more cautious about any reproval, especially as Bolsonaro had met with Putin in Moscow just ten days before the invasion.

Fast forward to a little more than a year later, in April 2023. Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, declared that the two countries were at fault for the war. Despite the negative repercussions of his comments worldwide, Lula’s left-wing base justified his position by arguing that Russia is a relevant trade partner for Brazil, on top of being an ally in the BRICS, the bloc gathering powerful non-Western economies. Here are the three main pro-Russian narratives that are shared by the left and the right in Brazil’s social media, especially on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit according to our research.

Narrative 1. “Brazil needs to be pragmatic about the war in Ukraine because of its domestic interests”

Despite some dissonance between Bolsonaro’s and Lula’s approach to the war in Ukraine, Brazil’s diplomacy kept its neutral position since the war began. Brazil kept its pragmatic stance by claiming that Brazil’s Constitution enshrines neutrality in international disputes.

The meeting between Putin and Bolsonaro – a former army captain, far-right politician, and president of Brazil between 2019 and 2022 – happened when scarcely any world leader dared to publicly shake hands with the Russian president. Bolsonaro’s purpose was to negotiate the trade of Russian fertilizers and pesticides to Brazil, whose agriculture is highly dependent on these imports. After the meeting, as Russia was at the peak of its crisis with NATO, Bolsonaro said Brazil “was in solidarity with Russia.” Furthermore, Bolsonaro said that Brazil would stay neutral and not condemn Putin for the war. Also, after his vice-president condemned Russia’s invasion, Bolsonaro even publicly prohibited him from speaking about it.

Brazil’s media and the left-wing opposition harshly criticized Bolsonaro for aligning with Putin and claimed that the visit was Bolsonaro's attempt to show that he was not diplomatically isolated.

On the other hand, Bolsonaro's supporters immediately backed him for visiting the Kremlin and continued their support even after Putin’s tanks crossed the Ukrainian border. The main arguments were that “Brazil could not jeopardize its agriculture,” that “Brazil already had enough domestic problems,” and that “Brazil had nothing to win by choosing a side in this war.” Meanwhile, Russian-owned media, such as Sputnik Brazil, doubled down on the narrative about close economic ties between the two countries.

After Russia announced that it would suspend the exports of fertilizers to the European Union in March 2022, Carlos Jordy, a far-right congressman in Brazil, tweeted his support for Brazil’s neutrality for the sake of fertilizers:

Translation: Russia communicated that it will suspend the export of fertilizers to several countries, Brazil is not among them. And there are still idiots who criticize President Bolsonaro's stance in maintaining a position of neutrality in the crisis in Russia and Ukraine.

At the diplomatic level, Brazil’s Ambassador to the United Nations adhered to the resolution that condemned the territorial violation of Ukraine but also criticized the sanctions against Russia and the weapon supplies to Ukraine.

On the left side of Brazilian politics, Lula – a former two-term president who was arrested during the Car-Wash corruption investigation in 2017 and later released after allegations of a rigged trial – returned to the presidency in January 2023.

Lula first attributed equal blame to Russia and Ukraine, for which the media, the right-wing opposition, and Western actors harshly criticized him. Lula then adjusted his tone and eventually “condemned the violation of Ukraine’s territory.” Still, he kept stating that Ukraine is also responsible for the war and that Brazil would remain neutral.

These comments were enough to reverse the roles in Brazilian politics. Far-right groups started criticizing Lula for “embracing the Russian narrative,” and left-wing groups became supportive of Lula’s speech in favor of neutrality.

Today, radical left-wing users on Twitter even call Ukraine “a Nazi state,” echoing Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine. However, it is not the mainstream narrative.

When German prime-minister Olaf Scholz visited Lula earlier this year, a Twitter user, who is followed by high-level Brazilian politicians, shared her concern about NATO’s pressure on Brazil. Her tweet was public at the time of capture.

Translation: I'm apprehensive. The prime minister of Germany comes to Brazil to get Lula to send ammunition to Ukraine. Brazil must remain NEUTRAL on this issue because we are part of the BRICS. We will not be used by the U.S. in a war that is not ours. The Empire is collapsing and wants to drag the others.

Narrative 2. “Brazilian leaders have the power to negotiate the end of the war in Ukraine”

Many Brazilians argue that either Bolsonaro or Lula have enough power to negotiate the end of the war in Ukraine. For context, Brazil has been campaigning for more diplomatic power for years, for example by requesting a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council on account of its traditional neutrality. The narrative surrounding Brazil's diplomatic power is also laden with disinformation.

Even though Bolsonaro was diplomatically isolated, his supporters claimed that the Brazilian president successfully persuaded Russia to give up the invasion after the president met with Putin in Moscow. The video below was posted by Laércio Silva – whose few posts support Bolsonaro.

Translation of caption: Congratulations Brazil. We thank President Jair Bolsonaro for advising the world and stopping the war granting peace and union among Europeans. GOD ABOVE ALL! 2022-2026 Bolsonaro forever.

On the other side of the spectrum, Lula often declares his intentions of leading peace talks in the war. Supporters see his neutrality in the war as a strategy to negotiate the end of the conflict.

Translation: Lula proposes a narrative that allows Russia the minimum conditions to end the war in Ukraine! It wants to facilitate a peace agreement and create a negotiating table between the countries involved. With Lula, Brazil returns to the spotlight in international diplomacy!

Narrative 3: The United States interferes with Brazil's and other countries’ internal affairs for its own gain

Another narrative in common between right and left-wing groups in Brazil is about the participation of the United States in the war. However, there are slight differences in how these groups approach this narrative. Bolsonaro supporters especially blame Joe Biden’s administration for the war, arguing that Trump had peaceful relations with Russia, as we can see in the tweet below.

Translation:  “Super bad” Trump. Peace agreements even with North Korea. Middle East, Islamic State annihilated, world in relative peace. “Goody” Biden. Return of Taliban and war in Ukraine, repeats Obama who was record holder in bombing. “Peace and love” left-wing.

Lula also held the West responsible for the war, by saying that NATO should not have pushed for its expansion. Recently, the president refused Germany’s appeal for Brazil to send weapons to Ukraine. This suggests Lula will not accept pressure from the U.S. and NATO to support Ukraine. During the latest G7 meeting in June 2023, Lula’s spokespersons defended Russia’s participation in the peace negotiation talks.

Contrary to Bolsonaro supporters, left-wingers condemn the United States as a whole, regardless of its government, and back Lula for resisting heeding to the U.S.’ interests. Ukraine’s pro-West movement is seen as a U.S. nazi plot, as shown below.

Translation: In 2014, in a plebiscite with the population of Crimea, the people had to choose whether they wanted to belong to Ukraine or Russia. Well, 96% decided to stay with Russia. In 2023, Zelensky replied to Lula that there will be no peace agreement until Crimea is retaken. The Brazilian press reports on this subject with the old viral bias of supporting the USA.

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