05.05.23 Review

The Beneficiaries of Non-Alignment: The West, Russia and China are competing for the favour of the most prominent neutral powers, Brazil and India, which the latter will not hesitate to take advantage of

Russia is seeking to consolidate its influence in South America by weakening the position of the US on the continent and globally. The new Brazilian president's tilt towards Moscow has been welcomed by the Kremlin: Putin broke protocol to meet with President da Silva's advisor, while Sergei Lavrov undertook a tour of Latin America. The Brazilian President, meanwhile, has discussed ideas for a peaceful settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian war in Beijing. The Indian Prime Minister, for his part, has advocated peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv and the consolidation of their new status as ‘non-aligned countries’ within international institutions. The prospect of a ‘negotiating coalition’ of the big four BRICs countries cannot be anything other than worrying for the US and its Western allies. As a result, the international positions of Brazil and India are being strengthened. The West, Russia and China have launched an active campaign to win them over, which Brazil and India will not hesitate to exploit.

During a recent trip to Latin America, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Moscow had no intention of forcing the countries of the region to choose whether they were ‘with us or against us’ when taking a stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war. This rhetoric was in line with the anti-colonial narrative familiar to many of Lavrov's interlocutors. This narrative suggests that the West, led by the United States, is ‘twisting the arms’ of the Global South and forcing these countries to play ‘their game’ by pressuring them to support Ukraine and comply with sanctions against Russia. However, according to Kirk Randolph of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), in practice, the purpose of the Latin American vector of Russian foreign policy is to reduce US influence in the region while undermining the US-led liberal world order. In his view, the position of Brazil, the continent's leading economy, is in line with the Kremlin's view of the geopolitical situation as outlined in Russia's new foreign policy doctrine. This claims that the world order is undergoing a revolution that will result in the ‘weakening of the West’ and the emergence of a multipolar world.

Sergei Lavrov visited four countries during his tour — Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba — but, according to Randolph, Brazil is the most important for Moscow. Commenting on the victory of Lula da Silva, one of the founders of BRICS, in the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections, the Carnegie Endowment expert wrote that Moscow has high hopes for this new socialist president, who it believes ‘will work with Putin to create a multipolar world and strengthen Brazil's role as Russia's main economic partner in the Western Hemisphere.’ Indeed, Moscow's activism on the ‘Brazilian track’ is obvious to the naked eye.

On the eve of Lavrov's visit, Celso Amorim, the Brazilian President's Chief of Staff, visited Moscow to discuss possible Brazilian mediation in any peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. The importance attached to this visit by the Kremlin is indicated by the fact that it broke diplomatic protocol: it is customary for politicians of comparable rank to attend such meetings, but Amorim was received personally by Putin. 

Moscow has welcomed the new Brazilian leadership's drift towards the Kremlin. Under the previous president, Bolsonaro, Brazil supported a UN resolution to condemn Russia's aggression against Ukraine. But since winning the election, Lula da Silva has placed blame at the feet of both sides, refused to supply arms to Kyiv, called on Zelensky to abandon plans to return Crimea to Ukraine, and has accused the US and EU of 'encouraging' continued hostilities. Brazil has also floated the idea of creating an international forum to negotiate an end to the war, involving all the BRICS countries. 

Lula da Silva himself visited China in April, and following his meeting with President Xi, the two sides issued a joint statement stressing the need for negotiations as the only realistic way out of the crisis in Ukraine. Peace proposals from both China and Brazil have drawn criticism from Western countries. By allowing Da Silva to act as a public supporter of negotiations, Beijing is able to retain the role of a behind-the-scenes puppeteer that will try to use these initiatives to its advantage, Randolph notes. Some Western observers, however, believe that Brazil, with its ‘non-aligned’ stance, is best placed to play the role of mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

In reality, the contours of today's ‘multipolarity’ are defined by two emerging antagonistic camps — a Western coalition on the one hand, and an authoritarian coalition comprised of China and Russia on the other. Both are interested in bringing the Global South, and in particular the region's largest countries, over to their camp. Unsurprisingly, these countries are keen to make the most of the situation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after recent meetings with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, also spoke of the need for internationally mediated talks between Russia and Ukraine and urged a rethink of the role of international organisations, including the UN Security Council. The ‘non-aligned countries’ would like to have permanent representation on the Council.

In this context, the Brazilian leadership's tilt towards Moscow may also appear to be largely a pragmatic move, strengthening Da Silva's position on the international stage. In reality, Russia has neither the economic resources nor the political clout to become a major factor of influence in Latin America, capable of competing with US investment. Moreover, public opinion across the continent is by no means pro-Russian. As Re: Russia recently reported, a Gallup poll suggests that median dissatisfaction with the actions of the Russian leadership in Latin America has risen from 31% in 2021 to 61% in 2022. In Brazil, 68% disapprove of Russia's policies. However, the rating of US leadership in Brazil also fell in 2022 and is now negative, with a 35% approval rate and with 42% disapproving of the actions of the US. However, this balance is more evenly split. In India, 46% disapprove of Russia and 38% disapprove of the US. 

At the same time, Russia's rhetoric regarding 'multipolarity' does appear to be resonating in the region, and the prospect of a 'big four' BRICS coalition is a serious concern for the US and its allies. Thus, it serves to strengthen the position of the 'non-aligned' countries on the world stage.