To some, it came as a surprise. When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election last month, attention soon turned to his stance on the war in Ukraine.
“He did want war,” Lula, as the Brazilian president-elect is known, was quoted as saying about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “If he didn’t want war, he would have negotiated a little more. That’s it.”
And what about the Russian President?
“I criticized [Vladimir] Putin when I was in Mexico City [in March], saying that it was a mistake to invade. But I don’t think anyone is trying to help create peace. People are stimulating hate against Putin. That won’t solve things!” Lula said.
Yet Lula’s remarks shouldn’t have come as a surprise; his quote was actually from May, and an interview with Time magazine. Nor is he an outlier; beyond the West, leaders in several large and strategically important countries have studiously avoided taking a hard line against Putin. The incoming Brazilian president’s views are one more reminder of a pair of uncomfortable truths for the U.S. and its NATO allies: Putin still has allies of his own; and many world leaders are still not standing — at least not wholeheartedly — with Ukraine.
The reasons differ, and in some cases their positions have evolved as the war has dragged on. China and India have attracted the most attention, given their size and sway on the world stage. But they have company in nearly every corner of the world. Indonesia, South Africa and even Turkey, a NATO member — to name three other strategically important nations — all have been careful not to antagonize Putin.
As leaders gather in Indonesia for this week’s G20 summit meetings, with the war very much on the agenda, “there isn’t a global consensus,” as Radityo Dharmaputra, a lecturer in international studies at Indonesia’s Airlangga University, put it to Grid.
“It can appear that way, sitting in the West,” he said. “But there are actually quite diverse views [on the war].”
This lack of consensus extends to global public opinion. A recent monthlong survey looked at how people in 25 countries viewed the conflict — and found that while those living in the West remained mostly strident in their opposition to Russia, showing little appetite for compromising with Putin, people in other parts of the world were more ambivalent. In some cases, they were sympathetic to Moscow.
In the U.S., the U.K., Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Australia, more than half of those polled in August and September were willing to maintain sanctions on Russia, even if that resulted in a small rise in living costs, as the war drives up food and energy prices.
But the picture elsewhere was very different: In Brazil, only 35 percent said that sanctions on Russia were worth it, if it meant even a small cost of living increase. There were similar results in India and Thailand. In Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, support for sanctions was lower still; and in Indonesia, only 19 percent of people said it was a price worth paying, according to the polling firm YouGov.
As Dharmaputra told Grid: “There is no one view on this war.”
A question of (self) interests
One big factor shaping these views is Russia’s still considerable economic clout. Although dented by Western sanctions, Russia’s influence is far from extinguished; thanks to its vast natural resources, Moscow maintains a commanding position in the world’s energy and food markets. And while Europe is rushing to cut its energy ties with Russia, others have made a judgment based on self-interests. Put differently, they feel they cannot afford to do so.
Take Brazil, which under outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro has been reluctant to line up against Russia. It’s a position that’s explained, at least in part, by the country’s trade patterns.
At the outset of the war, there were concerns in the country about the future of its fertilizer supplies. Brazil imports around 85 percent of the fertilizer it uses, with roughly one-quarter of those imports coming from Russia, the world’s biggest fertilizer exporter. These supplies are critical; agricultural exports are a major earner for the Brazilian economy. Domestically, Brazil is also struggling to contain a food crisis: One study from December 2020 showed that around half of Brazil’s 214 million people did not always have enough to eat.
Which is why sanctions on Moscow initially led to alarm in Brazil about how its farmers would secure the fertilizer they need to grow food — food for export and for the feeding of their own people. Although the sanctions did not directly target fertilizer purchases, restrictions on the Russian financial system, as well as other hurdles in trading with Moscow, triggered concerns about a shortfall.
Since then, things have played out in unexpected ways. Despite the sanctions, Russian exports to Brazil have continued, as Brazilian buyers find new ways to trade with Moscow. Earlier this year, for example, the New York Times reported that, unable to transact with sanctioned Russian banks, many Brazilian importers had switched to using international banking groups as middlemen to pay Russian suppliers.
Indeed, far from facing a shortage, there’s been a surge in Russian fertilizer shipments to Brazil. The country now has more than it can store, and some shipments have been reexported as a result.
In terms of overall volume, Russia’s trade with Brazil has ballooned by more than 100 percent since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, according to one recent New York Times analysis.
And the figures are higher elsewhere: NATO ally Turkey’s trade with Russia has spiked by almost 200 percent since the war began; India’s has tripled.
Before the outbreak of war, Russia accounted for only 1 to 2 percent of India’s oil supplies. Today, it accounts for around 22 percent of New Delhi’s imports. Russia has been selling discounted oil supplies to India since the war began; and India has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In all these countries, that kind of quid pro quo exists, beyond the trade relationship: The goods keep moving, and in exchange, criticism of Putin and the war is muted. In India’s case, much was made of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks that “today’s era is not an era of war,” when he met with Putin in September; the comments were framed as a mild rebuke of Putin. Yet this month, Modi dispatched his foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to Moscow, with a delegation comprising senior officials involved in India’s oil and gas, and other economically significant sectors.
As Jaishankar put it during the visit, summing up the feeling in many non-Western capitals: “We have seen that India-Russia relationship has worked to our advantage, so if it works to my advantage, I would like to keep that going.”
A matter of geopolitics
But it is not all — or always — about trade. In India’s case, there are deep historical ties between New Delhi and Moscow going back to the Soviet period. These manifest themselves most prominently today in India’s defense sector: The country relies on Russia for some 60 percent of its military hardware.
And geopolitics has everything to do with the posture of Russia’s most prominent ally in the war.
China has from the beginning held to the Kremlin line that the war was provoked by NATO, and its recently rebooted alliance with Russia is based largely on antipathy toward the U.S. It was less than three weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Putin traveled to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at which the two declared a “no limits” friendship. The two leaders have long shared a view that the era of a U.S.-led world order is outdated and unfair; during the war, China’s support has taken the form of a deepened trade relationship and a toeing of Putin’s talking points. Perhaps most important, China has never issued any explicit criticism of Putin or his war.
As Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington, D.C.-based Stimson Center told Grid in September, “China’s policy on Russia is dependent on U.S.-China relations. As long as there’s no sign of improvement of relations with Washington, China will side with Russia, regardless of whether Russia wins or loses in Ukraine.” And as a matter of China’s core interests, Sun told Grid, the relationship with Moscow is a winner no matter how the war unfolds. “For China, if Russia wins, that’s great because China gains a stronger ally. If Russia loses, that is also great because China gains a vassal state, which is the second-largest nuclear power in the world.”
The price of everything
For many beyond the U.S. and Europe, questions and concerns about the war ultimately boil down to questions and concerns about one of its main fallouts: inflation — in particular when it comes to prices of food and fuel. Middle- and lower-income countries were already struggling in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic; in economic terms, they suffered far more than the West. The Ukraine War has added to that pressure by driving up prices of everyday goods.
Indonesia offers a clear example of how these pressures have been linked to policy positions. Indonesian President Joko Widodo traveled to both Ukraine and Russia over the summer, carrying a message of peace, despite the fact he leads a nation on the other side of the world. Widodo was on a mission with a clear, domestically-focused goal: to ease the inflationary pressures on ordinary Indonesians. That meant no strong criticism of Putin.
“If you look at the outcomes of the visit, they were framed around issues related to food security and securing access to grain supplies — issues that were key domestic priorities for Indonesia,” Andreyka Natalegawa, an expert on Indonesia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told Grid.
It’s a similar story in Brazil, Turkey and many nations in Africa — as those polls about Russian sanctions and costs of living made clear. Faced with a distant war and a clear and present problem at home, many world leaders have chosen to support Russia — or at least to keep their criticism to a minimum.
The weight of history
Beyond the money, and the geopolitics, there is an issue that is less tangible. Call it the power of long memories.
Analysts told Grid that public opinion in many countries was also being driven by long-standing skepticism about the West’s intentions.
“When you look at broader public opinion (in Indonesia), particularly online, there is a lot of sympathy for Russian narratives. And this is partially rooted in the fact that a lot of pro-Russia messaging has cast NATO and the U.S. as the instigator of the conflict, and this sort of messaging resonates among certain parts of the Indonesian population,” Natalegawa told Grid. “You can trace this back to some of the anti-Western sentiment and skepticism that came about as a result of the war in Iraq.”
Adds Dharmaputra, from Airlangga University: “There was historically a lot of anti-Western sentiment (in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia), which has led people to question the Western narrative. There is a lot of skepticism, and when you discuss Ukraine, people often bring up things like the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan.”
This is a narrative Putin himself has spun on many occasions; namely, who are you, the United States, to say that sending troops to other countries is a violation?
The weight of history doesn’t simply apply to public perceptions; government positions in many cases have also been shaped by longstanding diplomatic tradition.
Take South Africa, which joined the nonaligned movement shortly after its first democratic elections in the 1990s. The movement dates to the 1960s, and from the start, it held to the principle that it would not take sides in any major-power global disputes. Those principles continue to animate foreign policy and attitudes in South Africa today. As the country’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, said during a visit to Washington, D.C., in September, in response to Western pressure to spurn Moscow: “We should not be told by anyone who we can associate with.”
There are also the historical ties between the country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the former Soviet Union, which backed the ANC’s armed struggle to overturn apartheid. (In contrast to the stance adopted by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, which labeled the ANC a terrorist group.) As one leading South African foreign policy analyst wrote earlier this year, people remember these things — and these factors make many in the ruling establishment inclined toward Russia’s point of view.
“Many ANC leaders were educated or received military training (in the former Soviet Union),” Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive of the South Africa Institute of International Affairs, wrote over the summer.
Historic views of the West — and the U.S. — have also shaped perceptions in Brazil. To go back to where we began, Lula’s remarks in May were an example: then still a candidate for the presidency, he was speaking, first and foremost, to his leftist political base.
“What happened there reflected the classic stance of [Lula’s] Workers’ Party, of the Latin American left — he opposed American imperialism,” Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist and international relations professor at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, told Grid.
“They have a very binary view of this, that basically sides with whoever is against the U.S. or, in this case, even NATO. They tend to be suspicious of American intentions always. It was his way of saying ‘Putin is wrong, but they are also fighting against U.S. imperialism.’”
As President, Casarões said, Lula is likely to be more diplomatic and strike a balance between the West and Ukraine, on the one hand, and Russia on the other.
“It’s important to remember both Zelenskyy and Putin congratulated Lula on his victory. They understand that Brazil’s stance might not be directly important, but it is symbolically relevant, especially in South America,” he added.
It’s a balance that will be familiar to leaders in many parts of the world, people who — whatever they really think of Putin and his war — have other calculations to make and other constituencies to worry about. Like so much else about this war, it’s complicated.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.