A Problem for Ukraine: Countries Like Brazil Won’t Sell It Arms
As Brazil prepared for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, it purchased 34 antiaircraft guns from Germany to protect its skies.
Then, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the German government began sending Ukraine those same dual-cannon weapons, which can down an aircraft from more than three miles away. But it was short on shells.
So German officials asked the Brazilian government last year to return the unused ammunition. Yet Brazil’s response was clear: not if it was going to Ukraine.
Latin America’s largest country finds itself in a tricky position. Brazil has called for peace and, in carefully worded statements, criticized Russia’s invasion. But the country, which relies on Russia for fertilizer and fuel, has also made clear that it will not send any weapons destined for the front lines, and is instead pushing to mediate peace talks.
“I don’t want to join the war,” President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil said this year. “I want to end the war.”
Yet there is little end in sight. Newly leaked Pentagon documents show that Ukraine is increasingly desperate for arms to hold back Russian troops, especially the sorts of air defenses that Brazil can supply. With weapons in the West drying up, Ukraine and its allies are putting pressure on some nations that have avoided getting involved in the conflict to relent and send help.
But in a worrying sign for Ukraine — and, by extension, a foreign-policy victory for Russia — some of those countries say they intend to stay on the sidelines.
President Gustavo Petro of Colombia said in January that he rejected American requests to send the country’s Russian-made weapons to the United States, which planned to give them to Ukraine, because the Colombian constitution requires him to pursue peace. He added that Latin America should not pick sides. “We are not with anyone,” Mr. Petro said.
South Korea similarly declined to offer lethal assistance to Ukraine, citing its policy of not sending weapons to a warring country. The leaked Pentagon documents suggested senior officials in Seoul feared pressure from Washington to ship ammunition to Ukraine anyway. The South Korean government has disputed the accuracy of the documents.
And then there is Brazil. Ukraine has made at least two requests to Brazil to purchase a long list of weaponry that included armored vehicles, aircraft, air-defense systems, mortar shells, sniper rifles, automatic weapons and ammunition, according to correspondence obtained by The New York Times via Brazil’s public records laws.
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Brazil has largely ignored the requests.
The countries’ denials are driven by a series of factors: domestic politics, internal policies that prevent them from arming countries involved in conflict and their reliance on Russia for crucial imports.
Yet they also could be critical partners for Ukraine.
Brazil, in particular, is a prolific producer of warplanes, many made by the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer. Planes are among the things that Ukraine needs most, arms experts say. Developing nations like Brazil also have weapons systems that are cheaper to operate and maintain.
“It hurts Ukraine because it becomes overly dependent on NATO supplies, which are donated, but are extremely expensive to maintain, because they come from rich countries that own and make extremely sophisticated weapons,” said Sandro Teixeira Moita, a military strategy professor at the Brazilian Army Command and Staff College. “The global south countries have weapons systems that are more suited to their realities.”
Brazil says its guiding principle of foreign policy has long been to remain a friend to all.
Still, the country has proved willing to sell to other warring nations. Since the beginning of the Yemeni War in 2014, Brazil has supplied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with more than 21,000 tons of arms and ammunition worth $680 million, including internationally condemned cluster munitions, according to trade data.
Brazil, one of the world’s largest food producers, also relies on Russia for a quarter of its fertilizers. In 2022, as Russia attacked Ukraine, Brazil purchased more than 8.8 million tons of Russian fertilizer, down from 10.2 million in 2021. Brazil is the leading buyer of Russian fertilizers and Russia the top supplier for Brazilian farmers.
Brazil’s defense industry exported a record $1.5 billion in weapons in 2021, and the government said it now represents nearly 5 percent of Brazil’s economy. (The United States is Brazil’s largest arms customer.) Yet the agricultural sector is 100 times larger, at $159 billion in exports in 2022.
Brazil’s former right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, had a warm relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, even visiting the Kremlin six days before Russia launched its invasion last year. Mr. Bolsonaro later touted the visit in his failed re-election campaign, saying he did it to secure needed fertilizer and fuel.
“Economically, that’s an easy win for both countries that they don’t want to risk jeopardizing,” Andrés Gannon, a military researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Brazil and Russia. Brazil has also long sought a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Mr. Gannon said, so staying neutral could avoid splitting Russian and American votes on its membership.
Western officials hoped that the November election of Mr. Silva, a leftist who is closer to Western leaders than Mr. Bolsonaro, would open Brazil’s weapon sales to Ukraine. But neutrality is one of the few issues where Mr. Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro are aligned.
Just weeks after taking office in January, Mr. Lula rejected another ammunition request from Germany to equip the Leopard tanks it is sending to Ukraine.
Instead, the Brazilian president has pushed a different plan: He wants to broker peace.
In meetings with President Biden, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Mr. Lula has pitched a plan for a group of neutral nations to mediate peace talks.
The West and Ukraine see Brazil’s plan as far-fetched given the state of the war. “We don’t see any impetus right now to get to the negotiating table,” John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said recently.
Mr. Zelensky has said peace talks are not possible until Russia withdraws its forces from Ukraine, while the Kremlin says any agreement must take into account territory that Russia now occupies.
Brazil’s solution for this remains hazy. “I think the first decision has to be to start talking,” Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former foreign minister and now Mr. Lula’s top diplomatic adviser, said in an interview. He said he could not offer specifics until that happened.
While Brazil is happy to be the lead mediator, Mr. Amorim said, other nations must be involved, including potentially India, Indonesia and South Africa.
“You have to have someone who also has influence over Russia,” he said. “But who has influence over Russia? One of them is China, without a doubt.”
China has put forward its own peace plan, though it has been roundly criticized by Ukraine and its allies.
Mr. Lula has said he would pitch his peace-talks plan to Russia and China. He is scheduled to meet with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing on Friday.
Mr. Amorim met Mr. Putin in Russia last month, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, is scheduled to visit Brazil next week.
The leaked Pentagon documents said that, according to U.S. intelligence, Russia’s Foreign Ministry supported Mr. Lula’s plan to “establish a club of supposedly impartial mediators to settle the war in Ukraine, believing the plan would reject the West’s ‘aggressor-victim’ paradigm.”
Western countries fear that Brazil is leaning toward Russia, said four senior European diplomats in Brazil who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy involved. The officials cited Brazil’s recent alignment with Moscow at the U.N. Security Council, including a vote last month for an investigation into explosions on the Nord Stream gas pipelines between Russia and Germany. Russia proposed the resolution and only Russia, China and Brazil voted in favor of it.
For its part, Germany has given up on getting the antiaircraft ammunition from Brazil. Instead, it recently announced that it will restart production of the shells itself.