MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday hosted his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro for talks in Moscow and hailed ties between the two countries, which he described as consisting of “friendship and mutual understanding.”
Bolsonaro’s first trip to Russia came at a point of soaring tensions between Moscow and the West fueled by fears that Russia plans to invade Ukraine, and he went ahead with it despite doubts Brazilian and U.S. officials expressed about its timing.
The two leaders didn’t mention Ukraine or Russia’s demands for security guarantees precluding NATO expansion eastward during their opening remarks or the news conference after the talks.
Photos of their meeting in the Kremlin showed the presidents sitting close to each other, with a small end table between them. Putin’s recent meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholtz featured a several meters long table, which Kremlin officials ascribed to coronavirus precautions.
After the meeting, Putin told a news conference that he and Bolsonaro had “thorough, constructive talks.”
“Russia and Brazil are traditionally united by relations of friendship and mutual understanding. The strategic partnership between our countries covers a variety of areas. We jointly strive to develop political, economic and humanitarian ties, we closely cooperate on the international stage,” Putin said.
Bolsonaro said the two countries “share common values, such as the belief in God and the defense of family. Also, we are in solidarity with all those countries that want and that commit themselves to peace.”
A joint statement the Kremlin released after the talks stated that the two leaders “underscored their determination to strengthen strategic partnership, deepen political dialogue, raise the level of bilateral relations based on respect for sovereignty, international law and the principles of the rule of law shared by both countries.”
Bolsonaro’s trip to Moscow had been on the books since December, well before the Ukraine crisis unfolded, and was aimed at drawing closer trade ties to Russia, a key source of fertilizers for South America’s agricultural powerhouse.
Two of his Cabinet ministers told The Associated Press they had been trying to convince him to call it off since last week. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Two top officials from Brazil’s Foreign Ministry also told the AP that they had received messages from U.S. officials saying the trip’s timing conveyed Brazilian indifference to threats of invasion. They spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to speak publicly.
Bolsonaro’s former foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, also criticized the trip on Tuesday.
“This is very problematic as a signal. We are siding with a bully that is bullying an independent country that is Ukraine,” Araujo said in an interview with radio station Jovem Pan, adding that discussions about fertilizer supply don’t require travel. “What we are doing is entering Putin’s game.”
As Bolsonaro’s plane entered Russian air space on Tuesday, he tweeted about Russia’s military reporting that it was pulling back some of its troops near Ukraine. His supporters crowed online that he had helped prevent an armed conflict and then, as the demonstrably false claim was fact-checked, said it had been a joke all along.
The Brazilian Cabinet ministers said members of the Foreign and Defense ministries had advised Bolsonaro to avoid commenting on Ukraine and, if Putin raised the issue, maintain neutrality and support dialogue.
Russia has sought to build inroads in the region that the U.S. has traditionally viewed as within its sphere of influence. Its presence in Latin America has been limited since the 1990s, and in recent years primarily entailed an alliance with Venezuela for provision of arms and energy projects, as well as Nicaragua for arms and building emergency response capabilities. But Latin America’s arms purchases plunged as its commodities boom ended and Venezuela economy melted down.
Moscow helped Venezuela design a cryptocurrency, forgave billions of dollars in Cuban debt and runs a high-tech anti-narcotics compound in Nicaragua that many believe is a covert beachhead for spying across the region.
Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández met with his Russian counterpart earlier this month. The left-leaning leader recently said he wants his country “to become a door of entry for Russia in Latin America, so that Russia comes in in a more decisive manner.”
Putin and Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega spoke by phone in January, and congratulated him on winning his fourth consecutive term in a November election that the United States and European Union condemned as a farce.
Bolsonaro’s meeting with Putin is among few top-level encounters the Brazilian president has secured abroad since taking office in January 2019. A staunch supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has yet to receive even a call from Joe Biden, whose 2020 election victory he was slow to recognize.
During his time in Russia, Bolsonaro also visited Russia’s lower house of parliament and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Before returning to Brazil, he will travel to Hungary and meet with one of his few international allies, Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Débora Álvares in Brasilia contributed.