The delusion of Lula’s “peace club”

on 27.04.2023

Brazil is back” became Lula’s motto after his electoral success last October. When President Luiz Inâcio Lula da Silva was inaugurated this January, there was a lot of hope that Brazil’s foreign policy record would improve after Bolsonaro’s four-year presidency, under whom the country became a pariah within the international community. Lula’s victory speech was to mark the return of Brazil to the world stage and was followed by the president’s eager tour of neighbouring countries and the United States. Another strong signal of this renewed ambition was the president’s recently proposed plan for a “peace club” - a group of “non-aligned” countries that would generate negotiations and mediate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.

The idea was to include countries that have not clearly taken a side in the Ukraine war so far. Potential candidates would be countries such as Brazil, India, China and Indonesia, whose apparent “neutral” stance in the war would lead to more productive negotiations. However, in his attempt to become the world’s peacemaker, Lula seems dismissive of scepticism on the neutrality and non-alignment of these states. Several questions regarding his peace endeavours remain. How “non-aligned” are these countries really? How exactly would Ukraine benefit from such a peace club? Would Russia listen to what the peace club has to say?

The first flaw in Lula’s attempt at “non-alignment” and peace-making is that his efforts have been rather one-sided. Despite voting to condemn Putin’s invasion at the UN, Lula has mostly only been communicating with Russia. In March, he sent his top foreign policy aid to Moscow to discuss the peace club with Putin while merely promising to visit Ukraine “at the right moment” on a brief call with President Zelensky, whom he has partly also blamed for the war. This month, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Brasília to discuss peace negotiations. At the same time, Lula’s statements, such as “the US needs to stop incentivising the war” and his rejection of sending ammunition to Ukraine, further alienate him from the West. Looking at it from this angle, when coming up with the peace club, Lula seemed to have forgotten the most fundamental principle of negotiating: both sides must be included.

Another issue with the peace club would be China’s participation. Lula is right to recognise that China is a key actor in putting pressure on Russia but, despite positioning itself as neutral, the country’s pro-Russian tendency has become very clear in Xi Jinping’s “Peace Proposal” in February. This could heavily undermine the neutrality the peace club would claim to have, not to mention Brazil’s dependence on Russian fertiliser imports that increased just weeks before the war started, during Bolsonaro’s heavily criticised “solidarity visit” to Putin. China also appears dismissive of Lula’s initiative. At the beginning of this month, Lula was welcomed by Xi Jinping in China. The Brazilian president’s long-awaited trip to China saw his peace club spectacularly side-lined and removed from the agenda upon Beijing’s request. The central topic of discussion remained trade and Chinese investment, given that China has been Brazil’s biggest trade partner since 2009. Lula and Xi merely emphasised the need for negotiations to end the war in a brief statement at the end of the trip.

Trade is also where the credibility of the other potential candidates for the peace club comes in. The countries Lula plans to include in the club form part of the BRICS union, which also includes Russia. The union’s current members are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. BRICS is a substantial potential trade block that makes up around 31.5 % of the global GDP and is seeking to introduce its own global reserve currency that could be a direct threat to the US dollar. With Argentina and Iran having applied to join last summer, the alliance would grow further and faster. The economic ties of the Global South with Russia don’t end with BRICS. India has a strong arms trade relationship with Russia, backed by a long history of favourable relations with the country dating back to the days of the USSR. It is fair to say that these arms trade ties have been under heavy strain since the invasion. However, they have been replaced by record-high imports of discounted gas and oil from Russia and India’s consequent big economic profit. As for Brazil, trade relations with Russia reached record highs towards the end of 2022. Russia is an essential importer of fertilisers for Brazil and has profited from cheap fuel imports. On top of this, Brazil is also a major exporter of sugar to Russia. Given the current challenging global economic situation concerning energy and food security, many countries of the Global South want to ensure and benefit from the best possible access on advantageous terms to international markets. Therefore, economic interests surrounding the growth of the BRICS union and the upkeeping of trade relations with Russia would directly impact a neutral and just treatment of Russia in negotiations with Ukraine. The member states of this proposed peace club would think twice before truthfully calling Russia a violent aggressor and consequently losing the cooperation of a crucial trade partner.

Ideological similarities to Russia and tendencies to pro-Russian sentiment in most of the peace club’s potential candidate countries also stand in the way of the club’s supposed neutrality. Deep historical reasons cause a more favourable view of Russia in the Global South. The country is not seen as one of the great colonial powers, and a strong anti-American sentiment linked to the US is further underscored by the erroneous view that Russia’s invasion is not too dissimilar from what Western countries have done in the past. Indeed, the Indonesian government has called for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine at the UN; however, the general support for Ukraine’s and the West’s fight against Russia is not solid by a long shot. The Indonesian government has refused to participate in sanctions against Moscow, and more than 50%  of its population remains in favour of keeping favourable ties with the state. Given the population’s strong anti-western sentiment, the narrative spreading in the country seems to be one of Russia fighting against the evil American empire by invading Ukraine. A similar anti-Western perspective is also gaining traction amongst the Brazilian left, whose main party, led by Lula, is in power. The viewpoint that the West is provoking the war in Ukraine is deeply problematic, and a peace club consisting of countries that support it would significantly harm efforts at fair negotiations for Kyiv.

All these contemplations lead back to the first question, albeit slightly rephrased: How would Ukraine benefit from a peace club that appears to side with Moscow, has strong and expanding trade ties with Russia, and includes China? In such a negotiation setting, the odds would not look very good for Kyiv. Russian interests would dominate negotiations, and the country would potentially not even be recognised as the aggressor, which would deter Ukraine from entering negotiations in the first place. This, in turn, could risk blaming Zelensky’s government for not wanting peace - which would be a biased assessment. Furthermore, would the Kremlin even listen to this peace club? It is possible, given that the negotiation outcome would be favourable for Moscow - even more so if China decides to support the club, considering Russia’s dependence on the country. Again, the fundamental problem with this negotiation setting would be that its terms would be mostly favourable to Moscow and far from neutral or non-aligned.

To conclude, Lula should realise that his peace-making ideas are far from neutral and fail to include Ukraine. Instead of a non-aligned solution, this could turn out to be a pro-Russia peace proposal with very little chance of succeeding and harming any potential for Kyiv to enter fair and just negotiations with the Kremlin. A peace club is not a bad idea per se, but Lula’s current proposal would simply be Kremlin-biased. Moreover, the effectiveness of a negotiated settlement also needs to be seriously considered. Throughout recent history, any ceasefire agreement with Russia has never truly brought sustainable peace. Georgia still fears a renewed attack, and the Minsk Agreements failed to stop the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin will always crave more control, and without Russia’s proper defeat, Ukrainians would have to continue living in fear of a renewed war. As POLITICO illustrated: “Imagine sitting at the negotiating table with Adolf Hitler at the end of 1942, when he was stuck in Stalingrad but with half of Europe still occupied”. Sitting at the negotiating table with Putin at a disadvantageous time for Ukraine would be unfavourable to Kyiv and would risk giving more to Moscow when Ukraine could still continue to resist and counter the invasion.

If Lula truly wants to assume the role of global peacemaker, he must fundamentally change his understanding of neutrality, war negotiations, and their usefulness in ensuring lasting peace with countries controlled by tyrants and aggressors. By continuing to neglect communication with Ukraine and the West, he will instead only further tip the diplomatic scale of the Global South towards supporting Putin’s agenda and his illegal invasion, all the while alienating European states.