BRASILIA, Brazil -- The plane of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro took off Monday evening headed to Russia despite Western warnings the country could soon invade Ukraine — frustrating those who have suggested he cancel the trip, including the U.S. government and members of his own Cabinet.
The trip was planned well before the Ukraine crisis arose and Bolsonaro’s focus is bilateral trade; Russia is a key source of fertilizers for South America’s agricultural powerhouse.
But even some of his allies fear Bolsonaro could make damaging comments on the crisis or that his presence could be seen as tacit support for a Russian invasion of its neighbor.
Two top officials from Brazil’s Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press that they have received messages from U.S. officials saying the trip’s timing is inopportune and conveys Brazilian indifference to threats of invasion. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to speak publicly.
A U.S. State Department official, meanwhile, issued a statement Monday that appeared to accept the meeting would go ahead, “As democratic leaders, the United States and Brazil have a responsibility to stand up for democratic principles and the rules-based order. We hope Brazil will take this opportunity to reinforce this message in their conversations in Moscow.”
At least two of Bolsonaro’s Cabinet ministers said privately they have been trying since last week to convince him to call off the trip. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
They said Bolsonaro was reluctant to delay the visit that has been scheduled since December, following an invitation from Russia's President Vladimir Putin. They also said Bolsonaro sees potential benefits for a possible reelection bid because he can show proximity to fellow conservative leaders abroad. After Russia, Bolsonaro is to stop in Hungary and meet Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Speaking to supporters outside the presidential palace on Monday, Bolsonaro justified the trip.
“We have business with them, trade. In large part our agribusiness depends on the fertilizers. We have issues to discuss about defense, energy, a lot of things to address. Brazil is a sovereign nation,” he said.
He was scheduled to arrive Tuesday. At least two meetings were scheduled with Putin.
Maurício Santoro, an international relations professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said Bolsonaro’s trip is a “diplomatic victory” for Putin, who is seeking to demonstrate closeness with leaders of democratic countries to curb criticism of authoritarianism.
Cancelling the trip could be seen as submitting to U.S. government policy, according to Celso Amorim, who was foreign minister during the government of the now-opposition Workers’ Party.
“I don’t want to defend Bolsonaro’s foreign policy, which is regrettable. But to receive an invitation from an important partner ..., and canceling would give a bad reading,” Amorim said.
The Brazilian Cabinet ministers said members of the Foreign and Defense ministries have advised Bolsonaro to avoid commenting on Ukraine and, if Putin raises the issue, maintain neutrality and support dialogue.
But Bolsonaro isn’t known for sticking to the script. Already on Monday outside the presidential palace, he was alluding to the conflict.
“The whole world has its problems. We have to converse, but wanting to resolve the problems of others … if it’s possible, right? ... We know what is at stake. I won’t go into details here,” he said.