Why is the Brazilian left supporting Putin’s Russia?

In the eyes of many Brazilian leftists, Russia is doing everything it does – including invading its neighbours – not to expand its own power but to free the world from the clutches of the evil American empire.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who will run in October's elections, gestures as he takes part in an event organized by labor unions during Workers Day in Sao Paulo, Brazil May 1, 2022. [Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to an unexpected convergence in the political arena. Indeed, all over the world left-wing parties, activists and even prominent leftist politicians are joining the far right in voicing their support for – or at least excusing – the Kremlin’s brutal, imperialist aggression against a much smaller sovereign nation.

This strange phenomenon is perhaps most visible in Brazil, where supporters of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his left-wing rival, former president Lula da Silva, are both working hard to demonstrate why Russia should not be blamed for the devastation we are witnessing in Ukraine today.

Just like their counterparts on the right, left-wing supporters of the Kremlin insist that it was NATO that “provoked” the war and that Russia is simply “defending itself” (they, of course, refuse to explain how this so-called act of “defence” is different from the West’s past “pre-emptive” strikes against countries of the Global South that they vehemently condemned). They are also dismissing credible reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide coming from Ukraine as Western “distortions” and “NATO propaganda” funded by George Soros (ironically also the bogeyman of the anti-Semitic far right), in defence of Ukrainian “Nazis” trying to destroy Russia.

Behind all this, of course, there is a justified mistrust of the US and NATO – leftists in Brazil have much reason to question any narrative supported by the empire that inflicted so much pain on their region. After all, there is not a single right-wing dictatorship on the continent that was born without a degree of US support or encouragement.

There are, however, also other, much less justifiable, reasons behind this surprising pro-Kremlin stance.

In the imagination of many Brazilian leftists, despite its aggressive capitalism and impossible to ignore imperial tendencies, Putin’s Russia is still the natural successor of a left-wing utopia once represented by the Soviet Union. Not even the autocratic Russian leader’s undeniable corruption, his oppression and abuse of the Russian working class, or his financial and ideological support for the global far right seem able to shake their belief that he can and will be the leader of the revolution that topples the US-led world order.

This is not to say that most of the left-wing activists, thinkers and politicians who are sympathetic to the Kremlin are too naive to see President Vladimir Putin for the right-wing kleptocrat that he really is – they likely are not. But they strongly believe that under Putin’s command, Russia can put an end to US imperialism and pave the way for a multipolar world order.  And they are willing to turn a blind eye to his regime’s myriad human rights abuses, and support his war of aggression against a neighbouring nation, to see their main enemy – the West – defeated.

On the surface, most Brazilian leftists appear to be avid supporters of human rights, democracy and justice. They proudly say they want to see an end to powerful countries – all powerful countries – invading others under the guise of “bringing democracy”. But sadly, their desire to see an end to the Western-led world order leads to them excusing invasions, wars of aggression and even genocides when they are initiated by the West’s enemies. In their eyes, the only real imperialism is US imperialism.

Lula, who himself said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is as responsible for his country’s current fate as Putin in a recent interview, and a majority of the Brazilian left seem convinced that it is OK to deny the humanity and sovereignty of an entire nation if it inflicts damage on the US.

There are, of course, leftists in Brazil who do criticise and stand against all kinds of abuse – whether committed by the US and its allies or Russia. But more often than not, they end up being accused of not being real leftists or buying into American propaganda by their pro-Russian “comrades” who see any criticism of Russia merely as a defence of the US.

All in all, it seems many Brazilian leftists have failed to accept that the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. They are living in an imaginary world where Russia is fighting a revolutionary war against the US. In this world, all of Russia’s crimes need to be excused or ignored. The crimes of other “anti-imperialists” – read anti-US forces of any creed – such as Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua or Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela should also be buried and not talked about. They are blind to the hypocrisy of supporting those who are being oppressed and victimised by the imperialism of the West, while baselessly branding the victims of Russia’s equally brutal and deadly imperialism “Nazis”.

These people rightfully denounced US-instigated regime change on their continent, condemned Israel for its crimes against the Palestinian people, and stood against the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by the US. But now they seem unable to see they are siding with the aggressor because that aggressor is not the West, but Russia.

This is, of course, not the first time large sectors of the left – in Brazil and beyond – have found themselves rooting for the success of a brutal right-wing dictator merely to spite the West. Many leftists also sided with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in no distant history, declaring him an anti-imperialist hero, just because the US happened to be supportive of the Syrian people’s revolt against him.

It should have been an easy decision for the Brazilian left to put its support behind Ukraine. It is, after all, a smaller country being invaded by an imperial power, fighting for its independence. But many of them are stuck in a black-and-white dream world where there is only one evil – the US. They love to pretend Russia is doing everything it does – including invading its neighbours – not to expand its own power but to free the world from the clutches of the evil American empire.

If the Brazilian left is to be successful once again and prove to the people that it is on the right side of history, it needs to stand against all imperial oppressors, including the Russians.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.