Israel Dutra, of the Brazilian Socialist Left Movement (MES) within the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), speaks to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s peace proposal for the war in Ukraine.
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Could you outline the position of MES/PSOL on the Ukraine war?
As soon as the war broke out, we immediately went into a state of emergency and adopted a clear statement based on a class struggle perspective.
We looked at the fact that Russian imperialism — albeit a very minor imperialism compared to other imperialisms — had taken the reactionary step of occupying Ukraine with the aim of destroying its independent existence.
Faced with this reality, we saw it crucial to reject Russia’s actions and express our solidarity with Ukraine, just as we had done with the war against the Kosovar people [in 1998‒99].
Back then, we opposed NATO imperialism, which was bombing Serbia, but also denounced [Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic as a war criminal and staked out a left position in support of Kosova, even helping to organise solidarity convoys. We are not facing the same situation today, but our basic stance of solidarity with Ukraine follows in that vein.
Our position on this conflict is framed by three factors:
The first is that this is an imperialist occupation of a people; of a sovereign, democratic nation with a government elected by the people. It is not a dictatorship, much less a fascist one as some have tried to slander [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s government: it is a bourgeois government that oppresses its own people, but it is not fascist.
The second factor is the threat of nuclear war. Not since the Cuban missile crisis have we faced such a threat. This is not an abstract issue: [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has threatened to use nuclear bombs. Given this, we must send a clear message, otherwise we risk opening up the possibility that nuclear bombs could be used in a subsequent conflict.
The third factor is that this war has strengthened the extreme right internationally. Contrary to what others say, it is Putin who represents the threat of the extreme right in this conflict. As well as being a dictator, Putin is an extreme right ideologue. On Putin’s side we have other extreme right ideologues of international significance, such as Alexander Dugin, and we have the Wagner group, a fascist gang of the worst type: a militia composed of mercenaries and fascists, akin to the Freikorps in World War I.
In light of the fact that we are dealing with a war of occupation; one that poses the threat of nuclear war; and one that involves a fight against the extreme right, we have taken the position of supporting the Ukrainian resistance as well as the pacifist and democratic forces and oppressed nations within the Russian Federation who refuse to be used as cannon fodder in this war.
President Lula has received attention for his proposal to set up a "peace group" composed of neutral countries to see if an end to the war can be negotiated. At the same time, Lula has been criticised for statements he made blaming Russia and Ukraine equally for the war. Could you outline how you view Lula’s position on the war?
In order to understand Lula’s position on the war, we need to understand the current global situation and the international role that Lula is seeking to play within it.
It is important to remember that during [former President Jair] Bolsonaro’s four years in power, he transformed Brazil into a pariah state on the international scene. He was regularly left out in the cold at international gatherings, and seen as a buffoon, a clown.
Bolsonaro’s government was also one of Putin’s biggest supporters. Just two weeks before the war started, Bolsonaro was in Moscow with Putin and under Bolsonaro, Brazil never condemned the war in the United Nations.
Compared to Bolsonaro, Lula is seen as a breath of fresh air. Lula’s return to power rightly raised expectations, because he was always a very talented head of state who sought to promote multilateralism and South-South diplomacy and had an integral vision for a world of peace and democracy.
On the international scene, Lula is still seen as a major league player, though he does not have the same prestige he once had. Lula wants to convert Brazil into a kind of counter-hegemon. But he has not yet come to terms with the new global situation.
His outlook has remained frozen in time from when he was last in power and has not adjusted to the changes that have occurred since then. This leads Lula to play a contradictory role on the international scene.
Today, we face a very complex situation in which inter-imperialist conflict, in which there is no progressive side, is getting more intense. At the same time, there is a growing need to combat the extreme right.
Given all this, Lula needs to be very cautious when it comes to his foreign policy of multipolarity. He needs to take into account China’s consolidation into an imperialist power. China today is no longer simply a conjunctural geopolitical ally but an imperialist power with its own strategic interests, such as promoting natural resource exploitation in Latin American countries.
For example, Brazil today is experiencing a process of reprimarisation [reconversion to primary production] of our economy, with large landowners, in many cases backed by Chinese companies, shifting production towards export-orientated commodities and causing local food prices to rise steeply.
At the same time, Lula needs to be an ally in the global fight against the extreme right. There are governments in Latin America that need support, such as Gustavo Petro’s government in Colombia, which is facing an internal challenge from this extreme right current. But Lula has not done this.
Worse, in Peru, Lula’s government supplied an illegitimate rightist government that emerged from a US-backed parliamentary coup against a democratically elected president with weapons to brutally repress protesters.
Thankfully, due to our protests, the government recently announced it would no longer sell these weapons to Peru, but this position, along with other regressive positions he has taken on regional politics, is not what many were expecting from Lula.
These contradictions are also evident with regards to Ukraine. On the one hand, Lula’s declarations on Ukraine generate sympathy because he raises the issue of peace. But, on the other hand, his declarations have tended to be quite vague and confused.
Rather than meeting peoples’ expectations, Lula has contributed to generating more confusion, for example by hosting Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Brazil. While Bolsonaro directly propped up Putin, today, Lula indirectly aids Putin.
What about Lula’s plan?
In Brazil, everyone is still waiting to see what Lula’s peace group and plan might look like, but so far he has not gone beyond words and, unfortunately, these words have generally done more harm than good.
But Lula’s basic idea of negotiations is a good one, right?
In a war, negotiations are not just positive but necessary. In modern warfare, conflict is necessarily fought along two fronts: in the trenches and theatre of operations, and in the diplomatic arena.
So, negotiations are inevitable and necessary, particularly when the war is stuck in a stalemate, like we have in Ukraine at the moment. There is hope that a new Ukrainian counteroffensive could shift the situation, but there are no guarantees this will occur.
I think Zelensky is wagering on some kind of negotiation and Putin too, in his own way. So too, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, because the outcome of this war will have an impact on imperialism’s broader geopolitical crisis.
But we can also say that not all negotiations are either good or bad. We have to move beyond adjectives and look at objectives.
For example, negotiations in which Putin agrees to leave Ukraine would be a positive step forward and represent a big democratic victory. But negotiations that lead to a peace of cemeteries, to a frozen conflict, would represent not just a temporary victory for Putin but a blank cheque for a person who has publicly stated he is willing to use nuclear weapons.
In this sense, while we understand the generalised, positive sentiment that exists in favour of ending a war that has contributed to rising prices which have made workers’ lives harder everywhere, calling for negotiations without any content, as a generic slogan, does more harm than good.
In sum, it is good that Lula is using his prestige and standing as a statesman, as a person with good standing among the Global South who is seen as a democrat, to seek a peace plan for Ukraine. But any plan that seeks to force Ukraine to capitulate would be regressive.
[The full version of this interview can be read at links.org.au.]