Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva engaged in a meeting on Wednesday evening that reportedly lasted more than an hour – following months of tensions and personal swipes that began when Lula, still a presidential candidate, insulted Zelensky as a “nice comedian.”
Lula, a hardline socialist, served two terms as president of Brazil between 2003 and 2011, during which a court found that he engaged in illegal corrupt activities; multiple appeals on the case failed. Despite this, the nation’s top court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF), overturned his multiple corruption convictions on technicalities and let him run again. In addition to allegedly taking kickbacks, Lula spent much of his time as president expanding relations with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, helping found the BRICS coalition that unites the two countries with Brazil, India, and South Africa – and is set to expand in January.
During his most recent time in office, starting in January, Lula has asserted that Zelensky is “as responsible” for getting invaded by Russia as Putin is responsible for invading and stated that he would allow Putin to travel freely to Brazil despite the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing a warrant for him over atrocities committed in Ukraine in March.
As a result, conversations with Kyiv have been elusive. In March, Lula and Zelensky scheduled an in-person meeting in Japan, but Zelensky simply failed to show up, leaving Lula “upset.” Zelensky laughed off the incident and insisted it was not his fault.
The two rescheduled their meeting for this week, as both are in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly’s annual high-level debate, in which the world’s heads of government are all invited to deliver speeches on topics of their choice. After much speculation that Lula would abruptly cancel the meeting, the two did convene, reportedly spending more than an hour together.
Neither took questions from the press. They did not issue a joint statement. Neither the websites of the official presidencies of Brazil or Ukraine covered the meeting, though the Kyiv office posted multiple updates on similar discussions with other leaders, including some friendly to Putin, such as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Instead, Lula and Zelensky posted photos of their meeting on Twitter, both wearing pained expressions on their faces.
Zelensky described the encounter, the first of its kind between the two leaders, as “honest and constructive.”
“Brazilian representative will continue to take part in the Peace Formula meetings,” Zelensky announced:
Important meeting with @LulaOficial.
Following our honest and constructive discussion, we instructed our diplomatic teams to work on the next steps in our bilateral relations and peace efforts.
Brazilian representative will continue to take part in the Peace Formula meetings. pic.twitter.com/kC7f6MF0FZ
— Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) September 20, 2023
On his account, Lula announced that he and Zelensky enjoyed a “good conversation over the importance of the paths to construct peace and always maintain dialogue open between our countries”:
Hoje me reuni em Nova York com o presidente ucraniano Volodymyr Zelensky. Tivemos uma boa conversa sobre a importância dos caminhos para construção da paz e de mantermos sempre o diálogo aberto entre nossos países.
— Lula (@LulaOficial) September 20, 2023
In remarks to reporters following the exchange, Lula’s External Relations minister, Mauro Vieira, called the conversation between the two leaders “friendly.”
“A long discussion, in a calm, friendly environment, in which they exchanged information about their countries and the situation in the world at the moment,” Vieira described. “The presidents also instructed their teams, their ministers, to continue in contact to develop bilateral relations and discuss the possibilities of peace [presumably between Ukraine and Russia, not Ukraine and Brazil].”
Vieira’s Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, described the meeting as having “broken the ice” between the two leaders – “not that there was any ice.”
“The meeting was very warm and honest,” Kuleba told reporters. “I think that now the two presidents better understand each other’s positions.”
Kuleba’s claim that no “ice” existed between the leaders is strongly contradicted by their recent exchanges – as recent as this Tuesday, when a scowling Zelensky appeared to refuse to applaud Lula’s address to the General Assembly:
Zelensky não aplaude Lula durante discurso do presidente brasileiro na Assembleia-Geral da ONU.
Pronunciamento do petista foi interrompido por palmas cinco vezes. Em todas elas, líder ucraniano permaneceu imóvel.
— Metrópoles (@Metropoles) September 19, 2023
Lula set the tone for the relationship in an interview with Time magazine last year while campaigning against his conservative rival and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
“I see the President of Ukraine, speaking on television, being applauded, getting a standing ovation by all the [European] parliamentarians,” Lula said at the time. “This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty.”
“You are encouraging this guy [Zelensky], and then he thinks he is the cherry on your cake. We should be having a serious conversation,” Lula continued. “OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.”
Upon winning the election – which prompted nationwide protests in Brazil from citizens who did not want to be governed by a convicted criminal – Lula presented himself as an impartial potential arbiter in Ukraine, jockeying for a position to mediate talks between Moscow and Kyiv. Zelensky appeared to entertain the idea by scheduling a meeting with Lula on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, then failing to show up.
“I had a bilateral meeting with Ukraine here in this hall at 3:15 p.m.,” an “upset” Lula told reporters after Zelensky did not appear. “We waited and kept getting information that they were delayed. So then I met with the president of Vietnam. When the president of Vietnam left, the president of Ukraine did not appear.”
“Zelensky is a grown-up. He knows what he’s doing,” Lula added.
Asked about the incident – specifically, if he was disappointed that he missed the opportunity to meet Lula, Zelensky smiled and replied, “I think it disappointed him.”
When he was later asked about the incident, Zelensky insisted, “Something didn’t work at the G7, I don’t want to go into details, but the problem definitely did not come from our side.”