By the Editor – The nuclear Pandora’s Box has opened consequent of Putin’s War in Ukraine. Countries, such as Ukraine, who were ‘guaranteed’ inviolable sovereignty provided they relinquished nuclear weapons are perhaps now ruing the day they agreed to such terms. The author here demonstrates how the ramifications of this war have spread globally and are encouraging a narrative and activities unaligned with Western grand strategy.
How did we get here?
Brazil remains determined to become the first non-nuclear-armed state to build and operate its own nuclear submarines. This Latin American powerhouse still quietly hopes to achieve this with Russian reactor expertise, despite that country’s growing international isolation after invading Ukraine on 24 February. Jair Bolsonaro himself, the right-wing Brazilian president, has faced sharp criticism at home and abroad after declaring ‘solidarity’ with Russia during a 14–16 February state visit at that country’s invitation.
Submarine reactors were not publicly on the agenda. Instead, press statements highlighted bilateral cooperation on civilian small modular reactors (SMRs, including ship-borne ones) and deep-water exploration (to expand continental shelf claims and offshore hydrocarbon extraction). The visiting delegation also met with the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom regarding its participation in Brazil’s long-delayed Angra–3 nuclear power station, located about 80 miles (130 km) west of Rio de Janeiro. Shortly after returning from Russia, however, Bolsonaro disclosed at a business gathering that Moscow discussions had included nuclear propulsion.
But why Russia – and why now? Three related reasons: Brazil’s long-standing push towards nuclear (propulsion) sovereignty; persistent technical obstacles; and growing Russian influence in Brazil.
Nuclear (propulsion) sovereignty
Brazil sees nuclear (propulsion) sovereignty as a national strategic asset whose economic and military value must be fiercely protected. Parts of the military, especially in the Navy, still favour developing nuclear weapons. Brazilian nuclear ambitions date back to the 1950s but accelerated greatly in the 1970s, driven mainly by regional rivalry between Brazil’s military rulers and Argentina’s own, who had nuclear weapons ambitions too. (Coincidentally perhaps, ‘nuclear’ was also openly on the agenda of a state visit to Russia by Alberto Fernandéz, Argentina’s centre-left president, 11 days before Bolsonaro’s trip.) The Brazilian Navy had sought nuclear submarines since the mid-1970s but after seeing the Royal Navy’s own so successfully deny the Argentinian Navy access to the South Atlantic during the 1982 Falklands War, acquiring nuclear submarines became a Brazilian priority (though one buffeted by political and financial crises since then).
Argentina gave up its nuclear dreams in 1983 but Brazil pushed on, continuing to develop its expertise and infrastructure though now lacking that same imperative of a strategic rivalry. Issued under the leftist former president, José Lula da Silva, the 2008 National Defence Strategy stressed the need for Brazilian sovereignty over its vast Exclusive Economic Zone. The only way to protect sea lanes, and offshore hydrocarbon and mineral deposits, for example, and expand continental shelf claims, would be through a modern submarine force but one underpinned by a domestic nuclear submarine development programme (PROSUB). The original aim was a mixed fleet of up to 15 (Riachuelo-class) conventional and six (Álvaro Alberto-class) nuclear boats in service by the mid-2030s.
American and British nuclear submarines have long dominated the South Atlantic so those countries oppose new nuclear submarines there. By 2008, France was the only nuclear power able and willing to meet Brazil’s needs. Aside from knowledge transfer on and assistance with infrastructure and conventional submarine design/construction, France has, officially at least, only been enabling PROSUB nuclear propulsion integration. Most hulls and all reactors themselves are to be Brazilian-built. But for reasons below, Brazil has found itself looking for nuclear expertise from both a NATO member and the alliance’s main adversary, Russia.
Persistent technical obstacles
Reactor miniaturisation remains the key obstacle. The design that the Brazilian Navy has been developing at its Aramar Experimental Centre, in São Paulo State, is technically sound but too big and heavy to fit into the new Álvaro Alberto class. Discussions with America stalled in 2018 over engineering issues, fuel certification (see below) and repeated American requests for more information. Brazil’s long-standing refusal to yield to American pressure on intrusive, full International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections ultimately doomed talks. Brazil keeps refusing on sovereignty and intellectual property grounds around home-grown enrichment centrifuges so America keeps blocking Brazilian access to most foreign expertise.
But not all. ROSATOM’s patient courting of Brazilian politicians and officials, including through event sponsorship, paid off. Domestic political and other opposition to Russia’s involvement in PROSUB has meant some delays since 2018–19. But given Bolsonaro’s stated intent to expand bilateral military-technical cooperation, Russian SMR expertise seemed the solution. And not just to reactor miniaturisation problems. Expertise in nuclear-reactor-fed motor engineering and uranium enrichment up to 20% (from only 4.25% at Angra–1 and –2) would remove the two remaining technical obstacles. Some in Brazil have even called for weapons-grade enrichment of fuel to 90% to maximise submarine performance. Hence lingering American/international concerns about PROSUB’s real aims under the guise of (nuclear) sovereignty – even more so now that Russia could feature this prominently.
Growing Russian influence in Brazil
As Russia has sought to compete with America across the Western Hemisphere, ties with Brazil have deepened. It is Russia’s largest South American trading partner. And Brazil, now a rotating member of the UN Security Council but long seeking a permanent seat, has support for this from only one permanent member: Russia. Meanwhile, as a world-leading agri-dairy producer, Brazil imports 90% of its fertilisers and Russia supplies nearly 25% of that. So with fertiliser prices up more than 300% last year, Russia was already a key partner anyway. (Fertiliser was supposedly the main reason for Bolsonaro’s state visit.)
And that is even before any ‘ideological’ alignment, whether previously on the ‘Left’ with former presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff – the former the frontrunner to defeat Bolsonaro in October’s upcoming presidential elections – or now on the ‘Right’ with Bolsonaro. His son Carlos, a Rio de Janeiro municipal councilman with no federal mandate but who heads social media work on his father’s re-election campaign, inexplicably accompanied him to Russia. Given previous form, credible suspicions are that it was to get assistance in manipulating the ongoing election campaign through targeted hacking and disinformation.
Russian disinformation is rampant in Brazil. Well over half of mobiles there already carry the Russian-developed (and, reliably believed, -controlled) Telegram app, with Bolsonaro’s Telegram channel having the largest following in the country. Now banned in Europe, Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik have a fairly wide and receptive audience in Brazil, often stoking forms of anti-‘colonial’ sentiment aimed at former European powers in the region and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nations – primarily America and Britain.
Against this backdrop, then, an attempt by a United States Navy nuclear propulsion engineer to sell Brazil highly classified materials on America’s latest Virginia-class submarine and reactor designs, starting in April 2020, will not have helped. Though Brazilian authorities tipped off American law enforcement and actively collaborated in the investigation that led to two successful convictions in February 2022, this cannot have improved existing American perceptions of PROSUB. Not least because the initial package of stolen documents sent to Brazilian authorities in April 2020 appears not to have returned to American hands again until December 2020. While there is much we will never find out about this case, exactly what happened to those documents during that time remains unclear. But American authorities will surely regard all this information as compromised.
Where are we headed?
Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine leaves Brazil and PROSUB at a crossroads. Mounting international sanctions will make it not just increasingly difficult but already politically toxic to deal either with the Russian State or linked entities and institutions. And yet, although Brazil has finally criticised Russian aggression, this was not done willingly. Top Brazilian politicians from the ‘Left’ to the ‘Right’ – including presidents Lula da Silva and Bolsonaro themselves – still refuse to condemn Russian aggression unequivocally. Presumably, that is partly because Russian expertise in SMRs and related technologies remains critical to PROSUB.
One option now facing Brazil is to press on alone and risk further delaying the commissioning of the first Álvaro Alberto-class nuclear boat. Originally scheduled for 2025, that is now looking more like the late 2030s.
Another option, seemingly favoured by the Bolsonaro administration, is to stick with Russia quietly and hope it can again assist as normally as possible within a year or two. Possible but increasingly unlikely: given the hardening of positions on both sides of the Ukrainian war, America, Britain and other Western powers will almost certainly pressure Brazil or anyone else considering nuclear/submarine ‘business as usual’ with the Putin regime. And seeking such nuclear know-how illegally or covertly, directly or indirectly, either from Russia itself, or from China or India would also be fraught for Brazil. China and India have directly benefited from Russian submarine reactor expertise so seeking to acquire it indirectly through either nation would still set Brazil on an international collision course over proliferation concerns.
A final option could be to agree to full IAEA inspections to receive western reactor know-how. Given statements by Brazilian politicians over decades, this is unlikely for it would be seen as yielding to ‘colonial’ pressure and undermining Brazilian (nuclear) sovereignty. Yet this much is clear: after Ukraine, unless Brazil makes key technical breakthroughs of its own, continued pursuit of Russian reactor expertise will leave PROSUB dead in the water.
DR VICTOR MADEIRA