Big countries have big ambitions. The world's fifth largest country, the sleeping giant of the southern chemisphere, has controlled its ambitions for too long, except in football. Brazil was never close to the world's ruling circles but now it moves forward and upward, gaining weight economically, politically and militarily. Most recently, it has teamed up with Russia, to develop state of the art jet fighters and space launchers, a move to boost its defence capabilities and to match the country's power with its size.
For Putin's Russia, it's a step further in South America, but much more important than Venezuela. Chavez's pocket oil empire may be regarded as obscure but buys new hardware and has ambitions to rule the Caribbean, taking over the revolution's banner from Fidel. Brazil is a serious country with a vast potential and a hunger for success. It has every right to strenghten its military capabilities and in doing so, to form alliances and make agreements that it deems advantageous. But it is for the rest of the world to assess and decide how to accomodate these ambitions.
Brazil has a history of special relations with Europe and a history of growing distrust towards the US. In defence and military it has for decades preferred Europe, France specifically but recently it has looked for non-traditional partners, like South Africa. Russia was not Brazil's major contractor in the soviet era but in the last decade, Putin's push southwards brought Gazprom and Russia's oil companies in cooperation with Petrobras. Now it's the turn of military industries has come.
Military co-operation usually brings with it strategic consequences, even if it's tagged as "pure business." In areas like missile technology, these consequences may be enormous. Everyone knows what "space launch vehicles" may be used for and what the technology means in military terms. If the agreement is fulfilled, the efforts to contain proliferation will be dealt a serious blow. Merged with Brazil's aim to posess nuclear weapons, renewed under Lula's presidency, the prospect of the first "southern" long-range nuclear missile within 10 or 20 years becomes very likely. It would be better for the West if it had insight and some control, should that become reality.
It is in the West's interest to keep Brazil on its side. But every time the notion was brought up of a "global NATO" with Brazil, Japan and other emerging powers that share the Western set of values on board, it was almost ridiculed. And the idea of expanding the UN Security Council got bogged down in high diplomacy. Russia is more than happy to step into South America's "no man's land" just as China does in Africa. In 20 years or so, it may be too late for the West to renew the broken link.
Marek Swierczynski is a journalist with a special interest in defence and security matters and and a member of the Polish Euro-Atlantic Society.