Watered-down G20 statement on Ukraine is sign of India’s growing influence


It took exhausted Indian diplomats 200 hours of non-stop negotiations, 300 bilateral meetings and 15 drafts, but in the end the G20 countries reached a consensus declaration on the war in Ukraine – one that largely retreated into generalised principles rather than the specific condemnation of Russia that the same group of leaders agreed when they met in Bali a year ago.

Moreover, no invitation was extended to Ukrainie’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to address the gathering, meaning the only direct combatant around the table was Russia, represented by its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

India is already hailing the agreement as a diplomatic triumph, one that was tied up at least 24 hours before the summit closed. Going into the summit, there had been three options facing the leaders: a lowest-common-denominator agreement (the eventual outcome), a statement with footnotes allowing some countries to disown parts of the agreement, or no declaration.

The agreement admits blandly that there are different assessments of the situation, but upholds the principles of national sovereignty, the UN charter, previous UN resolutions on Ukraine, and describes the use of nuclear weapons as impermissible. Critically, it does not repeat the statement in Bali that most countries condemn Russia’s invasion, or that Russia should withdraw its troops unconditionally and immediately.

India’s external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, did not seem too bothered to justify the outcome. “Bali was Bali. New Delhi is Delhi. Bali was a year ago, the situation was different. Many things have happened since then,” he said.

The outcome obviously reflects India’s rigid determination not to take sides in the war, but it is extraordinary that the majority of countries at the G20 that do oppose Russia’s war of conquest were so prepared to be muzzled by the minority that prefer to look away.

A UK official said the joint declaration, widely seen as weak, was in fact effective at putting pressure on Moscow. “By achieving consensus in New Delhi, the G20 has forced [Vladimir] Putin to commit to a cessation of attacks on infrastructure, to the withdrawal of troops and to the return of territory,” they said.

Lavrov, unsurprisingly, did not share this interpretation. “We were able to prevent the west’s attempts to ‘Ukrainise’ the summit agenda,” the veteran diplomat said, calling the two-day gathering a success. He pointed out: “The text doesn’t mention Russia at all.”

The compromise must be hard for Ukraine to take, and will only increase its nervousness that the next diplomatic staging post – an EU decision on Ukraine’s accession in December– will be equally empty. The Ukrainian foreign ministry said the G20 had “nothing to be proud of”.

At one level, the outcome is supremely irrelevant to the war. Nothing really has changed. Drones are still directed towards Kyiv, Ukrainian defence ministers are still calling for more and heavier weapons, and Zelenskiy is starting to prepare his people for a third harsh wartime winter.

But at another level, the softening of the language is a further signal that as Joe Biden faces an election year, Ukraine is perceptibly slipping down his list of foreign policy priorities as the need grows to nurture alliances to contain China in the Indo-Pacific.

Relatedly, it was out of deference to Narendra Modi’s need for a clear diplomatic win that the US did not push the Ukraine issue to deadlock. It is hard to underestimate how important the Democrat administration sees India, a powerful rival to China. Kurt Campbell, often described as Biden’s Indo-Pacific tsar, describes it as “the most important relationship on the planet”, adding: “It is no secret that India is one of most sought-after players on the global stage.”

Lavrov claimed Biden knew he could not afford to alienate Modi, the self-appointed leader of the global south, and that their stance was critical. “India has truly consolidated G20 members from the global south,” he flattered Modi.

If so, it suggests all Ukraine’s considerable efforts at diplomatic outreach in recent months – to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India and parts of Africa – has not produced much reward. Turkey, for instance, used the G20 to tell the west to accept Russia’s terms to restart the grain deals.

Washington, for its part, senses that if it is to isolate Beijing, it has to be patient. Throughout the summit, US officials such as the deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer, tried to insert a wedge by referring to South Africa, India and Brazil as “the three democratic members of the Brics” and saying that they and the US were all committed to the G20’s success. “And if China is not, that’s unfortunate for everyone,” Finer said. “But much more unfortunate, we believe, for China.”

It is now up to Modi to see if the wider agenda he wanted to advance at the summit, concerning debt, the climate crisis and multilateralism, is pursued. His call for an extra, virtual G20 summit under his chairmanship in two months suggests he believes there are ideas on the table that he can deliver.

Probably the most intriguing, if sketchy, proposal was the proposed energy and transport link between India and Europe passing through the key power centres of the Middle East – a conceptual rival to China’s New Silk Road, the increasingly discredited belt and road initiative (BRI). Biden has used successive summits to try to rebrand a clunky western alternative to Belt and Road, and this seems the most persuasive so far.

Officials in the countries involved, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are expected within 60 days to come up with a timeline for the projects – linking energy grids, laying undersea and overland cables, and providing more digital connections. Some of the tasks involve installing hydrogen pipelines from Israel to Europe, which administration officials hope will advance clean energy goals.

Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “The BRI was China’s geopolitical calling card.” He said the scope of the India, Middle East, Europe corridor could “reshape the discourse around development and infrastructure assistance, taking the fight to Beijing on the international stage”.

Ukraine can only hope that Washington does not come to regard a prolonged war and the search for wider alliances against Beijing as in some way in conflict with one another.

The Guardian

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