Western nations accept ‘climbdown’ on Ukraine to salvage G20’s relevance

It took until close to midnight on Friday for a handful of leading developing countries to propose their compromise. Accept this, was the pitch, or bear the consequences of a fractured G20.

After five days of gruelling discussions, the western delegates took the deal. When their bosses assembled the next day at the summit in New Delhi, the scale of their concession was made stark.

The US, EU and other western allies had agreed to remove condemnation of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine from the meeting’s communique, in exchange for pledges from all 20 states — including Russia and China — to respect territorial integrity and work towards a “just peace” for Kyiv.

“This is a climbdown,” said Sarang Shidore, director of the Quincy Institute’s Global South programme.

The degree to which the western allies were willing to compromise, despite Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Putin skipping the summit, highlighted just how keen they were to salvage the credibility of a grouping that had come under severe pressure since Russia invaded Ukraine just over 18 months ago.

“If we would be writing the text ourselves, it would be looking very different,” said a senior EU official. “It’s a process of building a global consensus. So if this means formulating compromises, then this is what . . . needs to be done.”

US officials echoed that argument. The west needed big developing countries onside to have any chance of them pressurising Russia to keep in check with global rules and achieve peace in Ukraine.

“The major economies of the world — including, by the way, Brazil, India, South Africa — are united on the need to uphold international law and for Russia to respect international law,” said Jon Finer, the deputy US national security adviser.

Russia’s lead negotiator praised the statement — which also calls for a return to the Black Sea grain deal to export Ukrainian foodstuffs that Moscow has withdrawn from — as “balanced”. Ukraine, however, condemned the shift in rhetoric as “nothing to be proud of”.

Having accepted that they cannot force Putin to back down alone, the New Delhi declaration represents the most far-reaching effort by Washington, Brussels and other western capitals to forge a shared position with the world’s most powerful developing economies.

India’s leader Narendra Modi with Chinese premier Li Qiang
India’s leader Narendra Modi, right, with Chinese premier Li Qiang on Saturday. China’s president Xi Jinping stayed away from the summit © Evan Vucci/Pool/AP

It is also a largely unexpected win for Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who is facing national elections next year. Modi’s decision to parlay his rotating G20 presidency into a year-long platform to promote India’s culture, foreign policy goals, and ambition to serve as a leader of the so-called Global South developing countries has paid off, analysts said.

“Washington clearly has gone the extra mile to ensure that its burgeoning and increasingly close partner India was not embarrassed with what would otherwise have been the first G20 without a joint declaration,” Shidore said.

Since India’s G20 presidency began in December, working groups of central bankers, education, health, tourism and other ministers leading up to this weekend’s leaders’ summit, had all sought to break a deadlock over the “Bali paragraph” — text from the final G20 summit in Indonesia last November that condemned Russian “aggression” in Ukraine.

Russia and China vetoed the language, and many developing nations had voiced their discomfort at it remaining in this year’s statement.

While India continued to express optimism it could find a consensus at the summit, many foreign delegations were sceptical.

“There were question marks about the future of the G20. And I think India’s strong leadership has preserved the G20,” the senior EU official said.

Western diplomats argued that their willingness to compromise on dropping the reference to Russian “aggression” had ensured China and others agreed to wording on stopping attacks on infrastructure, restoring the Black Sea grain deal, and upholding territorial integrity.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with France’s Emmanuel Macron
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Emmanuel Macron on Saturday. The French president told reporters: ‘We are here to mainly talk about economic topics and climate change’ © Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Amitabh Kant, India’s G20 lead negotiator, said at a news conference on Sunday that the compromise “demonstrates both the prime minister’s and India’s great ability to bring all developing countries, all the emerging markets, all developed countries — China, Russia, everybody — around the same table and bring consensus”.

All 83 paragraphs of the leaders’ declaration, Kant said, had “100 per cent acceptance”, including eight paragraphs relating to geopolitical issues. “This is a complete statement with 100 per cent unanimity,” Kant said.

India was also able to secure the admission of the African Union into the G20, a commitment on reform of multilateral banks, along with progress on the regulation of cryptocurrencies and the framework for restructuring heavily indebted countries’ debt.

There was no such fanfare from China, however, which played down the win for its delegates, who were led by Xi Jinping’s second-in-command, premier Li Qiang. Below a large headline item on Xi discussing development of China’s north-east, the official government news agency Xinhua ran only a brief report on the G20.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron also sought to play down the compromise in the communique, saying the G20 was “not the forum for political discussions”.

“We are here to mainly talk about economic topics and climate change,” Macron told reporters after the summit. “Of course we disagree on Ukraine given that Russia is a member of the G20. That said, this is not the main place where this will be solved.”

However, other western delegates claimed this weekend’s compromise will aid their efforts to persuade developing nations to pressure Moscow into ending the war. Their negotiating partners would now go back to their capitals with pledges on preserving Ukraine’s territory and infrastructure in mind.

“It’s not the end of the discussion,” the senior EU official added. “But it’s another stepping stone in the right direction.”

Additional reporting by Joe Leahy in Beijing

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