Ukraine war: why the G20 refused to condemn Russian aggression – and how that might change
G20: India’s prime minister Narendra Modi at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi with world leaders. EPA-EFE/India press information bureau
14 September 2023
Writing in The Conversation, Dr Jenny Mathers from the Department of International Politics discusses the concluding statement at the recent G20 summit which refused to condemn Russian aggression in relation to the war in Ukraine.
The recent G20 summit in India concluded with a statement on Russia’s war in Ukraine that differs in a number of subtle but highly significant ways from the declaration made by world leaders at the end of the 2022 summit in Bali.
At first glance, the New Delhi statement appears to offer support for Kyiv. It explicitly upholds the principles of sovereignty and opposes the threat or use of force to gain territory. It describes the use of nuclear weapons or threats to use them as “inadmissible”. It acknowledges the human suffering caused by the war.
It also calls for the resumption of the Black Sea Initiative to ensure the export of grain, fertilisers and other vital agricultural products to markets around the world.
But there is a curious absence at the heart of these passages: actions are condemned but no responsibility is assigned for them.
In sharp contrast to the wording of the 2022 G20 communique, there is no reference to Russia as the aggressor that started this war and whose troops continue their illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. There is no acknowledgement that only Russia has threatened the use of nuclear weapons.
The bland term “human suffering” conceals the torture, rape and murder of civilians and prisoners of war by Russian soldiers that has shocked the world. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is himself the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for his role in the abduction of Ukrainian children and their transfer to Russia.
The Black Sea grain deal did not simply collapse. Russia withdrew from the agreement in July and since then has attacked Ukrainian ports along the Danube River that Kyiv is using to get at least some of its grain to international markets.
It was clear from the outset that the atmosphere of this year’s G20 meeting would be much cooler towards Ukraine than the 2022 summit in Indonesia. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was invited to address the delegates in Bali via video link from Kyiv. But no such invitation was extended in 2023 by India’s Narendra Modi.
Global south rising
To explain this dramatic change in attitude towards the war in Ukraine, some analysts point to shifts in the global balance of political power. Increasingly over the past few years, leading countries in the global south (developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America) have felt able to seek greater influence in international forums. This new reality is beginning to be acknowledged more readily by western governments – not least, the United States.
The global south accounts for an enormous and growing proportion of the world’s purchasing capacity. The Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – now outperform the G7, which is dominated by North America and Europe.
This growth in economic power has been accompanied by a greater sense of confidence and authority by states in Africa, Asia and Latin America in their dealings with the international community. This may well have been stirred by the urgency of the need to address the climate crisis, whose effects are being felt more immediately and more drastically by global south countries.
This shift in economic and, increasingly, political power southwards is becoming an important factor in Russia’s war in Ukraine. While most governments and societies in the west have come out strongly in support of Kyiv, much of the rest of the world has taken a more cautious approach, avoiding condemnations of Russia in favour of calling for both sides to cease hostilities and pursue a negotiated settlement.
This response reflects a concern that the war in Ukraine is consuming time, attention and resources that could otherwise be directed towards finding solutions to other, global, problems – such as poverty, inequalities and, of course, the climate emergency. It also demonstrates a reluctance to support a cause that is important to the west when western governments have often been slow to act on issues that are vital to the survival of populations in the most disadvantaged parts of the world.
By compromising on the wording of the G20 statement, the Biden administration has given Modi a “win” in the form of a communique with unanimous support. This move can be interpreted as an indication of America’s shifting geopolitical priorities. Many in the US believe that strengthening India as a counter balance to China is more important than championing the cause of Ukraine.
But viewing this incident in such stark, zero-sum terms may be a mistake. The US has shown respect and indeed humility by acknowledging that India and other global south countries have a very different perspective on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Washington now has the chance to build a more solid foundation for its relationship with the majority of the world’s governments and societies.
By demonstrating that it takes the political priorities of the global south seriously, the US may find that they are, in turn, more receptive to arguments about the need to oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine.