India wants to avoid a Ukraine fight at G-20, but world powers have other plans

Prime Minister Modi addressing the Opening Segment of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Delhi Marcb 2, 2023. Photo Twitter @narendramodi

NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on world powers gathering Thursday (March 2, 2023) in India’s capital to draw on the inspiration of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi and “focus not on what divides but on what unites us.”

It was a not-so-subtle warning that the deep divisions over the war in Ukraine risked spoiling India’s ambitious agenda as host of this week’s Group of 20 meeting, a gathering of foreign ministers representing the world’s 20 largest economies.

India’s populist leader hopes to unite the world behind an agenda of food and energy security, anti-corruption, disaster resilience and counterterrorism. But other countries arriving in New Delhi insist the Ukraine conflict can’t simply be swept under the rug.

Western and European powers led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken are using the gathering to condemn Russia’s invasion and build support for Ukraine as its economy languishes under constant barrage by Russian missile and drone attacks.

China and Russia, meanwhile, are presenting themselves as peacemakers, pushing for negotiations that can bring an end to a one-year conflict that has substantially increased global food and energy prices.

The message has some appeal for countries in the developing world whose economies are reeling from stubbornly high inflation and view the war as a pointless European conflict. But others see Moscow’s incursion as an acute threat to global principles of sovereignty and nonaggression.

Amid the disagreements, Modi is trying to strike a theme of unity and compromise.

“We should not allow issues that we cannot resolve together, to come in the way of those we can,” Modi said in his opening address. “As you meet in the land of Gandhi and the Buddha, I pray that you will draw inspiration from India’s civilizational ethos.”

Modi’s plea is forcing the United States to engage in a delicate dance. Blinken and his top aides want to remain respectful to Modi’s wishes as host, especially as they seek to court India as a counterweight to a rising China. But they feel strongly that the raging war in Europe can’t be ignored.

“We must continue to call on Russia to end its war of aggression and withdraw from Ukraine for the sake of international peace and economic stability,” Blinken said during the first session of the G-20 on Thursday.

“Even as we rally support for Ukraine, we remain focused and leading on global challenges. It’s what the world needs and expects,” he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used his remarks to “apologize” to representatives from India and the global South for the “indecent behavior of a number of Western delegations” whose remarks on the Ukraine war turned the meeting into a “farce,” according to Russia’s state owned Sputnik news outlet.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, meanwhile, promoted China’s 12-point peace plan for Ukraine as something all G-20 should rally behind.

“Global development and prosperity cannot be achieved without a peaceful and stable international environment,” Qin said in a statement.

Modi wants to avoid a repeat of what happened at the G-20 meeting of finance officials last week, when countries failed to reach a consensus on the joint communique after Russia and China opposed two paragraphs that criticized the “war in Ukraine” as harming the global economy, according to Indian officials.

Although the G-20 issued joint statements from Indonesia last year that contained similar wording, Russia and China did not greenlight the language this year. Russian and Chinese officials objected to the use of the word “war” in the statement.

Indian officials have often repeated Modi’s catchphrase, “this is not the era of war,” to convey what India says is its neutral position condemning neither Russia nor Ukraine. That language was also included in the paragraphs rejected by China and Russia.

Blinken’s pitch to G-20 countries that have been neutral in the conflict is that they should not see Russia as a country open to “meaningful diplomacy.”

In Uzbekistan on Wednesday, Blinken said no one wants to end the war sooner than the Ukrainians – but there is “zero evidence” Russians want to negotiate in good faith.

Blinken said the Kremlin’s position that Ukraine must acquiesce to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory as a precondition for negotiations shouldn’t be accepted by any nation.

“That’s obviously a non-starter and should be a non-starter, not just for Ukraine and for us, but for countries around the world,” Blinken said.

U.S. officials have also raised doubts about China’s ability to be a productive mediator in the conflict, given its long-standing ties to the Kremlin.

Other European countries at the G-20 echoed Blinken’s skepticism of Russian or Chinese diplomatic overtures. Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said countries needed to provide material support to Ukraine “because there is no alternative for Ukraine than success on the battlefield.”

“Only if Ukraine is successful on the battlefield, it will be able to be successful at a negotiating table,” he told reporters in New Delhi.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in Berlin on Thursday that no one should be negotiating a peace agreement “over the heads of the Ukrainians.”

Italy’s right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made an appearance at the event and staked out a unique position calling on India to play a key role in bringing an end to the war.

Appearing beside her Indian counterpart in a joint address, Meloni said she hopes Modi “may play a central role in facilitating a negotiating process for the cessation of hostilities for a just peace.”

Modi’s government has been heavily advertising its role as the host of the G-20 as part of a campaign to rally domestic political support and portray India as a geopolitical heavyweight, particularly among countries in the global South. As the U.S.-China relations have frayed, India has positioned itself as a key player in global supply chains and international diplomacy.

While India’s neutral position has been criticized by some Western politicians, the country has emphasized its economic dependencies on Russian oil and military equipment.

Russia is now the third-largest supplier of crude oil to India, accounting for almost a fifth of its imports by value last year, according to India’s Commerce Ministry data.

That close relationship has created unease in Washington, especially Congress. But a senior State Department official said India’s energy ties were less problematic given the price cap on Russian oil imposed by the West.

“The Indians are buying at well below the price cap,” said the official. “It’s good for the Indian economy. It’s stabilizing oil markets. It’s depriving Russia of excess revenue that can fuel the war.”



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