G-20 diplomats face unity headwinds on Ukraine, war’s impact

Russian's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives at the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali Friday, July 8, 2022. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (AP) — Deeply divided top diplomats from the world’s richest and largest developing nations opened talks Friday with an appeal from the Indonesian host for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

As the foreign ministers from the Group of 20 confront multiple crises, including the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, all are overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and its ripple effects, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told the opening session.

She appealed for unity among the group — which included Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and several European counterparts — despite signs that any consensus on the matter would remain elusive.

“The world has yet to recover from the pandemic but we are already confronted with another crisis: the war in Ukraine,” Marsudi told the gathering. “The ripple effects are being felt globally on food, on energy and physical space.”

She noted that poor and developing countries now face the brunt of fuel and grain shortages resulting from the war in Ukraine and said that the G-20 has a responsibility to step up to deal with the matter or risk losing the world’s faith in the multilateral rules-based international order that emerged after WWII.

The Ukraine war has shaken that order, she said, as Lavrov appeared to shuffle papers without expression at his seat in between the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Mexico at the conference site in the Indonesian resort of Bali.

“Honestly, we cannot deny that it has become more difficult for the world to sit together,” Marsudi continued. “The current world situation makes people lose faith in multilateralism and its capacity to respond effectively to global challenges.”

“So it is our responsibility to end the war sooner than later and settle our differences at the negotiating table, not at the battlefield,” she said. “The world is watching us, so we cannot fail.”

Marsudi’s comments were the only portion of the conference that was open to the media, although individual ministers are expected to hold separate one-on-one and smaller group meetings on the sidelines of the event, which is a precursor to a G-20 leaders’ summit to be held at the same venue in November.

Notwithstanding her appeal, there was little prospect for achieving the kind of lofty consensuses on weighty issues that have been a hallmark of past gatherings. And, the group got a last-minute jolt with the resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the champions of the West’s hard line on Russia.

While Johnson’s departure is unlikely to dent U.S. and European efforts to promote a tough line on Russia among other G-20 members, it will almost certainly be seen as a sign of weakness by China and Russia.

They will face off against Blinken and his French and German counterparts who had expected to be joined by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. She instead left early to return to London to deal with the fallout from Johnson’s resignation.

U.S. officials say they are determined not to allow distractions to divert attention from what they believe should be the primary focuses of the Bali conference: the disruption to world food and energy supplies caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, blaming Moscow for its cause, and marshalling an international response to prevent further shortages that are already wreaking havoc in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Yet, with East and West so divided and North-South differences emerging, the potential for a G-20 agreement on a way forward appeared negligible.

U.S. officials said it is less important for the G-20 to present a unified stance as a group than it would be for smaller blocs of countries and individual nations to speak out and take action. In the past, however, the G-20 has produced joint communiques on key issues like terrorism, transnational crime, climate and economic matters that have been lauded as important international policy blueprints.

Thus, competition for such support among the group has been fierce. Wang and Lavrov each stopped in various Asian capitals on their way to Bali, drumming up support for various Chinese and Russian positions and fortifying their ties among non-allied nations in the region ahead of the G-20. Blinken, the French, Germans and Brits, meanwhile, all arrived in Bali from two Western-oriented and organized gatherings in Europe last week: the G-7 and NATO summits at which there was little sign of rancor or debate and unity on Ukraine was assured.

With its broader membership, including countries like host Indonesia and large developing nations like India, Brazil, South Africa and others, the G-20 is far more diverse, skeptical of Western intentions and more open to entreaties and offers from big neighbors like China and Russia and more vulnerable to their threats. Others attending include: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, and the European Union.

Attempting to ply a middle route, this year’s G-20 president, Indonesia, has tried to bridge what gaps are possible, laying out an agenda that is not inherently divisive or political. The country has sought to remain neutral in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and President Joko Widodo has been guarded in his comments.

Widodo was the first Asian leader to visit the warring countries and at Western insistence has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the November summit along with Putin, hoping to appease all sides and limit any distractions from the forum’s agenda. It remains unclear if either will attend, although the topic will certainly be discussed at the foreign ministers meeting.

But as is often the case, the largest participants will likely control the final message and China, Russia and the U.S. are battling for supremacy.

While Blinken will not meet with Lavrov and has not seen his Russian counterpart since before the Ukraine war, he will meet on Saturday with Wang, the Chinese foreign minister.

The U.S. and China are at severe and worsening odds over numerous issues ranging from tariffs and trade and human rights to Taiwan and disputes in the South China Sea. U.S. officials said they did not expect Saturday’s meeting to produce any breakthroughs on these issues but expressed hope that it would help keep lines of communications open and create “guardrails” to guide the world’s two largest economies as they navigate increasingly complex and potentially explosive matters.

While Blinken meets with Wang and his Indian, Indonesian and Argentine counterparts in Bali, Lavrov also has full agenda. The top Russian diplomat met with Wang on Thursday and has scheduled talks with the foreign ministers from Mexico, South Africa and Brazil among others.