Inside the talks leading to a step-down in the G20’s Ukraine declaration

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New Delhi

After hundreds of hours of negotiations and more than a dozen drafts, representatives of the world’s richest nations faced a difficult choice late Friday evening: Accept watered-down language about Ukraine in a final G20 declaration, or have no declaration at all.

As the clock ticked down, the leaders chose the former, hoping to avoid open fractures within their group, a ding to the G20’s credibility and embarrassment for the summit’s host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In doing so, the group was left with a statement that avoided any explicit condemnation of Russia’s invasion, opting instead for vows from the 20 member states to respect territorial integrity and work toward peace.

Four diplomats involved in the discussions described a pained process that resulted in a document that – despite public support from the White House – left many supporters of Ukraine deeply disappointed.

Ukraine itself declared the document “nothing to be proud of.”

The talks unfolded over 200 hours of meetings and 15 different drafts, according to the Indian government official responsible for shepherding the talks.

Throughout the process, representatives from Russia and China continually sought to strip away more forceful language regarding Moscow’s invasion, diplomats said. Focus turned to the paragraph in last year’s G20 declaration adopted in Bali condemning Russian “aggression” in Ukraine.

Representatives from some of the developing nations represented in the G20, many of whom maintain ties to Moscow, also expressed misgivings about including the language in this year’s statement, leading to prolonged negotiations over how to describe the conflict.

The diplomats involved said the wrangling over Ukraine proved to be the most complex part of the discussions, with several draft versions of the statement containing no language about the conflict whatsoever.

By the days leading up to the summit, it had become clear that any statement agreed to by the leaders would contain language that fell short of the statement from last year.

Just before midnight Friday, it was clear to diplomats involved that the compromise language was the only option, aside from not producing a statement at all.

“This is not the statement the G7 or NATO would have written,” one European official involved in the talks said. “This is different beast. The expectations have to be different.”

Even French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to acknowledge the statement wasn’t exactly satisfactory.

“Let us face it that G20 is not a forum for political discussions,” he said in New Delhi, suggesting the summit was better suited for talks on the economy and climate change.

White House officials were quick to praise the document as “consequential” and “unprecedented.” And they pointed out that even without explicit mention of Russia’s invasion, the statement did convince nations like Brazil and South Africa – which haven’t taken sides in the war – to agree on maintaining territorial integrity and halting attacks on infrastructure.

Biden himself said Sunday the final declaration didn’t represent a “wedge” with the global south. Instead, he said it represented Russia’s intransigence.

“It’s a wedge issue with Russia, which is present, and China, which is present and has a representative,” Biden said at a news conference.

Behind the scenes, officials were also mindful of how important this year’s G20 has been to elevating Modi as a global statesman. Concluding the summit without a statement would have amounted to a major disappointment; no G20 summit in the past 15 years has ended without one.

The US and Europe have sought to cultivate Modi as a partner and bolster his status on the world stage, making it more difficult to stomach the prospect of blocking a final joint statement, according to officials.

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