Vladimir Putin to dominate G20 Bali summit from afar

Vladimir Putin has decided to skip this week’s meeting of G20 leaders in Bali. But the Russian president and his war against Ukraine, which has deeply divided the world’s biggest economies and sparked myriad global crises, will nevertheless dominate proceedings.

The leaders of the majority of the world’s most powerful nations arrive in Indonesia ahead of Tuesday’s summit opening united by fears over runaway inflation, instability and food and energy shortages, but riven by disagreements over the war, its perpetrator and how the conflict should end.

China and India, the world’s most populous countries and two of its six largest economies, have not condemned Putin and his annexation of swaths of eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile other G20 members such as Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey have rebuffed western demands to punish Russia for its invasion.

“This really is the first G20 to take place after the end of the post-cold war era. You know, this is a new world,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank. “We’re back in a global landscape in which there is militarized rivalry between the west and Russia. And that rivalry is now extending to China. And as a consequence, the ability of the G20 to function as a co-operative body is very much called into question.”

Ahead of the official two-day summit, US president Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping will hold their first in-person meeting as leaders, seeking potential areas of co-operation to arrest a sour relationship that defines the east-west divide on a host of global issues.

While Putin will not attend in person or join the discussions virtually, sending his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian officials remain part of the formal G20 negotiations, which have so far failed to find consensus.

“There will be no agreement on language condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine,” said a senior German official of the G20, echoing downbeat assessments from other western delegations.

In closed-door meetings to draft the summit communiqué, China has maintained its strong support for Russia, stymying efforts by western officials to include language condemning the war. Meetings of G20 finance, foreign and climate ministers this year all failed to produce a joint communiqué, and Russia and the US failed to agree on language for a joint statement at the conclusion of an east Asia summit in Cambodia on Sunday that was attended by 18 nations.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to address the G20 virtually © Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

What is most likely, people briefed on the G20 discussions said, is either a broad, non-specific declaration that this is “not the time for war”, or a 19- or 18-country joint statement. Language condemning nuclear escalation is likely to find agreement, the people said.

Indonesian officials are still trying to convince western leaders to take part in the traditional family photo, people involved in the talks said, amid widespread opposition to appearing alongside Lavrov.

“I would not want to be the Indonesians in the sense that you really are hosting a meeting that is taking place against the backdrop of a level of ideological and geopolitical division that we haven’t seen since the Berlin Wall came down,” said Kupchan , who was special assistant to former US president Barack Obama.

Seventeen leaders are expected to attend in person. Tuesday’s opening discussion will focus on the war in Ukraine, with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy set to address the gathering virtually, officials said. A second session will focus on global health, with a third on digital issues.

Putin’s absence may increase the focus on Xi, with many fellow G20 members uneasy about his relationship with the Kremlin. The summit comes weeks after Xi tightened his grip on power at the Communist party congress, the US released a new national security strategy singling out the threat from China, and the EU resolved to toughen up its attitude towards Beijing.

Asked about China’s role in the communiqué negotiations and whether its defense of Russia’s interests would make a consensus impossible, a French official said: “It’s too early to prejudge the results of the negotiations.” . . We sincerely think there is space for discussions with China on this topic.”

But analysts played down the possible success of sideline talks.

“I have low expectations for tangible outcomes in the US-China meeting,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“A meeting on the margins of a multilateral meeting is not the venue to resolve such strategic differences, so I do not think either head of state is coming to the table prepared to roll up their proverbial sleeves to work out compromises.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping
Putin’s absence may increase the focus on Chinese leader Xi Jinping © Andy Wong/AP

Experts said Japan is one of the few bilateral relations where China wants to change the dynamic and improve ties, so Xi could be in a position to make offers or compromises.

“At least with China the actors are familiar to countries such as Japan and South Korea — and especially for Indonesia, the host,” said a second western official.

Western officials are also keenly aware that for many non-G7 states, the resulting economic challenges, food shortages and energy concerns are more important than the Ukraine conflict itself, and that they must be mindful of finding solutions to support these countries rather than just demanding they joined the condemnation of Moscow.

“We want to avoid the formation of fronts within the G20. We want to be open for dialogue with countries even if they . . . don’t support the sanctions [against Moscow],” said the senior German official. “The G20 accounts for 75 percent of global trade and 60 percent of the world’s population. We can’t just leave these countries to Putin and his propaganda. We need to send a signal.”

Western leaders will also use the summit to seek support for a proposed price cap on Russian oil exports, European officials said, while attempting to find solutions to food and fertilizer shortages caused by the invasion, shortages that Moscow has blamed on western sanctions.

“Climate change, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, global energy: You desperately need some kind of a forum that advances global governance,” said Kupchan. “And the G20 is the perfect place, but I fear it’s really going to be paralyzed.”

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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