Author: Mariam Macharashvili, Master of International Relations, International Black Sea  University

The 18th summit of the G-20 countries was held in New Delhi in September 2023, and fast became an active subject of discussion in the media and political space. For the first time in the history of the G-20, the summit was held in India, and its main theme, “One Earth, One Family, One Future,” included such important topics as climate change, sustainable development goals, financial issues, artificial intelligence, and infrastructure projects. Aside from the first persons of China and Russia, the presidents and prime ministers of the other states were in attendance in India, which once again emphasizes the importance of the bilateral and multilateral meetings. Within the framework of India’s presidency of the G-20, at the initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the representation of the Global South was increased, which was a novelty this year. In this regard, the granting of G-20 full membership status to the African Union is worth noting. The second important news was the signing of a memorandum on the creation of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. All this and other results of the G-20 summit are gathered in the main document, the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, which consists of 83 paragraphs and was adopted unanimously.

While the G-20 declaration does discuss the current war in Ukraine and the economic difficulties caused by it, the relatively mild attitude towards Russian aggression is noticeable, compared to the 2022 Bali Communiqué, in which Russia is referred to as an aggressor and the demand for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine is clearly outlined. In the 2023 document, the aforementioned notes have been removed, and it is only mentioned that “all States shall respect the principles of international law, including territorial integrity and sovereignty…refrain from the use of force…We welcome all appropriate and constructive initiatives that support a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine”. On the other hand, it is noted that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is not allowed.” As can be seen, both are of a general nature, but, on the other hand, indirectly emphasize the fact of violation of territorial integrity and nuclear intimidation, without identifying the offender or condemning the aggression. This argument is strengthened by the fact that, unlike last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not invited to the summit. In addition, the representative of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, positively evaluated the results of the summit and called it a “breakthrough” in the way of solving global problems. The Ukrainian side criticized the final document of the summit and noted that there was “nothing to be proud of” in it.

Therefore, the question arises as to why the G-20 countries refrained from strongly condemning Russia’s aggression. Our blog puts forward several reasons.

1) The increased representation of the Global South at the G-20 summit in New Delhi put not only the political priorities of the West on the agenda, but also their own interests and needs, and at the same time clearly showed a difference in attitude towards the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Global South accounts for much of the world’s economic potential. BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – owns 32% of the world’s GDP, and in this figure exceeds the G-7, in which Western countries dominate. As economic opportunities grow, so does their willingness to advance their interests in multilateral meetings. Therefore, at the summit, as a counterweight to the Russia-Ukraine war, it was more necessary for them to discuss international financial issues, economic difficulties and climate change, the consequences of which can bring significant damage to the countries of the Global South in the future. Further, while most Western governments and societies have strongly supported Ukraine, much of the rest of the world has taken a more cautious approach and has refrained from condemning Russia. A clear example of this was the discussion process of the UN General Assembly resolution on “Comprehensive, Just and Lasting Peace” between Russia and Ukraine. After listening to leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, the Crisis Group noted that many were reluctant to mention the war, and most of them briefly referred to the need for a ceasefire or negotiations. Accordingly, the interests of the Global South and different attitudes towards the war in Ukraine influenced the content of the declaration.

2) Declarations in many cases reflect the views and characteristics of the host country, so another important factor was India’s presidency of the G-20 summit. Prime Minister Modi considered the summit an important event and a diplomatic opportunity. On the one hand, at the summit, India took the opportunity to show the world leaders its growing economic and political capabilities, expressing its desire to reform the UN Security Council and receive permanent member status, which clearly indicated the country’s intention to become a leading state in the region and its position on establishing a multipolar world order. The timing of the G-20 summit also turned out to be favorable, following on from the successful moon landing of India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft. The outcome of the summit was also important for Narendra Modi’s image as a strong leader who will contest next year’s elections.

It is also necessary to take into account the fact that, for India, based on its tradition, reaching an agreement in policy making is of great importance. This is evidenced by the famous words of the Minister of Foreign Affairs that “foreign policy is a matter of consensus”. That is why the Indian leader needed to get the joint agreement of the G-20 countries with his own involvement. Despite the diplomatic embarrassment, host India “forced” member states to agree on a joint statement that eventually softened the condemnation of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The Indian leader knew Russia’s attitude in advance. As Sergey Lavrov said, he would block any document where their position was not taken into account. Also, India’s strategic cautiousness towards the ongoing war in Ukraine, which one Indian researcher called a subtle pro-Moscow position, is consistent with the position expressed in the declaration, as Russia is an important ally and partner for India.

Nevertheless, India’s allies are the US and the European Union and, therefore, under their influence, the declaration condemns the violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty by forceful means. US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak positively assessed the results of the declaration. Therefore, at first glance, India managed to take into account the interests of both sides. Dealing simultaneously with states with different positions is nothing new for India, as its foreign policy is built on the principles of plurilateralism, which involves cooperation for the common good with states with whom partnership is unlikely.

3) The G-20 summit was attended by representatives of the US and the European Union, but their priorities were of a more global nature (multilateralism, economic cooperation, climate change, international finance, humanitarian aid, including war victims, global infrastructure projects, etc.), rather than focusing only on condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Their approval of the declaration does not mean a weakening of support for Ukraine or a change of position, however. This may simply be due to their, especially the US, interests in the Asia-Pacific region, where it sees India as an ally and a major power to balance China’s growing influence. During his stay at the summit, President Biden devoted most of his time to deepening bilateral relations with Narendra Modi. At the New Delhi summit, a memorandum was signed on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which will connect the regions economically through rail and sea transport. Given that neither leader has explicitly mentioned China, IMEC may compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the future. Therefore, US and EU consent on the text of the declaration proposed by India actually serves their interests in the region and close partnership with India.

The relatively soft attitude to the Russian aggression in Ukraine in the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration has become the subject of active discussion. When searching for reasons for that attitude, three main circumstances emerge: the increased representation of the countries of the Global South, and their needs being put on the agenda as a counterweight to the ongoing war in Ukraine; India’s foreign policy tradition and plurilateralist approaches; and Western interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the importance for them of partnership with India. It is also significant that the declarations mostly reflect the political visions which are shared by the host countries.