British, Russian statements highlight divisions ahead of G20 ministers’ meeting

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G20 foreign ministers’ meeting is happening against the backdrop of divisions within the grouping of the world’s largest economies over the Ukraine crisis

Two separate statements issued by Britain and Russia have highlighted the challenges confronting India as it hosts a meeting of the G20 foreign ministers against the backdrop of divisions within the grouping of the world’s largest economies over the Ukraine crisis.

Hours before UK foreign secretary James Cleverly’s arrival in New Delhi, Britain’s foreign office said he will “continue to call out Russian aggression in Ukraine at a foreign ministers meeting for India’s G20 Presidency and urge partners old and new to work together to tackle the most urgent global challenges”.

Cleverly was quoted as describing India as a “hugely important partner to the UK”, and the British statement emphasised that even if the war in Ukraine “were to end today, the effects of the exacerbated food insecurity would still run into 2027”.

And as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov landed in India late on Tuesday night, the foreign ministry in Moscow issued a strongly worded statement that sought to blame the US and its allies for the Ukraine crisis and said their actions had “put the world on the brink of a disaster, provoked a rollback in socio-economic development and seriously aggravated the situation of the poorest countries”.

Without directly referring to what Russia describes as a “special military operation” in Ukraine, the statement contended that the world is “suffering from the cynical revelry of illegal sanctions, the artificial breakup of cross-border supply chains, the imposition of notorious price ceilings and, in effect, from attempts to steal natural resources”. The remarks were a tacit reference to Western sanctions imposed on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and the recent price cap imposed on Russian oil by the G7.

The two statements effectively captured the divisions India has had to navigate for its G20 presidency and which resulted in the G20 finance ministers meeting in Bengaluru during February 24-25 ending without a joint communique. China and Russia had opposed the inclusion of two paras on the Ukraine war in the draft communique on the grounds that the G20 is a forum for handling economic issues and should not take up geo-political matters.

India was forced to issue a chair’s summary at the conclusion of the G20 finance ministers meeting that retained language from the leaders’ declaration at the last G20 Summit in Bali about most members of the grouping strongly condemning the war in Ukraine while others offered alternate views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.

Ahead of the G20 foreign ministers meeting, the Indian side has said it will push the consensus reached at the G20 Summit in Indonesia in order to find a way out of the impasse. However, the rigid positions taken by Russia and China on one side and the G7 on the other have heightened concerns that the G20 foreign ministers meeting during March 1-2 too could end without any joint statement.

People familiar with the matter said India’s “considered and balanced” position had contributed to forging the leaders’ declaration at the summit in Bali. “Our endeavour was to reflect the Bali consensus in the G20 finance ministers’ meeting. This was expressed in the chair’s summary and outcome document. The Indian side will continue to push the Bali consensus because this is something all the members had agreed on,” one of the people said.

Diplomatic circles are closely watching a networking reception and dinner to be hosted on March 1 by external affairs minister S Jaishankar for his G20 counterparts and nine guest countries, as it will set the stage for discussions during two sessions the following day. The G7 foreign ministers had boycotted a similar dinner in Indonesia in July 2022 over Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s presence.

While most of the G20 foreign ministers are expected to be at the dinner on Wednesday night, the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the US were not expected to arrive in time for the event, the people said.

The first session for the G20 foreign ministers meeting on March 2 will focus on strengthening multilateralism and the need for reforms of multilateral bodies such as the UN, food and energy security, and development cooperation. The second session will be devoted to counter-terrorism and emerging threats, global skill mapping, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

External affairs minister S Jaishankar is set to hold a series of bilateral meetings with his counterparts from G20 states and the guest countries, including Lavrov, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, who is making his first visit to India since his appointment last year.