A painstakingly negotiated declaration Saturday evening at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi omitted any condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or its brutal conduct of the war, instead lamenting the “suffering” of the Ukrainian people.
It was an eye-opening departure from a similar document agreed to less than a year ago in Bali, when leaders acknowledged different views over the invasion but still issued a strong condemnation of the Russian invasion and called on Moscow to withdraw its troops.
This year, amid low expectations that the divided group would reach any sort of consensus with Ukraine, the declaration pointed to past United Nations resolutions condemning the war and noted the “adverse impact of wars and conflicts around the world.” The statement also called on Russia to allow the export of grain and fertilizer from Ukraine and “to support a comprehensive, just and durable peace.”
U.S. officials defended the agreement, saying it built on the statement released last year and that the United States was still pressing for peace in Ukraine.
“From our perspective, it does a very good job of standing up for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition or to violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of other states,” Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said.
But Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook that the omission of Russian aggression was “nothing to be proud of.”
Biden and his advisers focused on what the new declaration had achieved: It included new language on the issue of global debt and on overhauling institutions such as the World Bank to address the growing strains on poorer countries; an invitation to the African Union to join the G20; and a push for more financing to help vulnerable nations deal with the costs of dealing with climate change. The declaration also underscored the potential of digital technologies to increase inclusion in global economies.
Biden joined other leaders in announcing a project to create a rail-and-shipping corridor linking India to the Middle East and, eventually, Europe. It was a promise of new technological and trade pathways, they said, in a part of the world where deeper economic cooperation was overdue.
The project lacked key details, including a time frame or budget. Even so, it represented much softer than usual rhetoric about Russia from Biden and other Western leaders, who have spent the better part of two years spending billions on arming Ukraine and burning untold domestic political capital building support for the war. Facing a summit rife with deep divisions, Biden did not speak publicly about the war or almost anything else, except to say “it would be nice” if Chinese President Xi Jinping, who skipped the summit along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had attended.
Biden spent most of his time at the summit quietly nurturing his relationship with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who has continued his country’s traditional practice of abstaining from superpower skirmishes, but who has his own tensions with China.
He is also keenly interested in presenting himself – and his country – as an ascendant global player.
“Biden, like previous presidents, is trying to bring India closer,” said Richard Haass, a foreign policy veteran and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “He’s having limited success, but that’s the nature of the relationship. That’s baked into the cake here.”
Haass said joint declarations often take on the characteristics of the host country. In this case, he said, it seemed “the host determined not to antagonize either China or Russia.” He called the statement – and the economic summit – an example of “incremental diplomacy” and not a forum where the conflict could be resolved.
White House officials did not publicly say why the United States would sign onto a joint agreement that did so little to keep pressure on Russia, although the Russians had loudly complained about the focus on them. (Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, cited the “Ukrainization” of the summit to explain Putin’s absence.)
Besides Ukraine, there were other points of contention over the declaration. Sullivan was asked about reports that the Chinese had objected to language in a draft that confirmed that the United States would host the G20 meeting in 2026. “On the issue of China, all I can say is the communiqué is done,” he said.
The absence of two of the group’s most influential leaders, coupled with the ongoing war in Ukraine, had raised questions about whether the summit meeting could achieve much of anything given the current geopolitical divisions. Biden administration officials spent much of their time with reporters assuring them that the summit was still effective.
Biden’s advisers pointed to the announcement of plans to build a rail-and-shipping corridor from India through the Middle East to Europe as evidence that the group could build connections even in fraught territory.
At the event presenting the initiative, Biden shook hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which has agreed to participate, something he had pointedly avoided doing when visiting the kingdom last year.
The announcement comes as the Biden administration has worked, so far unsuccessfully, to broker an ambitious diplomatic agreement that would help the Saudis normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. The United States and the European Union also announced Saturday a project that would explore the creation of a rail line between Zimbabwe and Angola.
Unlike in years past, where he held high-stakes meetings with individual allies and competitors, Biden stayed in the background for most of his time in India, content to let Modi take the lead. On Sunday, Biden will travel to Vietnam, where he is expected to celebrate a new upgrade in relations with Vietnam, despite concerns about the country’s recent authoritarian crackdown and repression.
Unlike his predecessor and possible 2024 competitor, Donald Trump, Biden’s brand of personalized statesmanship has long been centered on the belief that the best relationships – and even some of the worst ones – are best handled through one-on-one interactions and private negotiations. At forums such as the G20, Biden has often presented his version of leadership as a steadier alternative to Trump’s bombastic and unpredictable style.
Modi, for his part, was so intent on showcasing the promise and potential of India to the rest of the world that his government effectively shut down a city of 20 million people for the occasion. Leading up to the event, Modi’s likeness was plastered on thousands of posters throughout New Delhi.
On Saturday, speaking in Hindi, Modi began his inaugural address to the group of leaders by paying respects to the people of Morocco, where an earthquake killed hundreds. He ended his remarks by announcing the invitation to the African Union and hugging Azali Assoumani, chair of the bloc and president of Comoros. Officials offered Assoumani a flag, a country nameplate and a seat at the table.
India’s G20 presidency comes at a moment of contradiction for the country: Its rise to a bigger role on the world stage coincides with increasing divisions at home. While Modi is tapping into India’s strengths – a rapidly growing economy, a young workforce and a strong tradition of technological and scientific innovation – to transform it into a developed nation, he is making sure that nation is reshaped along Hindu-first lines.
The increasing aggression of his right-wing support base has created a combustible reality, with religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims frequently erupting in clashes.
Biden notably stayed away from the democracy-versus-autocracy themes that shape much of his messaging overseas and at home. (At one point, Biden did pose for a photo with the leaders of several other democracies, including India, Brazil and South Africa.) And, his advisers stressed that the G20 was not competing with forums such as the group of nations known as BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
They pointed out that reaching a consensus on the declaration, even if it was a softer one, was a labor of effective diplomacy.
“The G20 is just a more diverse body with a wider range of views,” said Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser. “It gives us a chance to interact with and work with and take constructive steps with a wider range of countries, including some we don’t see eye to eye with on every issue.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.