India avoids condemnation of Russia to produce united G20 declaration

India has defied expectations to produce a New Delhi Declaration backed by all countries at this weekend’s G20 summit, at the expense of any meaningful condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced “the good news” shortly before 1600 local time [1030 GMT] on the first day of the G20 leaders’ summit in Delhi – much to the surprise of many observers and analysts, who felt that the Ukraine issue would stand in the way of a consensus on any joint statement at all, much less an early one.

Ukraine rejected the joint statement, saying “the G20 has nothing to be proud of in the part about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine”.

Ukraine does feature in the full 37-page declaration released by the Indian foreign ministry on Saturday, which says leaders “highlighted the human suffering and negative added impacts of the war in Ukraine” without directly mentioning Russia. “There were different views and assessments of the situation,” it adds, in something of an understatement.

“We ... welcome all relevant and constructive initiatives that support a comprehensive, just, and durable peace in Ukraine,” the declaration reads.

India was also able to get all G20 members, including Russia and China, to agree that the “use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible”. Vladimir Putin, who is not attending the summit, has repeatedly threatened the West with the “increasing” prospect of nuclear weapons being used in Ukraine and said his own strategic nuclear weapons are on “combat duty”.

The deep divisions within the G20 bloc on Ukraine had loomed large over these talks, with quibbles over the wording on the issue preventing India from issuing a joint communique after any of the ministerial meetings of its presidency so far. It raised speculation that India’s G20 could go down in history as the first not to produce a leaders’ declaration.

But Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar said considerable time was spent, right up to the last few days, in regard to “geo-political issues” – a euphemism for the war in Ukraine.

“The question of who helped [forge the agreement]? I mean, eventually, everybody helped because everybody came together for the consensus. I think the emerging markets took a particular lead on this, and many of us have a strong history of working together,” he said. “The point to be recognised is that a common landing point was ultimately fashioned out.”

Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko wrote on Facebook: “Ukraine is grateful to its partners who tried to include strong wording in the text.”

“At the same time, the G20 has nothing to be proud of in the part about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Obviously, the participation of the Ukrainian side would have allowed the participants to better understand the situation. The principle of ‘nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine’ remains as key as ever.”

Rishi Sunak, who said “putting pressure” on Russia was one of his priorities for the summit, hailed the declaration as including “very strong language about Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine”.

“What you’ll see in the communique is strong language, highlighting the impact of the war on food prices and food security, calling on Russia to re-enter the Black Sea grain initiative to allow exports to leave that part of the world and help feed millions of the most vulnerable people as well as the communique recognising the principles of the UN Charter respecting territorial integrity.

“So I think that is a good and strong outcome. And as you can see from this summit, Russia is completely isolated.”

Mr Sunak was one of few leaders welcomed with Mr Modi’s signature bear hug as he arrived for the talks on Saturday, and he thanked his counterpart for his “country’s consummate presidency of the G20 this year”, according to No 10.

Mr Modi and Mr Sunak held one-to-one talks on the sidelines on the day’s group events, and No 10 said discussions of a prospective UK-India free trade agreement were productive. “The leaders reflected on the close and growing ties between the UK and India, exemplified in the ‘living bridge’ between our people,” a statement read.

Narendra Modi hugs Rishi Sunak on Saturday (Getty Images)
Narendra Modi hugs Rishi Sunak on Saturday (Getty Images)

“They agreed it was important to build on the past and focus on the future, cementing a modern partnership in cutting-edge defence technology, trade and innovation. They also discussed a number of consular issues.”

Joe Biden, who arrived with secretary of state Antony Blinken and his delegation, announced ambitious plans to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East and Europe, a landmark project aimed at fostering economic growth and political cooperation.

But no timeline has been set by the White House for the completion of the corridor, which will serve as a rival to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.

“This is a big deal,” said Mr Biden. “This is a really big deal.”

Modi with Joe Biden in the Indian capital on Saturday (Getty Images)
Modi with Joe Biden in the Indian capital on Saturday (Getty Images)

The first day of the summit began with an unexpected spell of rainshowers, bringing a welcome dip in temperatures as world leaders were driven through the deserted streets of Delhi – effectively locked down as part of a security effort around the G20 summit – to the newly built Bharat Mandapam venue.

Alongside Mr Putin, the summit was skipped by China’s premiere Xi Jinping and the Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The three were represented by their foreign minister, premier and economy minister respectively.

But there were plenty of world leaders for Mr Modi to greet regardless, with those in attendance including German chancellor Olaf Scholz, French president Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman and Japan’s Fumio Kishida.

Mr Modi addressed the opening of the summit from a chair with a nameplate reading “Bharat” – the Hindi word for the country – instead of the English-language name India, sparking a ripple of reactions online here. It follows a week of speculation that Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is angling to officially change the country’s name from India to Bharat.

And there was a significant announcement at the start of the day’s talks as well as at the end, with Mr Modi beginning by inviting the president of the African Union to step up and take a chair as a new permanent member of the bloc.

It is the first time the bloc has been expanded since its foundation in 1999, and will see the grouping become the G21 from next year. Speaking to The Independent at the summit venue, South African government spokesperson Vincent Magwenya hailed it as “a very significant development... one that we had been advocating for for quite some time”.

Modi embracing Comoros president and African Union chair Azali Assoumani (C-R) after welcoming him to take up a permanent chair at the G20 table (EPA)
Modi embracing Comoros president and African Union chair Azali Assoumani (C-R) after welcoming him to take up a permanent chair at the G20 table (EPA)

“The G20 is the premier platform for international economic cooperation, and it was never sustainable that you were excluding a continent of more than 1.4 billion people. Africa is an integral part of the global economy,” he said.

Though the declaration has been finalised already, Sunday’s talks are expected to bring more deals and commitments to tackle the G20’s core areas of concern – development and the global economy.

The declaration committed to halve the digital gender gap by 2030 and said it expects to address barriers to accessibility, affordability, adoption and usage of digital tech, an area where India is among world leaders.

It was also acknowledged that the global requirement for annual low-cost financing in the energy transition amounts to $4 trillion. This transition should prioritise a substantial presence of renewable energy within the primary energy mix, it said.

And ahead of the next round of UN climate talks beginning in Dubai in November, the declaration urged accelerating efforts towards a “phasedown of unabated coal power”, though it said this had to be done “in line with national circumstances and recognising the need for support towards just transitions”.