Ukraine war: Russia’s G20 walkout heightens tensions at fractious summit as China’s rise continues
While G20 foreign ministers were meeting in Bali, Indonesia, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, threatened further escalation in his war against Ukraine, announcing to the world that “by and large, we have not started anything in earnest yet”. What he meant became quickly clear when a missile attack hit an apartment building in Chasiv Yar in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, killing 33 people. Further indiscriminate attacks followed against Kharkiv in northern Ukraine and Mykolaiv in the south.
Against this background, the G20 summit on July 7 and 8 was the first time the foreign ministers of Russia, China and leading western democracies have come face-to-face with each other since the invasion of Ukraine in February.
The gathering followed a round of high-level meetings between western leaders in the wake of the invasion. These included the G7 and Nato summits in Germany and Spain at the end of June, the virtual meeting of the BRICS leaders, and the Quad’s face-to-face conference a month earlier.
The participants may have been different at the G20, but the agenda items were very similar, including the war in Ukraine and the global food and energy crisis that it has further exacerbated.
But, contrary to earlier G20 summits, the prospects for any concrete outcomes were negligible. The G20 managed to agree the Matera Declaration on food security only a year ago in June 2021 and reached consensus on their approach to the crisis in Afghanistan at an extraordinary summit in October 2021. But the war in Ukraine has had such a divisive impact that it was clear from the beginning that the foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali would not even produce the kind of joint communique that the G20 finance ministers managed to conclude at their meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
These low expectations were all easily met. Foreign ministers from the G7 boycotted the welcome reception on Thursday, to make clear that the meeting was not a return to “business as usual” with Russia, but decided to participate in all formal sessions so as not to leave the stage to Russia.
The first session on Friday was, predictably, highly confrontational, with western leaders challenging the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lawrov, on Ukraine. Lavrov’s subsequent press conference gave a flavour of the ill-tempered encounters he had.
It was to get no better. Lavrov walked out of the second session as soon as he had delivered his prepared remarks and did not attend any subsequent discussions, while western leaders refused to share the stage with him for a summit photograph.
China to the fore
Yet, despite the failure to deliver a joint message on anything much, the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting should not be dismissed as an outright failure. On the contrary, the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali is noteworthy for the bilateral meetings that occurred at its margins at a time when diplomatic encounters in other multilateral forums such as the UN or the OSCE are not taking place or are unproductive.
Predictably, the meeting between the Lavrov and Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister on the evening before the summit, confirmed both sides’ commitment to continuing cooperation, according to a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Wang’s subsequent statement in the first session of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting reiterated China’s stance on the need to find a negotiated exit from the war. He urged Nato and the EU to engage with Russia on a “balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture for Europe”, rather than imposing “limitless unilateral sanctions” which “heighten tensions and stoke confrontation”. Yet, Wang also emphasised that “Russia and Ukraine are both friends of China” and that Beijing will continue to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
The Chinese foreign minister also met, among others, with his Indian, Australian and German counterparts. While these meetings provided few substantive outcomes, they are indicative of the importance that China continues to attach to bilateral diplomacy. This at a time when China also persists with its policy of not condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine and, alongside India, Brazil and South Africa, offered Moscow a major international platform at the BRICS summit in Beijing in June.
Perhaps the most important bilateral meeting was that between Wang and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, which lasted for more than five hours. Blinken described the discussions as “useful and constructive”. While disagreements between the sides remain, the Chinese statement on the meeting also noted several areas of agreement and a commitment by Washington and Beijing to improve cooperation on issues such as climate change and public health.
No easy answers
If there were any hopes that two months of global summitry would be able to fix a deep crisis in the current international order, these were sorely disappointed. The G20 did, however, bring together the world’s leading powers, which are currently effectively locked into their respective silos, with the G7, Nato, the EU and the Quad on one side, and the BRICS on the other. India is the only major power to partially straddle this divide through its membership in both the Quad and the BRICS.
At the end of a succession of these summits, the G20 meeting in Bali is further evidence of the trend towards a new bipolar system dominated by the US and China and replacing the liberal international order of the post-cold war period. While China may appreciate the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine as hastening the rise of this new order, it also has an interest in ensuring that Russia emerges weakened from its aggression and unable to become an independent power centre.
G7 and Nato summits lay bare deep and hostile divide between Russia and China and the west
Beijing also recognises that in the bipolar system, there is a clear need for diplomacy. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for the US and its allies to engage with China and shape a transition to a new international order that reforms – rather than replaces – the current system.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He is a past recipient of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.