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NEW DELHI — A last-minute agreement on the Ukraine portion of the G20’s summit statement kept the entire document from the trash heap — but it took dropping a reference to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine to do it.

All the members of the group of top world economies spent weeks in fierce negotiations over every element of the 35-page communiqué. The greatest sticking point was what to say about the war raging in Eastern Europe, not least because Russia, a member of the bloc, would oppose condemnations of Moscow and shows of support for Kyiv.

What ultimately led to an agreement in the dark, early hours of Saturday morning was new language drafted by officials from India, the host nation, and delegates from Brazil and South Africa. 

Russia, which spent weeks offering alternatives that wouldn’t leave it isolated in the G20 club, relented after key developing countries presented the formulation: All countries should “refrain from action against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state.” That phrasing was not included in the G20’s Bali declaration nearly a year ago.

But the final text was also acceptable to the Kremlin because it didn’t “deplore” or condemn “the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” as the Bali statement did. Language about there being a “war in Ukraine,” without specifically blaming Moscow for the conflict, is in both the Bali and the New Delhi declarations. “There were different views and assessments of the situation,” the new communiqué reads.

In effect, the G20 dropped its accusations against Russia in order to maintain unity on broader concepts of war and peace —concepts that were not so explicitly endorsed last November in Bali. 

“The fact that we have consensus around the document was far from clear until the very last moment,” explained a senior EU official who, like four others from the Biden administration and European governments, was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic dealings.

The G20, as a grouping, is geared toward issues of global economics and finance, not international conflict. But Western leaders, and U.S. President Joe Biden in particular, have leveraged multilateral gatherings since Russia invaded Ukraine 18 months ago to show they stand united with Kyiv. 

Text on monetary policy was finalized well before presidents, princes and prime ministers descended on the Indian capital for this weekend’s summit. But the Ukraine section was being worked on well into Saturday morning, mere hours before official proceedings began.

Russia, represented in New Delhi by its foreign minister, not President Vladimir Putin, repeatedly demurred when iteration after iteration of the text sided more firmly with Ukraine. Moscow proposed competing language, the senior EU official said, including an entire section railing against Western-imposed sanctions that have complicated the Kremlin’s procurement of military materials.

India, as the host, shuttled Russian objections to officials from other G20 members, and sent their responses back to Moscow’s delegation. 

In the end, so-called “sherpas” from the BRICS consortium’s three democratic countries settled on an idea: The communiqué should borrow language and principles from the United Nations Charter, which states that no country can seize territory from another using force. Russia, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, should have no objection to it, they reasoned.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak publicly called the final language on Ukraine a “good and strong outcome” | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images 

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who was deeply involved in the final negotiations, said the Kremlin could live with that language. Western nations were satisfied because the language genuinely reflected the overwhelming sentiment within the G20. 

A senior U.S. official insisted that the New Delhi version is far superior to the Bali statement because of that reflection, noting that Russia would never sign anything that directly accused it of illegally capturing land. 

Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, noted that the G20 leaders endorsed the Bali language last year and have supported U.N. resolutions.

“The joint statement issued yesterday builds on that to send an unprecedented and unified statement,” Finer told reporters. Biden is working to rally nations around the world against Russian aggression, he said. “This statement is a major step forward in this effort.”

U.K. officials, meanwhile, argued that in referring to the U.N.’s resolution against the invasion of Ukraine, the Bali communiqué didn’t directly condemn Russia’s aggression but instead indirectly referenced the fact that some countries had “deplored” it. “By achieving consensus in New Delhi, the G20 has forced Putin to commit to cessation of attacks on infrastructure, to withdrawal of troops, and to the return of territory,” a U.K. official said. 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak publicly called the final language on Ukraine a “good and strong outcome.” 

But others expressed their reservations. “Of course, if it was a document written by the EU alone, then this would probably look different, but then this would not be a consensus document,” the senior EU official said. 

Kyiv had a much harsher reaction. “​​Ukraine is grateful to its partners who tried to include strong wording in the text,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko wrote on social media. “At the same time, the G20 has nothing to be proud of in the part about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.” 

Officials from the G20, from India to Western nations, professed satisfaction with the joint declaration. They insisted that they achieved what they could in New Delhi in terms of being more pointed in their view of the war, even if the document had to drop the “aggression” reference about Russia. 

According to a second U.S. official: “The focus was different for this one.”

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