Russia has been battling to prevent diplomatic isolation at the G20 summit in Bali as its traditional allies – China and India – started to distance themselves from the war in Ukraine, which a draft communique said had caused untold economic damage to the world.
Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, and Xi Jinping, the president of China, both voiced concern about the war without breaking from their previous defence of Moscow.
US officials were still pushing for the final communique to pin more blame on Russia. The draft includes language noting “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine” and stresses that “it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy”.
The summit’s host, Indonesia, has been trying to keep references to the war to a minimum, arguing the G20 is not a security forum and that reiteration of well known positions will prevent progress on issues such as global debt and post-pandemic recovery.
The summit being held on the Indonesian island of Bali marks the first time the G20 leaders have met since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow has described as a “special military operation”. The war and worries over global inflation, food and energy security have overshadowed the meeting.
In his address, Xi warned against the “weaponisation” of food and energy, adding that he opposed nuclear war in all circumstances, remarks that cast a shadow over Russia’s repeated threats to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“We must firmly oppose politicisation, instrumentalisation and weaponisation of food and energy problems,” Xi said.
Modi said it was necessary to recognise the UN had failed as a multilateral institution, putting greater pressure on the G20 to find solutions. He said it was time for a ceasefire and for diplomacy to come to the fore.
In a video address that the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, carefully missed by staying in his hotel, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it was time for the war to be stopped, saying it had caused thousands of deaths. But he stressed that a ceasefire was only possible when armed Russian troops left Ukraine territory.
Wearing his now-familiar green T-shirt, he said: “I am convinced now is the time when the Russian destructive war must and can be stopped. It will save thousands of lives.”
Speaking in Ukrainian to the single most influential audience he has addressed since the war started, Zelenskiy tried to pitch himself as a man prepared to reach an agreement with Russia but only on terms that protected Ukrainian sovereignty, and recognised the valour with which his troops had fought to protect their homeland.
In a pitch to Xi, he condemned “the crazy threats of nuclear weapons that Russian officials resort to. There are and cannot be any excuses for nuclear blackmail,” he added, pointedly thanking the “G19” – excluding Russia – for “making this clear”.
According to Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, Xi told the US president, Joe Biden, at their bilateral meeting on Monday evening that “nuclear weapons should not be used and nuclear wars should not be fought”.
The Ukrainian leader also called for the expansion and indefinite extension of a grain deal brokered by the UN and Turkey in July.
Much of the diplomatic arm-twisting at the G20 focuses on the terms by which Russia will allow the deal to continue. It has already suspended cooperation once, saying the west had not done enough to persuade insurers and shipping companies to distribute Russian wheat and fertilisers.
Russia and Ukraine account for about 30% of the world’s wheat and barley exports, a fifth of its maize, and more than half of all sunflower oil. The Russian invasion had blocked 20m tonnes of grain in its ports until the deal was reached in July. Russia says the export deal has only been partially implemented.
But Russia says the deal is lopsided because western sanctions have indirectly continued to cast a shadow over the exports of Russian grain by affecting payments, insurance and shipping.
The grain deal has been a rare patch of diplomatic sunlight, but is up for renewal this Friday.
The deal allowing exports past the Russian navy from three Ukrainian seaports has been critical to lowering grain prices.
The dispute over the future of the grain deal is part of a wider diplomatic battle between Russia and the west to convince sceptical opinion in the global south that right is on their side. In his speech, Zelenskiy, fresh from visiting Kherson, a city recaptured from Russia this week, gave little ground on the terms for any peace settlement.
He said such an agreement could be signed at an international conference, adding that Russia would be required to hand over some of its assets as compensation for the task of rebuilding Ukraine. In a symbolic vote, the UN general assembly voted on Monday to approve a resolution recognising that Russia must pay reparations to Ukraine, in a non-binding move backed by 94 of its 193 members.