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West's message on war gets lost

Here in New Delhi, policymakers are beginning to worry. India's long-awaited presidency of the G-20 grouping is turning out to be even more difficult than they anticipated.

Indian leaders hope the G-20 can effectively replace the various other atrophied organs of multilateralism. But two major summits in recent weeks ended without a joint communique, with countries so sharply divided over the war in Ukraine that they could not even sign up to a common statement on other pressing issues.

This is a clear step backwards from the Bali G-20 summit last year, where leaders managed to agree on a paragraph about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Similar language seems to have been unacceptable to Russian and Chinese representatives this time around. Their unwillingness to cede any ground on paper appears to have grown over the months that the Russian military has ceded actual ground in Ukraine.

They are responding, also, to a changed atmosphere among “neutral” nations in Asia and Africa. New Delhi’s Raisina Dialogue is one of the rare platforms that foregrounds the emerging world’s approach to global problems. (Full disclosure: The event is co-hosted by the Observer Research Foundation, where I work.) There, last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the crowd shortly after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

A clip of Mr Lavrov being laughed at as he claimed that “war was launched against us” went viral; everyone knows who invaded whom. But Mr Lavrov was applauded as well when he deftly painted the West as warmongers. A lacklustre Mr Blinken, repeating familiar talking points, received a much more subdued response.

By contrast, at the same conference last year, European leaders successfully portrayed the invasion as imperialist revanchism. At the time, though, Russia’s armies were rampaging across a third of Ukraine. Today, after a series of humiliating retreats, they are throwing all they have at one small, strategically irrelevant town in Donbas and have failed to take it for months.

Messaging that might have worked when Ukraine was playing defence against a terrifying ex-superpower isn’t as persuasive when its military no longer looks like the underdog.

In effect, what the emerging world wants to hear from the West is less talk about “defending Ukraine” and more about “seeking peace”. The fact that even China has felt compelled to release its own (vague and impractical) roadmap for peace is a sign that the world wants to see that leaders are actively seeking to end this war.

Naturally, this does not mean that the US and its allies should cut off support for the Ukrainian military. Defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and seeking a sustainable peace are not substitutes in reality, even if they are rhetorically. Nor can anyone claim that Russia appears particularly interested in sitting down for meaningful negotiations at the moment.

But Ukraine’s allies should worry that Moscow’s intransigence is being obscured by the idea that the West is unwilling to accept compromises for peace. That is a problem of communication and messaging, one that needs to be addressed swiftly.

While France’s Emmanuel Macron is a magnet for criticism in the West, he is also the only one among its leaders who has consistently said that this war will ultimately end through negotiation and compromise. He repeated at the Munich Security Conference last month that the goal was to achieve an “imperfect balance” that is “sustainable for Russia itself”. Given that no nuclear-armed power has ever been forced into unconditional surrender, Mr Macron’s French rationalism is, as usual, on point.

The rest of the world sees what Mr Macron sees. Like him, it understands that at some point we will have to start thinking about the guarantees, reparations, and peacekeeping arrangements that will need to accompany any ceasefire.

That point is now. Nobody expects any real negotiations to begin tomorrow. But everyone has a right to expect that work towards a peace plan is intensive and ongoing. And, certainly, they will want to hear that commitment to peace from the world leaders best placed to make a difference. ©2023 Bloomberg

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of ‘Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.’

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