U.S. Braces for G20 Clash Over Ukraine War

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, preparing for confrontations over the war in Ukraine at a meeting of top diplomats from the Group of 20 nations, said Wednesday that the Biden administration saw “zero evidence” that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was prepared to engage in serious peace talks.

“To the contrary, the evidence is all in the other direction,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference during a visit to the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan. He said, “The real question is whether Russia will get to a point where it is genuinely prepared to end its aggression.”

With Russia and China sending their foreign ministers to the Group of 20 conference in Delhi, India, Mr. Blinken was laying out the American position ahead of an expected push by China, Russia’s strongest strategic partner, for the warring sides to engage in peace talks.

American officials say they view China’s move as a smoke screen that allows Russia and its partners to cast themselves as the reasonable parties in Mr. Putin’s unprovoked war. Mr. Blinken said he had no plans to meet with his Russian or Chinese counterparts on the sidelines of the G20 gathering, whose main sessions are taking place Thursday.

Many nations are increasingly anxious about the war, especially given its economic impact, with global surges in food and energy prices, but they have stuck to a neutral stance. These include the five Central Asian nations in the former Soviet-ruled region that Mr. Blinken has been visiting, as well as some Group of 20 countries, including India.

One big question looming over the conference is how India will steer the discussions of the war. Will it support a condemnation of it as it did last month at another meeting in India of Group of 20 ministers? And to what degree will it encourage the combatants to enter into negotiations? (Ukraine will not be represented in Delhi.)

India’s foreign secretary, Vinay Kwatra, said at a news conference in Delhi on Wednesday that “this is not the era of war,” making a statement similar to a line that Prime Minister Narendra Modi first used last September at a leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security group in which China and Russia are the most powerful nations.

In conversations over the last year with leaders of many nations, Mr. Kwatra said, Mr. Modi “has clearly stated that dialogue and diplomacy is the way forward to resolve the conflict.”

It was unclear whether India would explicitly endorse China’s call for peace talks, which Beijing formalized in a 12-point document released last Friday, on the first anniversary of the war. India and China have strong trade ties but are strategic rivals, and India has grown increasingly angry over Chinese military incursions along their shared border in the Himalayas. India is also a member of the Quad partnership of nations, a group whose main aim now is counterbalancing China; Mr. Blinken and other diplomats from those countries — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — are scheduled to meet in Delhi on Friday.

Mr. Modi said in an opening video address on Thursday morning to the Group of 20 diplomats gathered in New Delhi that while he understood that discussions ”are affected by the geopolitical tensions of the day” — a clear reference to the Ukraine war — he hoped they would keep their focus on global crises affecting the many developing nations of the world, citing economic distress, climate change and the pandemic.

Some countries proclaiming neutrality have expressed support for China’s move, even though the points in the country’s peace plan were reiterations of bland statements of principle that Chinese officials have made throughout the conflict. The first was a repetition of China’s longstanding declaration that all nations should respect one another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Kazakhstan, which Mr. Blinken visited on Tuesday, has said that China’s initiative “deserves support as an end to bloodshed.”

But on Wednesday, Mr. Blinken stuck to his skepticism. While there are “positive elements” in the document, he said, China’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion demonstrates a lack of genuine commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Mr. Blinken said China was still “blocking and tackling” for Russia, pointing to Russian disinformation on the war that Beijing has officially supported, as well as the Biden administration’s assertion that China is considering giving weapons to Russia for the war.

The United States and its European allies insist that their main goal for now is to increase military aid to Ukraine so that it can take back its territory and be in a better position if substantial talks eventually start. Only then would there be a chance for a “just and durable” peace, Mr. Blinken said.

Several senior Pentagon officials, however, have said recently that they believe the war was settling into a slog.

When the finance ministers from the member states of the Group of 20 met in Bengaluru, India, last month, most of them tried to push through a consensus statement criticizing Russia’s invasion, but the representatives from Russia and China blocked that. The other countries ended up issuing a condemnation of the war on their own.

That statement said “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed that it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy.” India supported the statement, which was based on a declaration that most of the Group of 20 member states issued in Bali, Indonesia, last year.

On Wednesday, Mr. Kwatra reiterated India’s backing of the Bali declaration, but he said it was not yet clear what the foreign ministers would say about the war at this week’s gathering. Officials from the member states have already been in Delhi negotiating language for a statement. The foreign ministers of Russia and China, Sergey V. Lavrov and Qin Gang, are expected to object.

Mr. Kwatra said that for India and many other developing nations, the biggest problems associated with the war are economic, “the questions relating to the food, energy and the fertilizer security, the impact that the conflict has on these economic challenges that we face.”

Mr. Blinken acknowledged at his news conference in Tashkent that there were difficult consequences of the war for many nations. “Few regions have been more acutely affected than Central Asia, including Uzbekistan,” he said.

Mr. Blinken is the first Biden administration cabinet official to visit Central Asia, a region of former Soviet republics that Moscow considers within its sphere of influence.

The countries have sought to maintain a neutral stance on the war, and they all have close economic, security and diplomatic ties with Moscow. But some leaders and senior officials in countries in the region have recently made skeptical remarks about the invasion.

Mr. Blinken’s trip in Central Asia was a direct diplomatic strike at Moscow. Mr. Blinken met with foreign ministers from all five former Soviet nations in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday, and went to the presidential palace to see the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who thanked the United States for supporting Kazakhstan’s independence.

Some analysts say the United States is engaged here in a new version of the Great Game, the geopolitical struggle between the British and Russian empires in the 19th century in which the allegiances of rulers in the region and control of territory were major prizes. Now, that game is being played among the United States, Russia and China, as each vies for influence.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has sent shock waves through the region. Some nations are wary of potential grabs for former Soviet territory by Mr. Putin, and their leaders fear he could incite separatist movements by ethnic Russian nationalists within their borders.

Mr. Blinken said that part of his mission had been to offer economic incentives to the countries to broaden their foreign relations.

“Central Asia is in a complicated part of the world with longstanding relationships with different countries based on history, based on geography, and that’s something that we well understand,” he said.

Before his afternoon news conference, Mr. Blinken had separate meetings with Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, and Bakhtiyor Saidov, the acting foreign minister.

Mr. Mirziyoyev’s office issued a vague statement afterward that avoided mentioning any larger points about superpowers in the region, but said that he and Mr. Blinken discussed a range of issues, including “in the political, trade, economic, investment, educational, cultural and humanitarian spheres, as well as key aspects of regional cooperation.”

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Delhi.

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