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The Normalization of War
To foster cooperation, leaders of the G20 softened their condemnation of Russia's brutal war in Ukraine. Could this cause it to slip further from public focus?
Last month The New York Times chronicled the “staggering toll” of deaths and injuries “as Russia assaults its next-door neighbor and tries to seize more territory.” Relying on ultimately inexact casualty figures—Moscow undercounts and Kyiv refuses to disclose official figures—the data from U.S. officials provide a stark testament to Russian brutality and the murderous consequences of war.
As the Times reported, since the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the number of soldiers dead or wounded is approaching 500,000. That includes up to 120,000 Russian deaths and nearly 70,000 Ukrainian deaths, and up to 180,000 Russians wounded and as many as 120,000 Ukrainian injuries.
Such information fails to express the scale of pain and suffering Vladimir Putin has chosen to perpetrate against the Ukrainian people and his own troops. It risks making the point attributed to Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.”
I bring this up now following the G20 leaders’ declaration on Saturday in New Delhi, India, which failed to condemn Russia. Yes, it referred to “the human suffering and negative added impacts of the war in Ukraine.” It noted that “all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state.” The declaration also asserted that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”
But in its effort to produce a “consensus” document, the war and its “negative added impacts”—including “global food and energy security, supply chains, macro-financial stability, inflation and growth”—were referred to as having “complicated the policy environment for countries, especially developing and least developed countries.” In short, “There were different views and assessments of the situation.” In other words, some members of the G20, who have maintained ties with Moscow, were reluctant to confront its power and risk their access to needed resources. This included refusing to condemn Russian attacks on Ukraine’s ports which sought to stem grain shipments and undermine global food security.
In its separate summary of the summit, the White House described “Russia’s illegal and unjustified aggression against Ukraine” and the need for Russia “to stop weaponizing food, which is causing immense human suffering around the world.” It recognized that major economies such as Brazil, India and South Africa “are united in the need for Russia to uphold international law including territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
The fact that both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping skipped the meeting speaks to the increasing geopolitical tension in the region. This reality has strengthened the position of G20 host India and its growing status as a leading voice of the Global South.
Underscoring President Joe Biden’s desire to strengthen relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan praised the G-20 statement. He called it “a significant milestone for India’s chairmanship and a vote of confidence that the G20 can come together to address a pressing range of issues…it does a very good job of standing up for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition.”
But compare this document, 18 months since Putin’s invasion, to the one from last November in Bali, Indonesia. The White House itself noted that last year’s meeting addressed “the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and the need for “its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine.” It asserted that most G20 members “strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy.”
Even though the G20 meetings involving 20 of the world’s largest economies typically focus on economic and financial issues, with climate change and global health becoming increasingly central to the mix, don’t doubt that many of its members recognize that they have softened their response to Russia.
“Let us face it that G20 is not a forum for political discussions,” French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron said at a press conference, adding, “We are here to mainly talk about economic topics and climate action.”
“I can only say Bali was Bali and New Delhi is New Delhi,” said Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs. “Bali was a year ago, the situation was different. Many things have happened since then.”
Still, note the words of Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida: “Russia's aggression of Ukraine is shaking the very foundation of cooperation at the G20.”
How often have you see television coverage of the Ukraine war in the last six months? How often has the focus shifted to questions of scale of funding and length of support for Ukraine’s efforts to maintain their territorial sovereignty and democracy? What happens if a Democratic president does not occupy the White House in January 2025? What if the public’s commitment begins to wane?
Several days ago, the Defense Department announced a new package of equipment for Ukraine totaling $600 million. Several weeks ago, on Ukraine Independence Day, President Biden insisted that the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s independence is “unwavering and enduring.” And more:
The United States will continue our work, together with partners all around the world, to support Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russia’s aggression, to uphold the foundational principles of the UN Charter, and to help the Ukrainian people build the secure, prosperous, and independent future they deserve.
But just as a searing, world-altering event like the 9/11 attacks—which we remember on this 22nd anniversary—can over time begin to fade from the front pages, the TV screens and the public’s consciousness and concern, the war in Ukraine may already be slipping out of global focus.
While individual Ukrainians continue to face the deadly horror of Vladimir Putin’s war of choice on a daily basis, it’s incumbent on political leaders to advocate for democracy and against the genocidal violence of Russia’s leader—even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it can sow division in a declaration concerned with collaboration and cooperation.
We can only hope when the G20 reconvenes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil next July that the tragedy of Ukraine will not fade from focus, that our collective commitment will not soften—and that the rising number of dead and wounded souls will not be reduced to a statistic.
One last note: If you missed the Saturday prompt—“What Do You Remember about 9/11?”—I hope you will read the many moving remembrances of that fateful time.
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