G-7 Countries Struggle to Win Over Swing Nations Courted by China, Russia

Brazil’s President Lula da Silva was caught off guard by Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s appearance, with Brazilian officials describing it as a potential “trap”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine's president, fourth from left, sits with the Group of Seven (G-7) leaders and outreach countries prior to a session during the G-7 leaders summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
By Samy Adghirni, Brian Platt and Alex Wickham
May 21, 2023 | 09:57 AM

Bloomberg — Heading into the G-7 summit, the US and its allies knew they needed to do more to win over global swing nations also courted by China and Russia. The weekend meeting in Japan showed they face a long road ahead.

The gathering in Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bombing in 1945, showcased the horrors of nuclear weapons following threats by Russian leader Vladimir Putin to use them in Ukraine. A surprise visit from its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, gave him a chance to appeal to leaders from emerging economies who were also invited to the summit and have taken a neutral — and at times ambivalent — stance on the war.

Yet tangible progress was hard to see for the Group of Seven wealthy nations, even though some Western officials said the bloc was heading in the right direction compared with years past.

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Three key invited guests — Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, India’s Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, who collectively oversee a quarter of the world’s population — spoke of the need for peace in general terms without endorsing the G-7 view on Ukraine. One Brazilian official said the grouping was even hurting peace efforts by clearly taking sides in the war.


Why was Brazil angered?

Lula was caught off guard by Zelenskiy’s appearance, with Brazilian officials describing it as a potential “trap.” They didn’t meet over the weekend despite a plea from French President Emmanuel Macron, who urged Lula to understand that there is an aggressor and a victim in Ukraine, according to an Elysee official. The Brazilian leader had previously said the US and Europe were also to blame for Putin’s invasion.

But there was little sign throughout the summit that Lula was moving closer to the G-7 stance on Ukraine, according to a Western official who asked not to be identified to discuss confidential information. The official said Lula seemed more focused on providing an off-ramp for Putin and avoiding an escalation in the war rather than on securing Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Brazil publicly said that Indonesia’s Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, affirmed that he shared the same position on the Ukraine war as Lula. Indonesia’s readout of the Lula meeting didn’t mention Ukraine, but Jokowi — who invited Zelenskiy to participate in the Group of 20 meeting last year — separately met with the Ukraine leader and offered to serve as a “bridge of peace.”


“I’ve been repeating almost to exhaustion that we need to talk about peace,” Lula, who is set to hold a press briefing on Monday morning in Japan, said in a tweet on the final day of the summit. “No solution will be enduring if not based on dialogue. We need to work to create the room for negotiations.”

Is Modi visiting Ukraine?

Modi, who is hosting the G-20 summit later this year, also met with Zelenskiy for the first time and conveyed “clear support for dialogue and diplomacy to find a way forward.” But Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, who spoke to reporters in Hiroshima, didn’t clarify whether Modi accepted Zelenskiy’s invitation to visit Ukraine, something India has resisted given Russia is a key supplier of energy and weapons.

The interactions showed the difficulty facing G-7 countries as they seek to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity against Putin in the face of a vague cease-fire proposal championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russia’s top diplomatic ally. China’s effort to stop the fighting has found support among so-called Global South nations hit by higher food and fuel costs, adding pressure on the G-7 to convince the world that Ukraine is worth defending.

A senior UK official saw the G-7 effort as a success, saying it wasn’t realistic to expect India or Brazil to suddenly start sanctioning Russia or sending weapons to Ukraine. Still, the official said, the summit amounted to a turning point for the G-7 to engage the Global South with respect and make a concerted effort to counter Russian and Chinese efforts to exploit anti-imperialist sentiment in middle-ground countries to build an alliance against the West.


A long-term goal remains convincing major emerging economies to help enforce sanctions against Russia, which is complicated as they haven’t signed up to the measures. The strategy going into the meeting was to avoid pressuring invited guests to condemn Putin and cut off economic support for Russia, and instead emphasize the need to uphold global rules like “don’t invade your neighbor” that have kept the world prosperous for decades, according to a person familiar with the situation.

No pressure, says the US

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, told reporters in Japan that “pressure” was the “just the wrong word” to describe President Joe Biden’s interactions with Lula, Modi and other leaders. Instead, he said the goal was to emphasize the “constructive role” they can play in supporting the principle of “sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is sacrosant in the UN Charter.”

That point was top of mind for leaders as they sought to counter China’s calls to stop the fighting, which would effectively freeze gains for Russian troops. Zelenskiy rejected that formulation in a meeting last week with Xi’s special envoy to Ukraine, and other G-7 leaders underscored that any solution that didn’t involve a Russian withdrawal was a nonstarter.


“It’s not a ceasefire that is needed — it is peace,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Sunday. “And that peace can only be achieved if Russia decides to stop its ongoing invasion of a sovereign neighbor.”

After meeting Lula, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters that it’s “important that everybody understands that this cannot result in a frozen conflict and that Russia cannot simply keep all the conquered territory.” He separately told public broadcaster ZDF that Brazil and India realize Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim, saying they “know very well what’s going on.”

Even so, it’s hard to see much of a change in public. Modi’s meeting with the G-7 host, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, provided a stark contrast. While Japan had an extensive readout saying Kishida emphasized the need to uphold the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Indian statement only said they discussed “contemporary regional developments” and Modi “stressed the need to highlight the concerns and priorities of the Global South.”

While the G-7 for years has been perceived to mostly lecture the Global South, this year the nations have sought to focus more on tangible and targeted offers to key countries as a top priority. A communique after the summit mentioned the need to deliver on pledges to mobilize $600 billion in quality infrastructure for developing nations and $100 billion annually in financing to mitigate the risks of climate change, as well as efforts to reform multilateral development banks and address debt vulnerability.


Zelenskiy told reporters Sunday that his meetings at the G-7 and earlier at the Arab League were important to counter a Russian “information war” that goes back years. Asked whether he was disappointed he didn’t get to meet Lula, the Ukrainian leader brushed off the question with a smirk: “I think it disappointed him.”

--With assistance from Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Arne Delfs, Isabel Reynolds, Norman Harsono, Yudith Ho and Alberto Nardelli.

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