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As G20 meets in India, is Global South bullied by West?

India, which currently holds the G20 presidency, wants to focus on inequality and development challenges facing countries in Africa and Asia

India, which currently holds the G20 presidency, wants to focus on inequality and development challenges facing countries in Africa and Asia

Russia will have a seat at the table when the foreign ministers of the G20 come together in New Delhi this week. After all, the country has one of the world's major economies — one that is also highly relevant to the global economic system — the measure by which the G20 group defines itself.

Moreover, according to a recent survey, emerging powers such as India and Turkey still view Russia as a partner, despite the war of aggression that the Kremlin is waging on Ukraine.

For India, which holds the current G20 presidency, it will be a challenge to make the meeting a success. Ashok Malik, a former adviser to the Indian foreign ministry and now country head of The Asia Group — a business advisory firm — told DW that India will nevertheless strive to produce a joint statement signed by all the participants. Malik said New Delhi intends to put emphasis "on the inequalities and developmental challenges" that many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America face today.

Too much focused on 'all-consuming war'?

The West's focus on the "all-consuming war" in Ukraine, however, has taken a lot of international attention away the from those challenges. Malik emphasized the fact that such challenges are "exacerbated by the ongoing fertilizer, food and energy crises caused by both the pandemic and the war."

Malik described India as a country with "a deep intersection with the West in terms of strategic goals and values." But, he said, "it also has deep roots in the Global South. So what India has tried to do is to be a bridge between the G20 members of the developed world, as it were, and the Global South."

Malik said he expects that to be the message New Delhi will take into the G20 and to the foreign ministers' meeting.

India's emphasis on dialogue and diplomacy

India has so far refrained from criticizing the Kremlin directly on Ukraine, defying appeals by the West to take a firm stand. It was one of 32 countries that abstained from a recent UN General Assembly resolution vote calling for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.

However, during a visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India "is willing to join any peace talks to solve this crisis."

Russia and India share a trusted relationship that has lasted decades since it was established in the days of the Cold War. "Russia was a friend in India's poorer years in the 1950s and 1960s, when it gave us access to technology that in some cases the West denied us," Malik told DW.

He said he would not characterize Indian society as anti-Western or pro-Russian due to continuously strengthening ties with the US and Europe. But he made clear that "Russia will never entirely vanish from India's foreign policy calculus."

Different perceptions of why the war in Ukraine started

It is a sentiment many developing countries apparently share. "I think the issue here is that there are different perceptions of why the war happened," Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, head of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), told DW. "For the South African government, this is a proxy war."

Shortly after the Russian invasion, South Africa urged the Kremlin to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine. Since then, however, the tone has changed. In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pretoria as part of an African tour.

During the visit both countries vowed to strengthen bilateral ties and announced joint naval drills with China. South African officials have repeatedly said they do not condone the Russian invasion but will not be forced into choosing sides.

Why many G20 countries won't condemn Russia

"South Africa has long prided itself in having what it calls an independent foreign policy," Sidiropoulos told DW.

The country is also a member of the BRICS bloc of leading emerging economies. Founded by Brazil, Russia, India and China, the BRICs represent an alternative to the G7 bloc of leading industrial economies.

Still, Sidiropoulos said she thinks this is just a part of the explanation.

The war in Ukraine "acted as a catalyst for almost all of the other issues that South Africa and other countries in the South have been upset with Europe and the US over," Sidiropoulos said.

One reason they won't condemn Russia, she explained, is because don't like "the way the US throws its weight around."

Europe's colonial past is a factor, too, as Sidiropoulos pointed out. The same goes for NATO's highly controversial 2011 intervention in Libya. Thus, Russia has been able to capitalize on anti-imperialist sentiments and popular anti-Western resentment.

Is Russia's war in Ukraine a European problem?

Many African nations do not see the war in Ukraine as a global security crisis, Sidiropoulos said. Rather, they see it as a European problem "with global consequences."

They feel Ukraine's Western allies are trying to hijack the G20 forum at the expense of crucial issues such as climate action or tackling development on the continent. Their response therefore is: "We will make our own decisions. Don't bully us," Sidiropoulos said.

The fact remains: The West is struggling to win hearts and minds in the so-called Global South – despite Russian atrocities committed in Ukraine.

According to a new global survey published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the Western alliance remains united in its support for Ukraine, but the gulf between their perspective and other powers in the world has grown wider.

The quest for a successful strategy

"It's important to understand the different perceptions of the different powers that are going to be around the table at the G20, and to treat them as the independent sovereign actors that they are," senior ECFR policy fellow Susi Dennison told DW. She spoke in favor of a pragmatic approach "that needs to be part of a new kind of diplomacy on the global stage."

Europe and the US must not allow Russia to frame the war in Ukraine as a West versus the rest of the world conflict, Dennison said. A conflict in which "the West is supporting Ukraine to preserve an international order that works in the West's favor, and that Russia is the vanguard breaking it down on behalf of the rest," Dennison added.

She pointed out that "this would make delivery on global goods such as climate action or shoring up the supply chains very difficult for the West."

As the rules of the post-Cold war order appear to be getting a rewrite, some are concerned about falling into a Cold War 2.0 said Elizabeth Sidiropoulos of the South African Institute for International Affairs.

But many, she added, see the current crisis as an opportunity rather than a risk: India and South Africa have been calling "for reforms of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions for many years. With the West itself being tested or even weakened, the current crisis could create a push for change."

Edited by: Jon Shelton