G-20 wrestles with response if Russia's Putin shows up at Bali summit

This year's G20 summit is being hosted by Indonesia, which finds itself in a very uncomfortable position given the conflict in Ukraine. PHOTO: REUTERS

BALI (BLOOMBERG) - Russia's war in Ukraine is looming large over a Group of 20 summit that's still seven months off, with officials frantically preparing in case President Vladimir Putin decides to turn up.

The range of possible scenarios includes some leaders staying away, sending lower-level delegations or only dialling in from afar, according to people familiar with the discussions among member countries. The meeting could very well end without a formal communique for the first time.

This year's G-20, which includes conversations among chief negotiators, a slate of ministerial meetings and then the summit in November, is being hosted by Indonesia, which finds itself in a very uncomfortable position given the conflict in Ukraine.

Russia was booted from the then Group of Eight after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, but evicting it from the G-20 is a far more complicated prospect, with nations like China likely baulking at a move that requires consensus to enact.

The G-20 has faced difficulty before, including during Donald Trump's tenure when he lambasted other countries for their trade policies and questioned global institutions in general.

It has survived in part out of the belief that sticking together can help confront global challenges such as climate change, poverty, economic downturns and, most recently, the pandemic. This is set to be its biggest test yet.

Multiple officials said kicking Russia out of the group that was formed in 1999 to deal with a world economic crisis is not an option, even though US President Joe Biden has called for it.

That leaves Indonesia working out how to manage the summit on the tropical island of Bali if Mr Putin makes an appearance.

US officials have privately debated whether Mr Biden should skip the event if Mr Putin takes part, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But at this point Mr Biden would likely still attend in person, two people familiar with the planning said.

Officials, including those from the US, have worked on persuading Indonesia to exclude Mr Putin, or at least to condemn his actions in Ukraine, one of the people said. White House spokespeople didn't immediately comment.

A spokeswoman for the US National Security Council said on Tuesday (April 5) that the Biden administration has discussed the situation with Indonesia and other G-20 countries, and would look closer at whether to participate or not as the summit approaches.

The Russian president did attend the G-20 summit in Australia in late 2014 but was largely shunned by other leaders and left early after a barrage of criticism over Crimea.

In one famous moment Mr Putin approached then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a handshake only to be told: "I guess I'll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine."

Indonesia said in late March it planned to invite Mr Putin and all other leaders, seeking to "remain impartial" as hosts. A person familiar with the matter said the Russian president had received his invitation but had not made a decision on attending. The Kremlin did not respond to several requests for comment.

Asked if Indonesia was preparing for other scenarios, Vice-Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar replied by text message that "I can't answer hypothetical questions." "Indonesia prepares the best as G-20 presidency, while monitoring closely and actively seeking solutions on Ukraine," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah added that Jakarta was consulting with G-20 members but it was too early to comment on procedural issues including likely scenarios for the summit itself.

Technical work before the summit - on issues such as climate change and the economic recovery from the pandemic - has already been overshadowed by the war, with western diplomats condemning Russia's action at every preparatory meeting, one of the people said. Officials will continue to call out Russia at upcoming meetings, another person said.

Dealing with the possible presence of Mr Putin in Bali would require more than simply criticising his actions, one of the people said.

It would be especially problematic for Group of Seven nations as they have imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow following the invasion. A number of G-7 leaders, including Mr Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have accused Mr Putin of being a war criminal and would find it difficult to be in the same room as him.

The G-7 - comprising the US, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, Italy and Britain - will at the same time want to be careful to not create north-south divides within the broader G-20. The G-7 wants to engage more nations in sanctioning Russia's war, officials said.

One option being explored is to include in all official communications a condemnation of the war and references to United Nations principles and international law, such as sovereignty, the people said. Should that be rejected then it is likely the summit will not have a joint statement, the people added.

Kyodo News reported, citing people it did not identify, that G-20 finance minsters have decided not to issue a joint statement after their April meeting.

Some of the officials also said that a blanket G-7 boycott of the November summit is seen as risking leaving the stage to Mr Putin.

That raises the possibility, according to one official, that some nations send lower ranking officials instead of prime ministers and presidents. A final decision has yet to be taken, said the people.

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