The three major summits of world leaders that took place across Asia last week made one thing clear: Vladimir Putin is now sidelined on the world stage.
Putin, whose attack on Ukraine over the past nine months has devastated the European country and upended the global economy, refused to attend any of the diplomatic gatherings – and instead found himself subjected to a significant censorship as international opposition to his war seemed to harden.
A meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in Bangkok closed on Saturday with a statement referencing nations’ positions expressed in other forums, including in a UN resolution deploring “in the terms the strongest” Russian aggression against Ukraine, while noting divergent views.
It echoes verbatim a statement from the Group of 20 (G20) leaders’ summit in Bali earlier this week.
“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed that it was causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy,” the document said, adding that there were “assessments” different about the situation within the group.
Summit talks aside, the week also showed Putin – who is believed to have launched his invasion in a bid to restore Russia’s supposed former glory – increasingly isolated, the Russian leader being cowered in Moscow and not even wanting to face his counterparts at major global meetings.
Fear of possible political maneuvers against him if he left the capital, an obsession with personal safety and the desire to avoid scenes of confrontation at summits – especially as Russia faces heavy losses on the battlefield – were all probable calculations that went into Putin’s decision. , according to Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the meantime, he may not want to draw unwanted attention to the handful of nations that have remained friendly with Russia, for example India and China, whose leaders Putin saw at a regional summit in Uzbekistan in September.
“He doesn’t want to be this toxic guy,” Gabuev said.
But even among countries that have not taken a hard line against Russia, there are signs of losing patience, if not with Russia itself, than with the ripple effects of its aggression. Energy tensions, food security concerns and spiraling global inflation are now weighing on economies around the world.
Indonesia, which hosted the G20, did not explicitly condemn Russia for the invasion, but its President Joko Widodo told world leaders on Tuesday “we must end the war”.
India, which has been a key buyer of Russian energy even as the West shunned Russian fuel in recent months, also reiterated its call to “find a way back to the ceasefire path.” at the G20. The final declaration of the summit includes a sentence saying: “The era of today must not be one of war” – language that echoes what Modi said to Putin in September, when they met met on the sidelines of the summit in Uzbekistan.
It’s less clear whether China, whose strategic partnership with Russia is bolstered by a close relationship between leader Xi Jinping and Putin, has shifted its stance. Beijing has long refused to condemn the invasion, or even refer to it as such. He instead decried Western sanctions and amplified Kremlin talking points blaming the United States and NATO for the conflict, though that rhetoric appeared to be echoed somewhat in his state-controlled domestic media in recent months.
In sideline meetings with Western leaders last week, however, Xi reiterated China’s call for a ceasefire through dialogue and, according to his interlocutors’ readings, agreed to oppose the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine – although these remarks were not included in China’s statement. account of the talks.
But China’s foreign policy watchers say its desire to maintain strong ties with Russia likely remains unwavering.
“While these statements are an indirect criticism of Vladimir Putin, I don’t think they are meant to alienate China from Russia,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Xi says these things to an audience that wants to hear them.”
Russian isolation, however, looks even more stark against the backdrop of Xi’s diplomatic tour of Bali and Bangkok this week.
Although US President Joe Biden’s administration has singled out Beijing – not Moscow – as the “most serious long-term challenge” to the world order, Xi has been treated as a valued global partner by Western leaders, including many have met with the Chinese leader for talks aimed at increasing communication and cooperation.
Xi had an exchange with US Vice President Kamala Harris, who represents the United States at the APEC summit in Bangkok, at Saturday’s event. Harris said in a Tweet after noting a “key message” from Biden’s G20 meeting with Xi – the importance of keeping lines of communication open “to responsibly manage competition between our countries.”
And in an impassioned plea for peace at a meeting of business leaders alongside the APEC summit on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to distinguish between Russia’s actions and tensions with China. .
While referring to US-China competition and growing confrontation in Asian regional waters, Macron said: “What makes this war different is that it is an assault on international rules. . All countries … have stability thanks to international rules”, before calling on Russia to return “to the table” and to “respect the international order”.
The urgency of this sentiment was heightened after a Russian-made missile landed in Poland killing two people on Tuesday during the G20 summit. As a member of NATO, a threat to Polish security could trigger a response from the entire bloc.
The situation defused after an initial investigation suggested the missile came from the Ukrainian side in an accident during missile defense – but highlighted the potential for a miscalculation that could spark a global war.
A day after this situation, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out what he called a “split screen”.
“As the world strives to help the most vulnerable, Russia is targeting them; While leaders around the world have reaffirmed our commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and international rules that benefit all of our people, President Putin continues to try to shred those same principles,” Blinken told reporters Thursday night at Bangkok.
As International Meetings Week approached, the United States and its allies stood ready to take this message to our international peers. And while strong messages have been sent out, it has not been easy to build consensus around this view – and differences remain.
The G20 and APEC statements both acknowledge the divisions between how members voted at the UN to support its resolution “deploring” Russian aggression, and say that while most members “strongly condemned the war, “there were other points of view and different assessments of the situation and the sanctions.”
Even making such an expression with caveats was an arduous process at both summits, officials said. Indonesian Jokowi said G20 leaders were up until “midnight” to discuss the paragraph on Ukraine.
“There was a lot of pressure after the G20 reached consensus on its communiqué,” Matt Murray, senior US APEC official, said in an interview with CNN after the summit concluded, adding that the United States had been consistent in lower-level meetings. “all year” on the need to address the war in the forum, given its impact on trade and food security.
“In every case where we didn’t get a consensus sooner, it was because Russia blocked the statement,” he said. Meanwhile, “middle economies” were concerned about the invasion but not sure it should be on the agenda, according to Murray, who said statements released this week at APEC were the result of over 100 hours of in-person discussions. and online.
The nations of the groupings maintain various geostrategic and economic relations with Russia, which has an impact on their positions. But another concern some Asian countries may have is whether moves to censor Russia are part of a US push to weaken Moscow, according to former Thai foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon, speaking to CNN in the days before the summit.
“Countries are saying we don’t just want to be a pawn in this game to be used to weaken another power,” said Suphamongkhon, a member of the advisory board of the RAND Corporation Center for Asia Pacific Policy. Instead, framing Russia’s censorship around its “violation of international law and war crimes that may have been committed” would touch on aspects of the situation that “everyone here rejects”, he said. declared.
Russia’s rejection along these lines may also send a message to China, which itself flouted an international ruling refuting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and vowed to “reunite” with Taiwan’s self-governing democracy. that she never controlled. , by force if necessary.
While this week’s efforts may have increased the pressure on Putin, the Russian leader has experience of such dynamics: prior to Putin’s expulsion following his 2014 annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, the Group of Seven (G7) was the Group of Eight – and it remains to be seen whether international expressions will have an impact.
But without Putin in the fold, leaders stressed this week, the suffering will continue – and there will be a hole in the international system.
This story has been updated with new information.