G20 members agree to refer to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as the 'war in Ukraine' instead of the 'war against Ukraine' in a capitulation to Putin, who wasn't even there

Biden visible amid group of men in suits, two in forefront with back to camera
President Joe Biden attends a working session at the G20 in New Delhi, India, on September 9, 2023.Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images
  • At the G20 summit, officials expressed a desire for a "just and durable peace" in Ukraine.

  • But a statement on the war was ultimately watered down at Russia's request.

  • The Kremlin is no longer described as waging a war "against" Ukraine.

Ukraine is not even a real country, according to Russian propaganda.

The "regime" in Kyiv is illegitimate — the product of a 2014 coup (a popular uprising), never mind the free and fair elections since; today, mere puppets of the West — and its population best understood as lapsed Russians, some of whom have been tricked into believing they actually have their own distinct history and culture.

"I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia," President Vladimir Putin said last year, right as he launched the full-scale invasion of his fictional but plucky neighbor. The communists, Putin said, had more or less invented the place. Lenin and his comrades severed "what is historically Russian land" from its mother when they seized power in 1917 and declared Ukraine to be an actually existing republic. "Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought."

The Russian government has been explicit, then, in casting its "special military operation" as an artificial entity that was imposed by force. It just doesn't want others to say it.

At this year's Group of 20 summit in India, Moscow has succeeded in watering down a group statement concerning the war it launched. No longer will it make any reference to Russia's military action "against Ukraine," as in the statement released the last time that officials from the world's most powerful economies met, the Financial Times and Bloomberg reported Saturday; now the Kremlin's tanks, drones, and hundreds of thousands of troops are referred to as merely being "in" the country that Putin says should not exist.

Diplomatic language is, almost by definition, dishonest. When someone is being "diplomatic," they say the meal was filling; they do not say that the mashed potatoes were cold and that they hate the taste of rosemary. One shouldn't look to a G20 statement, written by the world's most powerful committee, for clarity or guidance on moral questions.

The leading economies can all agree, however, that the sky is blue and what the Kremlin is doing "in" Ukraine is properly termed a "war." This is useful: It shows that not even China is willing to go along with Russia's preferred euphemism. Everyone also agrees that a "just and durable peace" is the most desirable endgame — and that basic principles of international law are worth upholding, even if the international community can't agree on how.

Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to President Joe Biden, spun it as a win.

"From our perspective, it does a very good job of standing up for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition," Sullivan said Saturday, according to the Financial Times. He also pointed to the statement's declaration "that the use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible, [and] that a just peace must be based on the principles of the UN Charter."

But Sullivan too is being diplomatic. The truth is that as Moscow's war of aggression against Ukraine approaches its 600th day, the question of whether it continues for 600 more is largely in the hands of one man, in Russia, who has proven immune to international statements, strongly worded or otherwise.

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