In the horrific shadow of a past nuclear holocaust, the leaders of the G7 group of wealthiest nations will meet in Hiroshima in Japan this weekend to discuss war; how to prosecute one in Ukraine and how to prevent one with China.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, once described the G7 as the coordinating committee of the free world, and never has there been such a need for such coordination. It was only in October that Joe Biden warned the risk of a nuclear Armageddon was at its highest in sixty years.
Since then the chance of Vladimir Putin resorting to nuclear weapons appears to have receded, partly due to Chinese warnings to Putin, but few can safely predict how Russia would react if the imminent Ukrainian counter offensive succeeds.
A lightning visit by President Zelenskiy to four G7 countries – Italy, Germany France and the UK – underscored how European powers have managed in recent weeks to coalesce in terms of their military strategy in Ukraine. Ahead of the counter offensive, Europe’s military commitments have strengthened, especially in Germany where the size of the package, and the symbolism surrounding it, was of a different order to before. The provision of fighter planes seems inevitable if not immediate. Sanctions enforcement, a preserve of the G7 will also be tightened.
Zelenskiy himself in an interview with Porta a Porta in Italy suggested the initial aim of the counter-offensive: “when we reach the border with Crimea, support for Putin within Russia will decrease and he will have to find a way out. It is not long now.”
It may be around then that Ukraine – without reneging on its demand for the liberation of all its territories – will call for its “world peace summit”.
But the G7 is divided, or unclear on two issues – the wisdom and plausibility of Russia’s total military humiliation, and how to convince the global south that the new order that will emerge from this war can be shaped in their interests. On both issues the credibility of the west is on the line.
Russia ‘needs to fail and fail dramatically’
The degree to which the hawks in New Europe see a Russian surrender as not just morally right, but necessary was on full display at a security conference last weekend in Talinn, Estonia. Speaker after speaker contended the visible demise of the Russian military, and Ukraine’s eventual membership of Nato have become the essential precondition of Europe’s future security.
The former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk argued: “The political goal of our coalition is that Russia cannot get out of this conflict thinking it has succeeded – that destroys the whole purpose. It needs to fail and fail dramatically. There can be no Season 2.”
Krišjānis Kariņš, the Latvian prime minister, said: “Russia is now probably the weakest it has been for last two decades. Let us be brutally honest. We need to take advantage of this situation. Russia started a war of conquest and it has killed innocent people. We do not need to humiliate Russia but we do need to punish it for what it has done.”
Ingre Simonyte, the Lithuanian prime minister insisted “peace is not achievable through concessions on territory. Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is where nobody thinks he or she can dare challenge the boundaries drawn by international law.” She added “to have true peace would require a profound defeat like 1945 in Germany that would begin the process of internal change in Russia.”
Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, argued accountability for the Russian leadership at The Hague would have an educational value for the Russian people, prompting the historian Timothy Garton Ash to recall the speech made by the German president Richard von Weizsacker marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the second world war, in which he urged that Germany’s rebirth was dependent on its ability to look the truth, and its own guilt, in the eye.
This was a view not just confined to vengeful Balts or Ukrainians; the German ambassador to Poland, Thomas Bagger, largely concurred. He admitted to Germany’s “failure of imagination”, saying the invasion was a “fundamental strategic shock to everyone in Germany. We projected our own focus on economic rationality upon our adversary and this was clearly a mistake. We thought this was impossible. It would be suicidal for Russian business and it is.”
For the future – and this has implications for Ukraine’s membership of Nato – he said the West will from now on have to be organised against Russia. “Putin has answered for us. We will have a hard dividing line”. The former US ambassador to the Ukrainian peace talks Kurt Volker also rejected the past talk of Russia in a common European home. Grey zones – an indeterminate security status for Ukraine – only give green lights to revanchiste states.
Perhaps the point was put most forcefully by Elliot Cohen, a former US deputy national security adviser when he said the West, including the G7, required a theory of victory.
“The most difficult thing we have to do is not about helping Ukraine to prevail, we have to think about defeating Russia. That is a hard thing for us to wrap our heads around. It does not require marching into Moscow. It does require shattering Russian forces on the territory of Ukraine. Most importantly, it requires destroying the Russian confidence that the military arm can achieve anything that it wants”.
But not everyone shares that theory of victory. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has repeatedly said Russia must not be humiliated, and that anyway Russia has already lost, albeit geopolitically. Requiring Russia’s total collapse would either prolong the war, or lead to escalation. In L’Opinion this week he again said “I have always said that in the long run, the European security architecture must fully protect Ukraine of tomorrow. But it should also provide for non-confrontation with Russia and rebuild sustainable balances. But there are still many steps to get there.”
So far Joe Biden has skilfully avoided taking sides in such arguments, preferring a strategy of one step at a time. But in private, Biden will be pressed by his G7 colleagues to stop hiding behind the convenient construct that it is for Ukraine to define what constitutes victory.
‘We hear a resounding no to US domination’
The Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, will himself probably try to steer the debate to a discussion of what the war in Ukraine has exposed about the fractured relationship between G7 nations and the global south.
Kishida visited four African countries in March promising to mobilise $75bn for infrastructure in the global south by 2030. To dilute the image of an exclusive rich man’s club, he has invited countries ranging from Brazil and India, to the tiny Cook Islands in the South Pacific, to bring their perspective. But another diplomatic surge or another pot of largesse cannot drag the fence sitters from their chosen vantage point.
Fiona Hill, the former US state department official gripped the audience in Talinn when she said: “This has not, as Vladimir Putin and others claim, become a proxy war between the United States or the ‘collective west’ against Russia. In the current geopolitical arena, the war is now effectively the reverse – a proxy for a rebellion by Russia and the ‘Rest’ against the United States. The so-called ‘Rest’ of the world seek to cut the US down to a different size in their neighbourhoods and exert more influence in global affairs. They want to decide, not be told what’s in their interest. In short, in 2023, we hear a resounding no to US domination and see a marked appetite for a world without a hegemon”.
The evidence so far is that Hill is right. Speaking at an event for Foreign Affairs magazine, Nirupamo Rao, the former Indian ambassador to the US, touted the right of India to pursue its national interest.
“As we see it, Ukraine is an east-west struggle that is taking an obsessive destructive character with no sign of abatement. This is not a struggle that we in the global south want to be involved in because the war takes away what should be a major focus: rapid economic development, climate change, pandemics … and inequities in the global order,” she said.
Matias Spektor, an international relations professor in São Paulo, argues in the same journal that fence sitting is a rational response to a multipolar world. “The one thing that really triggers the global south is whenever US national interests are couched in a language of moral superiority, when in fact everyone knows that there is a disconnect between words and deeds. Of the 50 countries that Freedom House describes as military dictatorships, the US provides weapons to 35.”
Monica Juma, national security adviser to the president of Kenya, a country that has voted with the west against Russia at the UN security council, also says there has to be a reckoning between the global south and the west.
There is currently a dialogue of the deaf between the two sides; Africa, like Europe, she says, wants to have an existential conversation, but Africa’s conversation is about hunger, debt, climate and access to financial markets that are rigged against the developing world. But it is easier to analyse the impasse between the west and the Rest than to solve it.
In the short term Zelenskiy is trying to open his own dialogue with the non-aligned states. For historical reasons Ukraine’s post-Soviet diplomacy has been focused on Europe. It has no ambassador in India, but the deputy foreign minister, Emine Dzhaparova, was in New Delhi in April and she has informally adopted a role as envoy to the global south. Li Hui, China’s peace envoy for Ukraine, is being treated respectfully by Kyiv.
More fundamentally, organisations like the G7, regardless of what happens in Ukraine, are going to have to learn to share the world stage more than they do now. Dragooning countries into joining an anti-Chinese containment policy will not be the “do-over” required.
What the coming three days in Hiroshima will reveal, is whether any politician in the US or Europe is thinking deeply enough of the scale of what’s required to regain the global south’s trust.