The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia sees its role on the global stage diminished by Ukraine war

Ruslan Edelgeriev, Russia's special presidential representative on climate issues, prepares to speak at the COP27 U.N. climate summit on Tuesday. (Peter Dejong/AP)
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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — From the U.N. climate negotiations at this beach resort on the Red Sea to the Group of 20 meetings on the shores of Bali, Russian diplomats found themselves on the outside looking in at key global gatherings this week — shunned and excluded over Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Russia had big plans for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, known as COP27, scheduling four roundtable discussions. No foreigners agreed to speak on the panel; the Russians were left to talk among themselves.

“I invited everybody but nobody [will come],” lamented former NHL star Viacheslav Fetisov, who is a member of the Russian state Duma and chairman of the All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation.

Fetisov scrolled through his phone, pointing to prewar photos showing meetings with U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry. In one shot, Kerry held up a hockey jersey on which Fetisov had written in permanent marker: “John, get ready and let’s play hockey at North Pole and change the world for better! Your Russian friend, Slava Fetisov.”

“Right now, I don’t think [Kerry] will shake hands with Slava,” said Sergey Rybakov, another member of the delegation, using Fetisov’s nickname.

The war has loomed large over the climate conference. Just weeks before it opened, Russia began waging intense attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, adding to mounting concerns about the global energy crisis set off by the Russian invasion. At the G-20, the annual gathering of world powers, Russia has also found itself in an unusual position: a leading topic of discussion rather than a leading player.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi — who has remained friendly to Russia throughout the war, welcoming Russian tourists and hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this year — used his COP27 speech to call for an end to the fighting. “This is a call from our conference,” he said. “Let this destruction and killing end.”

Speaking to delegates by video call, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of waging war not only against the Ukrainian people but against the country’s natural resources.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who addressed the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh last week, said: “Putin’s abhorrent war in Ukraine, and rising energy prices across the world, are not a reason to go slow on climate change. They are a reason to act faster.”

In Bali, Sunak has promised to “call out Putin’s regime,” and Canadian leader Justin Trudeau said he had “no interest” in speaking to Lavrov, who is attending the G-20 in place of Putin. Trudeau’s goal at the summit, he said, was to ensure “that the world comes together to reinforce that Putin made a terrible, terrible choice when he decided to invade a peaceful neighboring country.”

Unlike at previous G-20 summits, there is not likely to be a “family photo” at the end of this year’s meetings in Bali, in part because several government leaders said they would not participate if Russian delegates were present, Indonesian officials said.

A White House official noted that leaders of the Group of 7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States — have not participated in any group photos with Russian officials in nearly 15 meetings this year.

“Russia is waging war and killing innocent civilians,” said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “I think it’s sensible there is no family photo from any perspective, not just the U.S.”

When asked if the Russian delegation felt sidelined at COP27, Fetisov scoffed. “What do you think?” he replied.

Russia is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and Fetisov said it was shortsighted to ignore his country’s perspective at the global climate talks.

Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril

“Without Russia, you cannot solve these problems,” Fetisov said of the climate crisis. “The conflict [in Ukraine] could be over tomorrow. But you’re missing another year to make the right decision for the future.”

“We did not come to Egypt to talk about the Ukraine situation,” he added. “We came here to share our worries … share our experience … share our knowledge.”

The experience has been sobering for Fetisov — once celebrated as a Stanley Cup champion in the United States, now sanctioned by Washington for voting in favor of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

He is banned from traveling to many countries, including the United States, where his daughter lives. “If [COP27] was going to be in another part of the world, I wouldn’t have been able to come,” he said.

The same is true for members of the Russian delegation at the G-20 in Indonesia.

For months leading up to the summit, Indonesian officials worried that Putin would attend, causing other world leaders to boycott the event. Two days before the summit, and hours after Russian troops were forced to withdraw from the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the Russian Embassy in Indonesia announced that Putin would not be attending and that Lavrov would take his place.

Bali governor Wayan Koster greeted Lavrov with a performance by Balinese dancers when he touched down on the island Sunday evening. But on Monday, as other G-20 leaders kicked off packed schedules of bilateral meetings and panel discussions, Lavrov was largely missing in action.

Citing Indonesian officials, the Associated Press reported that he had taken ill after arriving — a claim swiftly dismissed by Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which shared a video of him reviewing documents in his beachside hotel. The muted presence of the Russian delegation marks a sharp contrast to the G-20 conference in 2019, the last one Putin attended in person, and where he made a splash by meeting with the United States, China, India and others.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Indonesia did not respond to inquiries on whether Lavrov planned to meet with any officials on the sidelines of the summit. China has not announced any formal meetings with Russia, though Beijing joined Moscow on Tuesday in opposing the use of the word “war” in a joint communique to describe the invasion of Ukraine.

In G-20 talks, China objects to calling Russian invasion of Ukraine a ‘war’

Activist groups say world leaders need to go beyond condemnations at the G-20. “If all Western powers want to do in Bali is belittle Russia, they will find that a lot of non-Western colleagues will not play along,” said Richard Gowan, who oversees advocacy at the United Nations for the International Crisis Group. Western countries need to work with leaders from China and India to persuade Russia to reject the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Gowan said.

On Tuesday evening, the Russian delegation drew a small crowd at a COP27 event, but it was quickly disrupted by activists: “You are war criminals!” one shouted. “You are killing my people!” another yelled. U.N. security escorted them out of the room.