Sullivan Plays Down Differences Over Ukraine-Related Language at East Asia Summit


President Biden speaks to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at East Asia Summit gala dinner in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Saturday night. (Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

( – National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Sunday played down the fact the East Asia Summit in Cambodia ended without a joint communique due to differences over Russia-Ukraine, saying that he had heard no support for the invasion of Ukraine from summit participants.

Briefing reporters halfway through President Biden’s Asia summit circuit – as Air Force One flew from Phnom Penh to Bali, Indonesia – Sullivan said Biden was pleased about the Democrats retaining control of the Senate in the midterms and “feels that it does establish a strong position for him on the international stage.”

But the failure to reach agreement on the wording of an end-of-summit communique in the Cambodian capital struck a jarring note, raising questions about how the differences may impact the upcoming G20 summit in Bali.

At the end of the East Asia Summit (EAS), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters the participants had been unable to issue a communique because of differences around language relating to Ukraine.

“There have been no collective decisions today as the United States and our Western colleagues insisted on unacceptable language with regard to the Ukrainian situation and the situation around it,” he said.

Lavrov also criticized what he characterized as attempts by the U.S. to export NATO influence to Asia and promote “militarization of the region,” in a bid to contain both China and Russia.

He said most of the Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries at the core of the EAS were in favor of defending their own interests, and not subordinating them to the interests of “extra-regional players.”

Sullivan pushed back, saying Lavrov was trying to “create a narrative that is not consistent with how things actually unfolded.”

“What I heard in the room today was broad support for the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and no support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Sullivan also noted that “most” ASEAN countries had voted at the United Nations this year to condemn the invasion. He expressed confidence that the G20 summit on Tuesday and Wednesday would produce a joint communique.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the gala dinner on the eve of Sunday’s East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh. (Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the gala dinner on the eve of Sunday’s East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh. (Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

The EAS brings together the ten members of ASEAN (Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and eight other nations (the U.S., China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.)

Two day before the EAS, ASEAN held its own summit, also in Phnom Penh.

Differences over the Russia-Ukraine situation also impacted the ASEAN summit, with an invitation for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address it remotely withdrawn at the eleventh hour, after members reportedly failed to reach consensus on the issue. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba did attend, however.

In response to a question Sullivan also minimized the significance of Zelenskyy not being able to take part, saying Kuleba’s participation was “a highly unusual act and shows ASEAN’s willingness to engage Ukraine.”

Asked again about Zelenskyy being disinvited, Sullivan told reporters, “I think this is sort of losing the forest for the trees in terms of ASEAN’s willingness to engage Ukraine in an unprecedented way at an unprecedented time.”

“And we thought that was quite a powerful signal of support for Ukraine,” he added, in reference to Kuleba’s participation.

ASEAN, G20 members’ UN votes not universally critical of Russian invasion

Notwithstanding Sullivan’s remark about ASEAN votes at the U.N. to condemn the Russian invasion, the full picture is a little more nuanced.

Of the ten ASEAN members, in the four U.N. General Assembly resolutions since March critical of the Russian invasion, Laos and Vietnam voted with the Russian position once each, and abstained three times each; Brunei and Thailand abstained twice each; and Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore abstained once each.

The resolutions respectively condemned the invasion; blame the “dire” humanitarian situation on Russia, expelled Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council; and condemned Putin’s supposed annexation of four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.

The G20 summit in Bali will be another test of the “strong position for [Biden] on the international stage” highlighted by Sullivan, since that group, too, has been divided over how to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

While the U.S. and its G7 partners strongly support Ukraine and taking a strong line on Russia, the stances taken by other members of the G20 are less clear cut.

In the four Russia-focused U.N. votes, G20 members China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia abstained at least once each, and China sided with Russia in one vote.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to stay away from the G20, although there is still talk about the possibility that he may address one of the summit sessions by video link.

Asked if Biden would walk out if Putin does take part virtually, Sullivan said that was “a hypothetical that we have not yet engaged, in terms of what the president – how the president would react.”

Sullivan said Biden sees the G20 meetings as “an opportunity to get together with the leaders of the major economies of the world to deal with the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

Biden would be there, “ready to roll up the sleeves and help solve problems” while Putin would not be present, he said, adding that “that speaks for itself.”

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