Antony Blinken
The U.S. Secretary of State AFP

G20 foreign ministers open a two-day meeting Wednesday in Brazil, with the outlook bleak for progress on a thorny agenda of conflicts and crises, from the Gaza and Ukraine wars to growing polarization.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are both expected in Rio de Janeiro for the first high-level G20 meeting of the year -- though not China's Wang Yi.

In a world torn by conflicts and divisions, Brazil, which took over the rotating G20 presidency from India in December, has voiced hopes for what President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva calls "the forum with the greatest capacity to positively influence the international agenda."

But Lula's bid to make the G20 a space for finding common ground suffered Sunday when the veteran leftist ignited a diplomatic firestorm by accusing Israel of "genocide," comparing its military campaign in the Gaza Strip to the Holocaust.

The comments drew outrage in Israel, which declared him "persona non grata," and could overshadow any bid to de-escalate the conflict via the G20.

"If Lula imagined he was going to propose peace resolutions on Israel or Ukraine, that just got swept off the table," international relations specialist Igor Lucena told AFP.

More than four months after the Gaza war started with Hamas fighters' unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which has vowed to wipe out the Islamist group in retaliation, there is little sign of progress toward peace.

A new UN Security Council resolution on a ceasefire was vetoed Tuesday by the United States, which said the text would endanger ongoing negotiations, including on the release of Hamas-held hostages.

The outlook is similarly downbeat on Russia's war in Ukraine, which also has G20 members divided.

Despite a push from Western countries for the group to condemn President Vladimir Putin's invasion, the G20's last summit, held in New Delhi in September, ended with a watered-down statement that denounced the use of force but did not explicitly name Russia, which maintains friendly ties with fellow members like India and Brazil.

Underlining the G20 stalemate, the G7 group of top economies -- Ukrainian allies Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States -- will hold its own virtual meeting on the war Saturday, the second anniversary of Russia's invasion.

Held at a marina on the Rio waterfront, the G20 meeting will open with a session on "addressing international tensions."

The ministers will discuss global governance reform Thursday -- a favorite issue for Brazil, which wants a greater voice for the global south at institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank.

"The number and gravity of conflicts has returned to the level of the Cold War. That brings new urgency to the issue," said Brazil's top diplomat for G20 political negotiations, Mauricio Lyrio.

"We need to adapt the international system to prevent new conflicts," he told journalists Tuesday. "Now, we're just putting out fires."

Brazil also wants to use its G20 presidency to push the fights against poverty and climate change.

There will also be space for bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the gathering -- though a Blinken-Lavrov encounter looks unlikely, given the exploding tension over Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's death in prison Friday.

Blinken and Lavrov last met in person at a G20 gathering in India in March 2023.

Founded in 1999, the Group of 20 brings together most of the world's biggest economies.

Originally an economic forum, it has grown increasingly involved in international politics.

But the prospects for major advances via the group are dim in a year when elections will be held in some 50 countries, including key G20 members such as the United States and Russia, said Lucena.

"Reaching big agreements will be difficult," he said.

"It's not a favorable environment for resolving conflicts. On the contrary."

A Brazilian government source said that after recent G20 struggles for consensus, the hosts axed the requirement that every meeting produce a joint statement -- with the exception of the annual leaders' summit, scheduled for November in Rio.