NEW DELHI — President Vladimir Putin will this week participate in his first multilateral summit since Russia was ravaged by an armed insurgency, as part of a rare international grouping in which his country still enjoys support.
Leaders will meet virtually on Tuesday for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security group founded by Russia and China to counter Western alliances from East Asia to the Indian Ocean.
This year’s event is hosted by India, which joined in 2017. It is the latest way for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to showcase the country’s growing global influence.
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The group has so far focused on deepening security and economic cooperation, fighting terrorism and drug trafficking, tackling climate change and the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021. When foreign ministers met last month in India, Russia’s war against Ukraine was barely mentioned in their public remarks, but the impact on developing countries in terms of food and fuel security remains a concern for the group, analysts say.
The forum is more important than ever for Moscow, which is eager to show that the West has failed to isolate it. The group includes the four Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in a region where Russian influence runs deep. Others include Pakistan, which joined in 2017, and Iran, which will join on Tuesday. Belarus is also eligible for membership.
“This SCO meeting is truly one of the few global opportunities that Putin will have to project strength and credibility,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.
None of the member states have condemned Russia in UN resolutions, but have chosen to abstain. China has sent an envoy to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, and India has repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
For Putin personally, the summit offers a chance to show he is in control after a short-lived uprising by Wagner chief mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin.
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“Putin will want to reassure his partners that he is still in charge, and leave no doubt that the challenges facing his administration have been precipitated,” said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
India announced in May that the summit would be held online rather than in person, as it did last year in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where Putin posed for photos and dined with other leaders.
For New Delhi, at least, the prospect of hosting Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping just two weeks after Modi was honored with a pompous state visit from US President Joe Biden would not be ideal.
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After all the fanfare Modi received from American leaders during his recent visit, “it would have been too early (for India) to welcome Chinese and Russian leaders,” Kugelman said.
India’s relationship with Moscow remained strong throughout the war; it has scooped up record amounts of Russian crude and relies on Moscow for 60% of its defense hardware. At the same time, the US and its allies have been aggressively courting India, which they see as a counterweight to China’s growing ambitions.
A key priority for India at the forum is balancing ties with the West and East, as the country also hosts the Group of 20 leading economies summit in September. It is also a platform for New Delhi to delve deeper into Central Asia.
“India glorifies this kind of foreign policy where it governs and deals with everyone at the same time,” said Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at the RAND Corporation.
New Delhi, observers say, will safeguard its own interests at the summit. It is likely to highlight the need to fight what it calls “cross-border terrorism” – a dig in Pakistan accusing India of arming and training rebels fighting for independence from Indian-controlled Kashmir or its integration into Pakistan, a allegation that Islamabad denies.
It may also emphasize the need to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty – an accusation often directed against its other rival, China. India and China have been locked in an intense three-year confrontation that has seen thousands of soldiers stationed along their disputed border in the eastern region of Ladakh.
Analysts say China, seeking to position itself as a global force, is becoming a dominant player in forums such as the SCO, where interest in full membership from countries such as Myanmar, Turkey and Afghanistan has grown in recent years.
“The limitation of the SCO is that China and Russia are trying to turn it into an anti-Western group, and that doesn’t fit India’s independent foreign policy,” Madan said.
The SCO could also pose a long-term challenge to Washington and its allies.
“For countries that are uncomfortable with the West and their foreign policy, the SCO is a welcome alternative, especially because of the roles played by Russia and China. … I think this shows how relevant and concerning this group could be for some western capitals, especially if it continues to grow,” Kugelman said.