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Putin to talk with Modi, Xi in his first meeting since Wagner insurrection

The Nepal Weekly
July 5, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin will take part this week in his first multilateral summit since an armed rebellion rattled Russia, as part of an international grouping in which his country still enjoys support.

Leaders will convene virtually on Tuesday for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security grouping established by Russia and China to counter Western alliances from East Asia to the Indian Ocean.

This year’s event is hosted by India, which became a member in 2017. It’s the latest avenue for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to display the country’s growing global clout.

The group so far has focused on strengthening security and economic cooperation, countering terrorism and drug trafficking, handling climate change issues and the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban took over in 2021. When the foreign ministers met in India last month, Russia’s war on Ukraine hardly featured in their public remarks but the fallout for developing countries on food and fuel security remains a concern for the group, analysts say.

The group includes the four Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in a region where Russian influence becomes deep. Others include Pakistan, which became a member in 2017, and Iran, which is set to join on Tuesday. Belarus is also lining up for membership.

“This SCO meeting is really one of the few opportunities globally that Putin will have to project strength and credibility,” remarked Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

None of the member countries has condemned Russia in U.N. resolutions, choosing instead to abstain. China has sent an envoy to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, and India has repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

For Putin personally, the summit presents an opportunity to show he is in control after a short-lived insurrection by Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“Putin will want to reassure his partners that he is very much still in charge, and leave no doubt that the challenges to his government have been crushed,” said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

India announced in May that the summit would be held online instead of in-person like last year in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where Putin posed for photographs and dined with other leaders.

For New Delhi at least, the optics of hosting Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping just two weeks after Modi was honored with a pomp-filled state visit by U.S. President Joe Biden would be less than ideal.

India’s relationship with Moscow has stayed 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 U.S. and its allies have aggressively courted India, which they see as a counterweight to China’s growing ambitions.

A key priority for India in the forum is to balance its ties with the West and the East, with the country also hosting the Group of 20 leading economies’ summit in September. It’s also a platform for New Delhi to engage more deeply with Central Asia.

“India glorifies in this type of foreign policy where it’s wheeling and dealing with everybody at the same time,” said Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at the RAND Corporation.

New Delhi, observers say, will be looking to secure its own interests at the summit. It will likely emphasize the need to combat what it calls “cross-border terrorism” — a dig at Pakistan, whom India accuses of arming and training rebels fighting for independence of Indian-controlled Kashmir or its integration into Pakistan, a charge Islamabad denies.

It may also stress the need to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty — a charge often directed towards its other rival, China. India and China have been locked in an intense three-year standoff involving thousands of soldiers stationed along their disputed border in the eastern Ladakh region.

Analysts say China, seeking to posture itself as a global force, is becoming a dominant player in forums like the SCO, where interest for full membership from countries like Myanmar, Turkey and Afghanistan has grown in recent years.