By Harsh V Pant
For all the pomp and ceremony at last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, its defining image is likely to be prime minister Narendra Modi urging Russian president Vladimir Putin to seek peace in Ukraine, telling him that “today’s era is not one for war.” While this has been a consistent position of New Delhi ever since the Ukraine war started this year in February, Modi’s public articulation of it underscored growing challenges for Russia in a conflict that is not going according to Kremlin’s plans.
The SCO seemed like a grand affair with the presence the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who made a point to attend the summit, as well as several new nations striving to become members. Bahrain, Maldives, Kuwait, UAE and Myanmar are the new dialogue partners of the SCO while process has started for the granting of this status to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The 121-point Samarkand declaration was expansive as it laid out the Comprehensive Action Plan for 2023-27 for the implementation of provisions pertaining to good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation among SCO member states.
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But all this became secondary as both India and China made their unease over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clear. Putin acknowledged to Xi that he understands China’s “questions and concerns” about the Ukraine war even as the latter’s public remarks and the Chinese readouts of his meetings with Putin were aimed at the two nations working together to counter the US. The Chinese leader seemed intent on talking in generalities that “China is willing to work with Russia, display the responsibilities of the major powers, and play a leading role to inject stability and positive energy to a world in chaos.”
Modi was more upfront when he suggested to Putin that he has “spoken about this issue with you many times on the phone also”, underlining the issues of food security, fuel security and fertilisers as the biggest concern today for the world, especially for some of the most vulnerable nations of the world. Modi advocated the need to “move onto a path of peace” and reminded Putin of the importance of “democracy, diplomacy and dialogue.”
The SCO summit brought the fault lines within the grouping out in the open. In their first interaction after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Xi offered Putin nothing more than rhetoric. For all the talk of a “no limits friendship”, it seems clear that there certainly are limits to which Beijing will shore up Putin. China has availed itself of discounted oil but has not provided any materiel aid to Russia so far. At Samarkand, Xi avoided any discussion of Ukraine, instead pitching in a larger role for China in Central Asia, something that Russia can do little about at this stage. The Russia-China relationship is getting visibly lopsided by the day and the SCO summit was just the latest manifestation of this.
What Russia would have viewed as an opportunity to show to the West that it is not isolated, instead turned into a rather uncomfortable summit where there was hardly any support for Moscow’s misadventures vis-à-vis Ukraine. It also became clear that Russia is losing control around its periphery faster than many would have anticipated a few months back. Battlefield failures generate their own momentum, and Ukraine’s successful counteroffensives have not only stiffened the European resolve to stand by Kyiv but have also stoked public discontent within Russia and its supporters. Europe has been remarkably united so far, and if it manages to get through the tough winter months, Russia would have lost an important psychological battle with the European street, leading to even more stringent measures from the West.
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Russia’s options are narrowing with time, and that is impacting its standing as a regional power as well. Former Soviet states are increasingly worried about their own future as Russia’s vulnerabilities get exposed one day at a time. Their dependence on Moscow is a huge challenge as they look at a weakened Russia unable to manage its economic and security affairs effectively. With Russia engaged in Ukraine, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict escalated a few days back. Russia had deployed its forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region after brokering a ceasefire between the two sides in 2020. But now, Russian ally Armenia is getting critical and impatient with Russia as tensions mount once again, and Moscow’s ability to do much at this stage is severely constrained due to the Ukraine war.
Even as the SCO was talking of “good neighbourliness,” another crisis was building up in Central Asia with clashes on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in which at least 94 people have been killed so far. The two former Soviet republics share a 1,000-km border, a third of which is disputed. Putin has asked the leaders of the two nations to resolve the situation “exclusively by peaceful, political and diplomatic means as soon as possible” but the irony of this won’t be lost on the leaders and peoples of the two nations in dispute.
Other Central Asian states like Kazakhstan have been reluctant to support Russia on Ukraine and have been reaching out to the West to increase energy supplies. Most regional countries are seeking trade diversification, trying to reduce their dependence on Russia. Just last month, a US Central Command-sponsored military exercise was conducted in Tajikistan which the United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan participated.
Central Asian states are today looking to explore new opportunities with the West and emerging economic powers like China and India. They are struggling with the curse of geography that constrains their options and want to unshackle themselves. Russia has become more of a problem for these nations.
And so for all the drumbeat surrounding the SCO last week, the challenge for this platform is only likely to grow in the coming years. It makes sense for New Delhi to make connectivity a big part of its Central Asian outreach and to emphasise the need to ensure transit access especially across land by SCO members to other members. But much like several Central Asian nations, it too will have no interest in the Sino-Russian agenda of making this platform an anti-West arrangement. Last week’s summit made it very clear that the internal contradictions of the SCO will continue to hamper its progress for the foreseeable future.
The writer is Vice-president (studies and foreign policy), Observer Research Foundation