Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to score any major diplomatic victories at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tajikistan on September 12. The Kremlin appears eager to boost the six-state security bloc as its confrontation with the West over Ukraine drags on.
Putin used the Dushanbe summit – also attended by China’s Xi Jinping and the presidents of the four Central Asian members (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov) – to court international support for his policies in Ukraine.
Speaking after the summit, Putin said that the approaches of the SCO members on Ukraine were “identical and close.”
That looked like wishful thinking, however, given the evident concerns of his Chinese and Central Asian partners over Russia’s apparent military interventions and support for separatism in Ukraine.
Contending with separatist movements at home in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has always opposed what it terms “splittism,” while the Central Asian states – which, like Ukraine, have ethnic Russian minorities – are nervous of Russia’s regional saber-rattling.
The summit ended with the signing of a joint declaration containing a pro-forma call for “restoration of peace in Ukraine” (and a declaration of opposition to “unilateral and unrestricted” deployment of anti-missile systems, in a side swipe at the United States).
Meeting with Putin on the sidelines, Xi stuck to Beijing’s line that the crisis should be resolved through “political means” and “inclusive dialogue.”
The strongest expression of support for the Kremlin came from an unexpected quarter: Uzbekistan, which generally keeps its distance from Russia and has appeared unsettled by the Ukraine conflict.
Failing to take account of Russia’s historical interests in Ukraine would be a “serious mistake,” Karimov warned.
Nazarbayev, traditionally Putin’s staunchest regional ally and a fellow founder of the Eurasian Economic Union, discussed the conflict with Putin at a bilateral meeting but said little publicly about Ukraine, which has created tensions between Kazakhstan and Russia.
Prior to the summit Kazakhstan, alarmed at the possibility of being dragged into the Russo-Western standoff, made a point of saying that the SCO was not positioning itself as a “counterweight to NATO” nor seeking “confrontation with anyone.”
The Russian press, in contrast, had been talking up expectations from the gathering. “SCO Summit: Unification in Response to Isolation,” trumpeted the headline of one report. “Putin in Circle of Kindred Spirits,” declared another.
An agreement signed at the summit paving the way for an SCO expansion was a victory for Russia as it seeks to boost the security bloc. India and Pakistan may become the first new members, Kremlin aide Yuriy Ushakov said. (Iran also wishes to join, but cannot unless international sanctions are lifted.)
Yet expansion of the already unwieldy block could become an own goal: rivals India and Pakistan would make uneasy bedfellows, and threaten to tear the SCO apart with competing agendas.
Meanwhile, there was no sign of movement to resolve existing rifts within the organization. A rare meeting between Karimov and Rakhmon, long at loggerheads over Tajikistan’s plans to build the Rogun dam upstream from Uzbekistan, failed to produce a breakthrough, and there was no sign of Rakhmon and Atambayev tackling frictions on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border.