July 4, 2023 -NEW DELHI (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the Russian people are “united as never before,” seeking to project confidence in the wake of a short-lived revolt while participating in a meeting of an international organization that offered him a sympathetic audience.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, hosted via videoconference by India, was Putin’s first multilateral summit since an armed rebellion rattled Russia and comes as he is eager to show the West has failed to isolate Moscow over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The Asian security grouping, founded by Russia and China to counter Western alliances, also welcomed Iran as a new member, bringing its membership to nine nations.
Speaking by video link from the Kremlin, Putin praised the organization for “playing an increasingly significant role in international affairs, making a real contribution to maintaining peace and stability, ensuring sustainable economic growth of the participating states, and strengthening ties between peoples.”
He thanked the member states for supporting Russian authorities during the short-lived mutiny mounted by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, and said the West had turned Ukraine into “a virtually hostile state — anti-Russia.” Putin has frequently lashed out at the West for its support of Ukraine in the war.
The summit presented an opportunity for Putin to show he remains in control after the insurrection left some wondering about divisions among Russian elites.
“The Russian people are united as never before,” he said. “The solidarity and responsibility for the fate of the fatherland was clearly demonstrated by the Russian political circles and the entire society by standing as a united front against the attempted armed rebellion.”
Earlier speakers avoided direct references to the war, while bemoaning its global consequences.
A declaration adopted at the virtual summit also made no reference to Ukraine, but it said threats and challenges are “becoming more and more complex, destructive and dangerous, existing conflicts are aggravating and new conflicts are emerging.”
In his opening speech, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned of global challenges to food, fuel and fertilizer supplies but didn’t mention the war in Ukraine. Trade in all three has been disrupted by the war.
He also took a veiled swipe at Pakistan, saying the group shouldn’t hesitate to criticize countries that are “using terrorism as an instrument of its state policy.”
“Terrorism poses a threat to regional peace and we need to take up a joint fight,” Modi said without naming Pakistan. India regularly accuses Pakistan of training and arming insurgent groups, a charge that Islamabad denies.
In his speech, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif denounced terrorism and defended his country’s role in the fight against it.
“While the sacrifices made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism are without parallel, this scourge continues to plague our region and remains a serious obstacle to the maintenance of peace and stability,” Sharif said. “Any temptation to use it as a cudgel for diplomatic point scoring must be eschewed.”
Sharif also hailed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, saying it could be a “game changer for connectivity, stability, peace and prosperity in the region.”
Six of the nine SCO members — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — reaffirmed their support for the BRI initiative, the declaration said.
India opposes the initiative because it is being built through a portion of Kashmir under the control of Pakistan that New Delhi considers to be included in its part of the divided territory.
The declaration calls for new approaches to promote more equitable and effective international cooperation. It also said the SCO is not directed against any other states and is open to broad cooperation with all.
It said the “principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity of states, non-interference in internal affairs and non-use of force or threats to use force, are the basis of sustainable development of international relations.”
The SCO includes the four Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all former Soviet republics in which Russian influence runs deep. India and Pakistan became members in 2017. Belarus is also in line for membership.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that “the benefits of the official membership of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the SCO will be historic.”
Raisi’s speech, cited by the Iranian news agency IRNA, expressed the hope that membership will prepare the ground for improving collective security, respect for the sovereignty of member nations, sustainable development, and confronting environmental threats.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a message that the summit was taking place amid growing global challenges and risks.
“But at a time when the world needs to work together, divisions are growing, and geopolitical tensions are rising,” he said.
“These differences have been aggravated by several factors: diverging approaches to global crises; contrasting views on nontraditional security threats; and, of course, the consequences of COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called on members to work toward “long-term peace and stability in the region,” according to a readout of his speech posted by state broadcaster CCTV.
He said China wants to “better synergize” the country’s Belt and Road Initiative — a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment project criticized in the West for burdening smaller countries with large amounts of debt — with other nations’ own development strategies and regional cooperation initiatives.
Even as the SCO continues to expand, the group remains at risk of competing interests or conflicts between member states.
India and Pakistan share a history of bitter relations, mainly over Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region that is split between them but claimed by both in its entirety, and they have fought two wars over it.
Meanwhile, New Delhi and Beijing are locked in a three-year standoff of thousands of soldiers stationed along their disputed border in the eastern Ladakh region.
And the SCO summit took place as Moscow relies more deeply on Beijing as its war in Ukraine drags on. While New Delhi has avoided criticizing Russia’s invasion, Moscow’s China ties could irk India in the long run and complicate its relationship with Cold War ally Russia.