HONG KONG (CNN) : Vladimir Putin projected an image of strength in front of a virtual gathering of Moscow-friendly leaders on Tuesday, in what was the Russian leader’s first appearance on the world stage since he faced an armed insurrection late last month.
The comments, made during an address to leaders attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came days after Putin diffused the rebellion launched by the Wagner mercenary group.
The events were widely seen as the most significant threat to power the autocrat had faced, and left Putin’s partners and rivals alike wondering how tightly in control he really was, more than one year into his floundering invasion of Ukraine.
Putin used his moment to speak at the one-day summit to give his answer to that question.
“The solidarity and high responsibility for the fate of the fatherland was clearly demonstrated by Russian political circles and the entire society by coming out as a united front against the attempted armed rebellion,” he said.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues from the (SCO) countries who have expressed support for the actions of the Russian leadership,” Putin told the attending leaders, who included China’s Xi Jinping, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko and Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi.
Many of the leaders in virtual attendance, Russia-friendly nations who share borders, diplomatic aims or strong economic ties with Moscow, could be significantly impacted by changes in Putin’s fate.
Founded in 2001 and spreadheaded by China and Russia, the SCO also includes India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and accounts for a sweeping portion of Eurasia and, with the inclusion of the world’s two most populous countries, around 40% of the global population.
Tuesday’s summit also provided an opportunity for the body to extend its reach – with the expected official inclusion of Iran coming alongside a step toward welcoming staunch Moscow ally Belarus – the second expansion in the group’s more than two decade history.
Both Moscow and Beijing view the group as an alternative to Western-led blocs and a key vehicle for their bid to push back against what it sees as a US-led world order.
But while many members may support a world with more dispersed global power, SCO contains an tangled web of interests and allegiances, which members must navigate as they aim to enhance regional security and cooperation more broadly.
“An extended family”
Modi in opening remarks praised the SCO as an “important platform for peace, prosperity and development in the entire Eurasia region.”
“We do not see the SCO as an extended neighborhood, but an extended family. Security, economic development, connectivity, unity, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and environmental protection are the pillars of our vision for SCO,” he said.
But this year’s event was a toned down affair for the body, compared to last year’s gathering. That event stretched over two in-person days in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and featured a number of sideline meetings between attending leaders.
India announced last month that its leaders’ summit would be held virtually, without specifying why. An online summit can cut time spent together – and reduce the optics of solidarity between participants.
Modi is hosting the gathering days after being welcomed for a state visit in the US by President Joe Biden, who is keen to cultivate New Delhi as a partner in its growing competition with China.
In his address to the summit, Chinese leader Xi stressed the need for unity and cooperation, and called for regional leaders to take charge of their own countries’ futures – in an apparent bid for them to resist outside influence in the region.
“The world today is full of chaos, and changes unseen in a century are accelerating. Human society is facing unprecedented challenges. Unity or division? Peace or Conflict? Cooperation or confrontation?” Xi said, calling instead for “win-win” cooperation.
“We need to strengthen strategic communication and coordination … We must formulate foreign policies independently based on the overall and long-term interests of the region, and firmly hold the future and destiny of our country’s development and progress in our own hands,” he said, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Putin’s on-going war in Ukraine casts a long shadow over the broadly Russia-friendly gathering, especially as China and India have been under pressure from the West to limit support for Moscow or even push Putin toward peace.
A joint statement between Modi and Biden late last month saw the two express concern over the conflict in Ukraine and “coercive actions and rising tensions” in the India-Pacific region – statements that did not directly name Russia or China, but appeared to point their way.
Putin and Modi spoke via phone last week, with the Indian leader “reiterating his call for dialogue and diplomacy,” New Delhi said.
At last year’s SCO summit, Modi told Putin in “today’s era is not an era of war.”
And India has its own friction with neighboring China.
Beijing remains deeply suspicious of a US Indo-Pacific security grouping known as the Quad of which India is a part, and the two nuclear-armed neighbors have a simmering conflict along a contested border, which has erupted into violence in recent years.
The group also brings together India and Pakistan – another pairing of two nuclear-armed neighbors with a long history of fractious relations.
In May, Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari became the most senior-level official to visit India in seven years, when he joined a SCO foreign ministers meeting.
Iran’s expected entry into the grouping comes after it signed a memorandum of obligations at last year’s summit. Belarus, a close Russian partner, will take a similar step toward full membership this year, Modi said in his opening remarks.
Aspiring SCO member Belarus played a key role in navigating Putin’s crisis, claiming to have brokered a deal allowing Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to safely leave Russia for Belarus.
Pakistan and India were the most recent countries to join, gaining full membership in 2017. A number of other countries hold dialogue partner or observer status.