Russia will continue to oppose Western sanctions, President Vladimir Putin has said, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
His address to a virtual Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit was his first to an international meeting since last month’s mutiny in Russia.
Mr Putin backed trade accords between SCO nations in local currencies – seen as an attempt to blunt sanctions.
The 2023 SCO summit is taking place virtually, under India’s leadership.
Mr Putin used the platform to send a message of defiance to the West, saying “Russia counters all these external sanctions, pressures and provocations and continues to develop as never before”.
He has made several public appearances since the Wagner mercenary group staged a short-lived mutiny in late June, but this was the first time he’d been seen with a group of international leaders.
“I would like to thank my colleagues from the SCO countries who expressed support for the actions of the Russian leadership to protect the constitutional order and the life and security of citizens,” he told the summit in a televised address from the Kremlin in Moscow.
Mr Putin added that more than 80% of trade between Chinese and Russian people was in roubles and yuan, and urged other SCO members to follow the same process.
He also welcomed Russian ally Belarus’s application to become a permanent member of the SCO next year.
Summit host Indian PM Narendra Modi called on members to boost trade, connectivity and tech co-operation, among other things.
But he didn’t directly refer to either the war in Ukraine or China’s increasingly assertive stance in the Indo-Pacific. India – historically non-aligned – had to walk a tight diplomatic rope, due to its increasingly strong ties with the West.
Just days earlier the US had rolled out the red carpet for Mr Modi when he was received in Washington on a state visit.
While Mr Modi talked about regional security, he did not mention China, a neighbour with whom India has long had hostile relations. Indian and Chinese troops fought deadly clashes on their long disputed border in 2020 and tensions persist to this day.
The West increasingly sees India as a counterweight to China, although Delhi has publicly never owned the tag. And it once again refrained from doing so at the SCO.
India’s PM instead urged members to co-operate on cross-border terrorism.
“Some countries use cross-border terrorism as an instrument in their policies, (they) give shelter to terrorists… the SCO should not hesitate to criticise such countries,” Mr Modi said.
Such statements are always seen as directed at neighbouring Pakistan, India’s bitter rival over the decades. Its Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, said SCO nations must take measures to “combat the three evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism”.
But he also said religious minorities should not be demonised in the “pursuit of domestic political agendas” – viewed as a dig at India, which Muslim-majority Pakistan has often accused of not protecting the rights of Muslims.
Mr Modi’s government has always rejected evidence that it is not protecting the rights of minorities in India, whose population is largely Hindu.
When it was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s turn to speak, he mentioned the importance of safeguarding regional peace and security. He urged SCO members to “follow the right direction and enhance their solidarity and mutual trust”.
One factor that all members seemed to agree on unanimously was maintaining stability in Afghanistan, following the Taliban takeover after US troops pulled out two years ago.
A joint statement due later should give more clues on how SCO nations aim to work together on Afghanistan.
China, Russia and four Central Asian countries formed the SCO in 2001 as a countermeasure to limit the influence of the West in the region. India and Pakistan joined in 2017.
The group has become more relevant for Russia and China as their relations with the West have deteriorated.
Experts say the group’s potential can’t be underplayed, despite the existence of more prominent forums like the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the G20 and G7.
The SCO groups around 40% of the world’s population and more than 20% of global GDP. Add Iran’s, and it will control around 20% of the world’s oil reserves.
Iran’s inclusion as a full member at this year’s meeting will boost the SCO’s energy portfolio but it will spark anger in Western capitals. As the SCO is increasingly pitted against Western-led forums, it may get harder for India to strike a diplomatic balance between its different global partners.
But Indian diplomats say they are confident about keeping their foreign policy independent without pandering to one group or the other. How Delhi manages its diplomacy – and its differences with Russia, China and Pakistan in particular – will have an impact on future of the SCO.