Last year, the world watched closely as China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi of India and other world leaders within a Moscow-friendly group gathered in the Uzbek city of Samarkand for a high-profile, two-day summit.
The spotlight was on how each of the attending leaders interacted with Putin – who at the time was more than six months into a brutal invasion of Ukraine that had sparked a humanitarian disaster, roiled the global economy and triggered global food insecurity.
This time around, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit’s host country India appeared keen to avoid that kind of scrutiny, opting instead for a virtual summit – a muted arrangement that may have also suited the SCO’s two leading members, Putin and Xi.
India’s summit, which took place Tuesday afternoon, lasted roughly three hours and culminated with the release of a joint declaration some 5,000 words shorter than the one released in Samarkand.
Also missing were the typical group photos, chummy dinner and opportunities for sideline meetings between heads of state from the body of leaders from Eurasia that Russia and China have long seen as a critical means to counter so-called Western influence in the region.
New Delhi did not give a specific explanation when it announced last month it would hold the event online, and on Tuesday said the format “in no way signifies, hints, insinuates the dilution in the objectives that we are trying to see of the SCO summit.”
But observers say that Modi – who has been busy tightening India’s ties with the US, including during a state visit late last month – was likely keen to avoid the optics of welcoming Putin and Xi to the capital for an SCO summit.
The grouping, which also includes Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and – as of yesterday – Iran, was founded in 2001 to focus on regional security and cooperation and spearheaded by Russia and China, both of whom are now at significant odds with the US.
“Having just been feted in Washington, Modi had to walk a fine line in terms of perceptions,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, adding that “given Western sensitivities,” India didn’t want Putin “strutting around” the capital.
And while Putin and Xi are ardent backers of the SCO and both keen to play up their strength and be perceived as global power brokers, especially by their domestic audiences – a toned-down summit may have also suited their purposes, experts say.
Putin’s attendance at the event was his first appearance, albeit virtual, on the world stage since what’s been widely considered the most significant threat to his power the autocrat has seen to date.
An armed rebellion launched by the Wagner mercenary group last late month was swiftly diffused but not without damaging Putin’s image of iron-fisted control.
It remains unknown how tight a grip Putin now has on power in Moscow, and although he attended last year’s SCO summit, he has rarely left Russia since his invasion of Ukraine.
Attending this year’s gathering in-person, while also managing the political fallout from such a systemic shock could potentially have presented a risk for the authoritarian leader.
Meanwhile, China has ramped up its diplomacy with Europe in recent months as it attempts to repair its image and relations there, which suffered a significant blow since early last year as Beijing refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continued to back Putin economically and diplomatically.
“An online format avoided Xi having to stage-manage a meeting with Putin – or not,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
It’s “much easier” for Xi or China to engage with Europe without the optics of a face-to-face meeting with Putin, he said, while not meeting “would also raise awkward questions” for Beijing, which maintains a close partnership with Moscow.
Moritz Rudolf, a fellow and research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center of the Yale Law School in the US, agreed the “level of international scrutiny would have been much higher if another in-person meeting between Xi and Putin would have taken place.”
The “significant substance” of the summit, where Iran was granted full membership and key Moscow ally Belarus took a step in that direction, could have been another reason why Beijing may not have minded a more low-profile summit, amid its efforts to be seen as a potential peace facilitator between Russia and Ukraine and to improve relations with Europe, he said.
But none of this should suggest that these two countries are viewing the body – or their bilateral relations – as of lesser importance than before, experts caution.
The SCO has long been a means for Russia and China to manage their own balance of power in Central Asia and advance their shared vision to counter what they see as a looming threat of Western influence – a threat both Xi and Putin referenced in their addresses to the group on Tuesday.
“The SCO still matters to Putin, as the relative weakness of Russia juxtaposed against the relative strength of China can cause a shift in the balance of power and influence between the two (in the group),” said Tsang.
“Russia may be a junior partner to China overall, but it would not want to be so in those Central Asian countries that were formerly part of the (Soviet Union),” he said.
Face-to-face meetings, however, can also provide opportunity for world leaders to talk out sensitive issues or push on points of contention that may be handled less delicately in a virtual setting.
Given their respective ties with Moscow, both China and India have received pressure from the West to limit their relations or even push Putin toward peace.
China in particular has tried to parlay what it claims is a “neutral” role in the conflict in Ukraine into a bid to broker peace talks – with Xi visiting Moscow in March on a trip Beijing painted with this veneer.
At last year’s SCO summit, Modi made what was his most direct, public rebuke of the war to date – telling Putin “today’s era is not an era of war.”
And Putin in Samarkand appeared to concede that Xi too had raised diverging views – noting in public remarks that Beijing had “questions and concerns” over the invasion.
That said, neither leader has appeared, at least publicly, to ramp up pressure on Putin – even as declarations from both years’ SCO summits supported “mutual respect for sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity of states” and “non-use of force or threats to use force” – in apparent contrast to Putin’s actions against Ukraine.
This year, instead, as the world leaders took turns reading out statements during the summit’s online format, Putin used his time to decry Western sanctions against his war – and reassure his counterparts that he remained strong in the face of these challenges and the insurrection.
“Russia is withstanding all these sanctions and provocations and under the present circumstances, our country is steadily developing,” he said.