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Putin reassures pro-Russian world leaders his grip on power remains strong


By Simone McCarthy, Rhea Mogul, Nectar Gan and Alex Stambaugh, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — Vladimir Putin sought to project 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 via video link.

“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.

In reference to the impact of his war on Ukraine, Putin also said Russia was withstanding “sanctions and provocations” and “steadily developing.”

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 grouping to extend its reach – with Iran approved as a full member – the second expansion in the organization’s more than two decade history. Staunch Moscow ally Belarus also took a step toward gaining full membership, expected next year.

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 group, 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 called for regional leaders to strengthen their coordination and resist the influence of external forces in the region – employing language typically used by Beijing to decry what it claims are aims of American foreign policy.

“We must be highly vigilant against external forces inciting a ‘new cold war’ in the region and creating confrontation between camps, (and) resolutely oppose any country’s interference in internal affairs and instigation of ‘color revolutions,’” Xi said, using a term to refer to government-toppling political movements.

Member countries should “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 added, according to a transcript from China’s Foreign Ministry.

The grouping adopted a declaration and two joint statements, one on cooperation countering “radicalization leading to separatism, extremism and terrorism” and a second on cooperation in the field of digital transformation, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said following the close of the summit, which lasted roughly three hours.

Complex backdrop

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 entry into the grouping comes after it signed a memorandum of obligations at last year’s summit. Belarus, a close Russian partner, took that step toward full membership this year, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said after the close of the Tuesday’s meeting.

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. Fourteen countries hold dialogue partner status, while another three are observers, according to New Delhi.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Manveena Suri, Zahid Mahmood, Niamh Kennedy and Anna Chernova contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Asia/Pacific

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