The Reckoning

Putin: The Company He Keeps

putin and hu

Chinese President Hu Jintao speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the start of their talks in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday.

Photograph by Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/GettyImages

Having snubbed President Obama’s NATO Summit in Chicago last month—along with the nearby G7 meeting (which would have been the G8 if Russia had bothered to attend), President Vladimir Putin put his cards on the table at a summit meeting that did warrant his attention: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing.

At Monday’s opening session, he jumped in enthusiastically to denounce the West, seconding a motion by Iran’s foreign minister about the “arrogant world powers” of the U.S.-led NATO alliance. If anyone expected a serious discussion of the tragedy in Syria, the SCO made short work of such hopes.

The founding meeting of what was then called the Shanghai Five drew little notice in 1996 amid an American presidential election (Clinton vs. Dole), the Olympics in Atlanta, and the dispatch of 40,000 American-led peacekeepers to end the violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To those in the West who even knew of its existence, the SCO, which linked China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, seemed more like a support group for ailing former communists than a serious global player.

“The Scared Commie Organization,” a senior U.S. diplomat in London quipped to me at the time, back when I was the U.S. affairs analyst at the BBC. “It can’t be easy to have spent your whole life preaching central planning, only to find out that capitalism is what people really wanted all along.”

But the SCO persisted in spite of such views, holding annual summits that regularly complained about America’s high-handedness, adding Uzbekistan as a member in 2001 and talking about cross-border cooperation in combating terrorism and drug trafficking and improving infrastructure. In 2006, however, the SCO invited Iran, India, Pakistan, and Mongolia to attend the annual event as observers, and suddenly eyebrows rose in Washington.

Since then, the group has held joint military exercises, joined together to condemn a planned U.S. anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, demanded a new voice for the world’s emerging economies in the IMF, preached a phasing out of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and is currently considering Iran’s application for full membership.

For India, granted SCO “observer” status in 2006, attending these summits has provided a useful opportunity for high-level talks with China and, in private settings, its rival, Pakistan. Unlike the constrained media commentary from other member states, India’s media provides decent coverage of these summits, even if India itself does not always agree with the tone of the proceedings.

“If the historic purpose of NATO was to ‘keep the Germans down, the Americans in and the Russians out’, then SCO is at least minimally united around the motto of ‘keeping the Americans out,’ ” writes professor Sreeram Chaulia, a security expert at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India.

Comparisons with NATO are not perfect: In many ways, the SCO’s members fear each other as much as the outside world. Certainly, in the long run, China poses a much greater threat to Russia than rapidly ossifying Western Europeans, though whether the Kremlin may choose to grasp the fact is another matter.

Still, summitry is often more about symbols than reality, and in that, Putin’s choice of friends speaks volumes. No doubt he’ll be at the G20 summit in Mexico in two weeks. But just in case anyone thought the Chicago snubs were just a matter of tight diplomatic scheduling, he also made a point last week to tell the British that, no, he won’t be attending the London Olympics, either.