Tuesday

21st Sep 2021

Opinion

Russia's coalition of the unwilling

  • Moscow metro: The economic downturn in Russia has caused many migrant workers to lose their jobs and return home (Photo: Dennis Jarvis)

On July 10 in the Russian city of Ufa, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin hosted regional leaders of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) – a political, economic and military organisation founded in 2001 by the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a way to settle border issues between China and its Central Asian neighbours.

Western observers, however, generally take the view that the forum was designed to act as a counterweight to Nato.

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  • Under pressure in Europe due to its role in the Ukraine crisis, Russia is being forced to make new friends (Photo: Bernd Thaller)

The summit’s main event was the signing of a document starting the accession procedure for India and Pakistan. Summit leaders also expressed support for Iran to one day join the organisation.

The expansion renders the SCO a framework for security cooperation across a vast geographical area in which neither the US, nor Europe, wields any significant influence.

That – at least in the eyes of Vladimir Putin – is the message.

In reality however, the organisation is still a loose coalition of states lacking genuine shared interests.

Not a pariah

Still, the organisation's expansion is being heralded as a major diplomatic achievement for Putin.

It is his way of showing the world that Russia is not an international pariah and still capable of projecting significant power abroad.

But the admission of India and Pakistan raises serious questions about the compatibility of individual SCO members’ interests given both countries’ long history of enmity and conflict.

Security alliances are only as strong as the degree of the shared interests among its members.

Russia is pushing hardest for enlargement, mainly because the Kremlin is eager to show its ability to stand up to the West.

This is not an interest broadly shared by other SCO members. China, although engaged in a stand-off with the US over dominance in the Asia-Pacific, is careful not to alienate Washington given both countries’ interlinked financial markets.

Former Soviet members of the SCO, notably Kazakhstan, are wary of Moscow’s intentions after Putin annexed Crimea early last yer. Kazakhstan fears Russia might one day act to 'protect its nationals abroad' in Kazakhstan’s North.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, are suffering badly from Moscow's adventurism as the economic downturn in Russia has caused many migrant workers to lose their jobs and return home.

Remittances, an essential part of both countries' economies, have dropped significantly. Worse, scores of young unemployed men are becoming increasingly susceptible to recruitment by radical jihadist organisations.

Uzbekistan, which took over the SCO Presidency from Russia after the summit, warned that the organisation should never become a military bloc against any other group or country.

Last but not least, Iran – bolstered by the recent nuclear deal – appears more interested in wooing the West, China and Russia. It badly needs investments in its hydrocarbon industry and cannot afford to make enemies by joining a regional security organisation.

The SCO’s calls for Iranian membership are therefore unlikely to be heeded.

United in distrust

What the SCO lacks in terms of shared interests is more than made up for in mutual distrust.

Russia and China, arguably the organisation’s most powerful members, have a long history of mutual antagonism most famously expressed by the Sino-Soviet split from 1960-1989. This began to change only recently owing to Putin’s efforts to strengthen ties with Asia.

That said, much of Russia’s ‘Asia pivot’ should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Russia-China partnership is far from equal. Rather, it is China that is taking advantage of cheap access to Russia’s energy resources, exploiting the latter’s weaker negotiating position.

Under pressure in Europe due to its role in the Ukraine crisis, Russia is being forced to make new friends.

Beijing understands very well that Russia needs China more than the other way around.

Illustrative of the distrust between the two nations was the public outcry resulting from Russia’s plans to hand a stretch of remote Siberian territory to Chinese investors in June.

Russian politicians and media promptly warned this could lead to an annexation of Russian lands by China.

So for the time being, the SCO is very much a coalition of the unwilling.

Much will depend on future dynamics, both within and outside the organisation. However unruly its composition, the organisation may have important potential for future regional integration in this vast area. If somehow it were able to bring some stabilisation to the region by bringing India and Pakistan on board, that would by itself already be a major contribution to international cooperation.

Dr. Sijbren de Jong is Strategic Analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). Prof. Dr. Jan Wouters is Director of the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies (GGS).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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