Written by Rajan Kumar

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization foreign ministers’ meeting is taking place in Goa (May 4-5), and Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto is among the attendees. The countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are in a moral and political impasse due to the Russian-Ukrainian war. Taking an idealistic stance on Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” runs the risk of jeopardizing relations with Russia, while remaining neutral exposes them to Western wrath. There is no perfect choice. Each option has its drawbacks. The SCO countries, with the exception of Pakistan, have strong political, military or economic ties with Russia. They do not wish to spoil their relations with Moscow because of an external issue from their point of view. They do not want to offend the West. Thus, they walk a fine line of “neutrality” on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

The SCO countries did not condemn Russian aggression. However, this did not mean that they agreed to Moscow’s military intervention. SCO leaders have repeatedly emphasized the inviolability of territorial integrity – a subtle message to Moscow that borders cannot be changed unilaterally. Moreover, no one recognized the lands Russia seized from Ukraine, not even Crimea. Furthermore, the members avoided supplying weapons to Russia. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to suggest that the SCO supported Russia.

Western experts criticize the SCO for sympathizing with Russia and defending an aggressor. However, an in-depth analysis of each country’s politics paints a much less sympathetic picture. To be sure, the SCO countries are not unanimous. Their responses range from distancing themselves from the war to total silence to abstentions at the United Nations and muted criticism. However, even China, which the West expects to be an ally of Russia, has refrained from supplying arms to Russia. Hypothetically, would Great Britain be an ally if it refused to supply arms to the United States in its decisive war?

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand in 2022, Vladimir Putin cited China’s war-related concerns. These concerns are still unclear, but Beijing was not satisfied with a prolonged war and nuclear shock. At the same summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that “today’s age is not war”—a polite way of saying that Russia’s priorities are misplaced. Similarly, Central Asian leaders have expressed their concerns. Therefore, the assertion that the SCO is on the side of Russia is incorrect. The appropriate contention is that the SCO saved Russia from political and financial isolation. The BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization have become important forums for Putin to claim that Russia is not isolated.

SCO countries do not feel morally obligated to support either side. There is a feeling that both sides made huge mistakes. NATO did not expect war, and Moscow hastily sent its army without exhausting diplomatic options. Moreover, Russia did not inform the Shanghai Cooperation Organization about the intervention nor did the West consult with it before imposing sanctions. Therefore, the SCO countries have no regrets in pursuing their national interests.

The SCO countries are realigning their policies, on the assumption that the split between Russia and the West will last long. The war will have no real winner and will turn into a frozen conflict. Regardless of the outcome, Ukraine will remain a source of geopolitical conflict. Therefore, Central Asian countries are seeking to diversify their policies and reduce their dependence on Russia. On the contrary, Moscow seeks these countries to maintain its privileged position in Eurasia. Putin will make five trips to Central Asia in 2022.

Moscow’s most difficult task is to reassure the Central Asian states that their sovereignty will remain intact. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has shaken the confidence of Central Asian countries. They are the terrifying draw. The war in Ukraine may also open a Pandora’s box of claims and counter-claims in Central Asia. They are concerned about the fate of a Ukrainian in the region. Kazakhstan is the most feared because of its long border with Russia and a large Russian minority in its northern regions. Ultra-nationalists in Russia add fuel to the fire by making provocative statements against Kazakhstan. Moscow is unlikely to seek expansion in Central Asia, but perceptions matter as much as reality.

India, as chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, can address the concerns of Central Asian countries. First, New Delhi should emphasize the centrality of Central Asia in the SCO. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is the most authoritative and prestigious organization of Central Asian countries. Major powers such as India, China and Russia have other multilateral forums to raise their macro issues of global governance. But for the countries of Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is of paramount importance. Hence, the SCO has to give preference to Central Asian concerns.

Secondly, Afghanistan is still fragile, and there are no signs of stability and development. Terrorist groups and extremist organizations are expanding their influence in the Eurasia region. The SCO should support mechanisms to ensure stability in Afghanistan and protect the rights of its vulnerable citizens.

Third, terrorism is a common danger for all SCO countries. The SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure was established to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. But its role in curbing terrorism is insufficient. It requires a new mandate, resources and action plan to combat terrorism.

Fourth, the SCO can facilitate development by speeding up communication networks, such as the North-South International Transport Corridor and by encouraging regional investment. The Eurasian Union should accelerate free trade agreements with SCO members to increase trade and investment.

Fifth, unlike Russia and China, India and the countries of Central Asia do not want the SCO to become an anti-Western organization. The group can overcome this contradiction if it remains committed to issues specific to Eurasia. Finally, New Delhi may take the lead in creating a development bank for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as it has done with the BRICS countries. This would add enormous credibility to both India and the SCO.

The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


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