Last week, Vladimir Putin visited Samarkand in central Asia to attend a diplomatic summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprising four countries from central Asia plus China, Russia, Pakistan and India. This was no small thing. It was Putin’s only trip outside Russia since the pandemic took hold — with the exception of a visit to China in February to meet China’s Xi Jinping on the occasion of the Winter Olympics. The Kremlin portrayed the SCO gathering as proof that Western attempts to isolate Russia after its Ukraine invasion had “failed.” Putin would meet with the other heads of state, particularly China’s Xi and India’s Prime Minister Modi, leaders of the two most populous countries in the world. The importance of the event was underlined by the fact that Xi was making his first trip outside China since the beginning of the pandemic.
Russian officials made it clear that Moscow had high expectations for these meetings. Faced with near unanimous Western condemnation, Putin needed a full-throated statement of support from Xi — particularly urgent since Kyiv’s counteroffensive had dramatically rolled back Russia’s earlier military gains in Ukraine. In addition to a stamp of approval, Putin needed pledges from China to increase its oil and gas purchases from Russia. For many years, European energy purchases from Russia financed the Kremlin’s military buildup while providing programs to keep Russia’s populace loyal to the regime. But Europe is committed to rapidly reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels to zero.