Over the next few days Vladimir Putin will bask in the spotlight of big power summitry, as he hosts leaders of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries, a demonstration that Russia is neither bowed nor isolated by Western sanctions and opprobrium over his policies in Ukraine.
For Mr. Putin, the successive summits in the Urals city of Ufa represent the Super Bowl of his more than year-long diplomatic efforts to demonstrate that point.
The Russian media is full of stories about the weight and importance of these two groups – the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] account for 25 percent of global GDP and 40 percent of population – delivering the message that, far from being sidelined by Western pressure, Russia is emerging as a leader, alongside China, of a parallel world structure that has no need for Western approval.
It's a seductive view, and the images of a smiling Putin standing alongside leaders of other large countries this week, and signing major economic deals, will provide strong reinforcement for it. But, analysts caution, it is also a superficial view.
"In terms of rhetoric, Russia will use all the tools to show that it is far from isolated, that it has glowing perspectives in an alternative global project, and that the G8 is yesterday's news," says Alexander Gabuyev, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "But the reality is far more complicated. Nobody sees these summits as a serious alternative" to good relations with the West, he says.
Most BRICS economies slowing
The BRICS, the brainchild of a Goldman Sachs analyst about a dozen years ago, has surprised many by becoming a real-life going concern, with its own annual summits and working committees. This year it is launching its own $100 billion development bank that proponents believe might one day compete with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Yet the first, obvious test for the new bank – could it help struggling Greece? – has been given a cool, silent reception at the Ufa summit.
"If the Germans with all their tools couldn't solve the Greece problem, the BRICS definitely won't want to be dragged into that swamp," says Mr. Gabuyev.
Despite being regarded as rising stars in the global economy, most of the BRICS economies are slowing and some, like Russia, are already in recession. Experts say they are very different countries, with few potential synergies between them – with the exception of Russia and China – and they all trade far more with the West than they do with each other. Nevertheless, they all share a certain level of disaffection with Western-run global institutions, and may be expected to give Putin the appearance of political solidarity that he craves.
"The BRICS holds a certain ideological attraction for Russia, as a counterbalance to the West. But it's a very improbable association of countries that are very far away and have little in common," says Sergei Oznobishchev, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Moreover, they are not attractive models for Russia. I don't know of a single member of the Russian elite who buys property, banks, or sends their children to school in any of those countries. Everyone wants to vacation and live in Europe, even if they like to scold the Europeans."
Following the BRICS summit, Putin then greets some of the same heads for the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations (SCO) – Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan – which is expected to grow this year by inducting new members India and Pakistan.
The SCO was born in 2001 as a forum to manage Russian-Chinese competition in central Asia, and has grown in importance and clout. As the only major global organization that neither the US nor any of its allies belongs to, it has often been employed by Moscow and Beijing to oppose the spread of US influence in the region. With NATO winding down its operations in Afghanistan, leaders of the SCO have been mulling the creation of a stronger security alliance to counter the expected spread of Islamist extremism in the region. And with India and Pakistan joining this year, the organization appears to be moving toward a wider Eurasian focus.
Yet experts say the engine at the heart of both groups is the burgeoning Russia-China partnership. Russia is trying to build its Eurasian Economic Union in former Soviet territory, while China is expanding its Silk Roads project of investment and infrastructure development into the same regions.
"Chinese investment in Russia grew two-and-a-half-times last year, and this is largely the result of the Ukrainian crisis" and Putin's demonstrative pivot to the east, says Gabuyev. "Something is definitely happening there, though not as much or as fast as Putin would like."