In China’s BRICS summit, Putin is back on the world stage

It will be Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s first meeting with the leaders of major economies since beginning an invasion of Ukraine earlier this year when he connects to the virtual BRICS summit being hosted by Beijing on Thursday.

The fact that Putin’s face appeared onscreen with the leaders of the other nations that make up this acronymous grouping—Xi China’s Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa—could be a welcome reminder to him that, despite being hit by sanctions and criticism for the invasion, Russia is not alone.

The message may be even more relevant now that China and Russia declared their own relationship to have “no limits” weeks before the invasion, and that none of the BRICS leaders has directly criticized Russia despite having varying degrees of interest in not appearing to support its actions and alienating Western allies.

Putin’s invasion is likely to add another complexity to BRICS, a more than ten-year-old association of significant rising countries that already struggles with member mistrust and divergent philosophies.

According to experts, the BRICS countries do hold a different perspective on the world order and, consequently, the situation in Ukraine, as evidenced by the group’s decision to move forward with its 14th annual summit.

Sushant Singh, a senior scholar at the Center for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi, said that “we’re talking about some very important economies whose leadership is happy to be seen with Putin, even if it’s only on a virtual stage.”

“Putin is welcome, he’s not a pariah, he’s not being forced out — and this is a normal interaction, which has occurred every year and is continuing occurring,” he said.

Even if the nations may contend that engaging Russia is preferable to doing nothing, the contrast just makes the contrast clearer. Days after the BRICS summit, the Group of Seven, a group of the world’s most advanced countries, meets. The Group of Seven has been united in its opposition to Russian aggression and expelled Moscow after its invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Unlike the G7, the BRICS is anticipated to tread gently when discussing Ukraine at the meeting on Thursday, presumably advocating for a peaceful resolution even as its members may cautiously urge the West to consider the effects of its sanctions on the global economy.

Beijing, this year’s host and by far the most economically powerful of the five countries, which together account for about a quarter of global GDP, appears set to concentrate on its own agenda: promoting its new international development and security initiatives and opposing what it perceives as “bloc”-building by the United States.

In a speech to BRICS foreign ministers last month, Xi urged the group to advance development in this “period of turbulence and transformation.” He called on the group to “strengthen political mutual trust and security cooperation,” coordinate on significant global and regional issues, accommodate each other’s core interests, and “oppose hegemonism and power politics.”

The group, founded in 2009 to “serve common interests of emerging market economies and developing countries,” was ostensibly formed to solve some of the challenges of this time, such as food shortages and a rising debt crisis in the developing world.

Since its founding, the BRICS group, to which South Africa was included in 2011, has advocated for greater representation of the world’s main developing economies and has spoken out against what it sees as an excessive dominance of the Western powers. This has involved pressing for changes at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as occasionally taking a subtle dig at NATO operations.

According to Shahar Hameiri, a professor and political economist at the University of Queensland in Australia, the countries have also discussed issues like how to settle trade in their own currencies – outside of the US dollar system – an issue that may now be more relevant for BRICS following Western sanctions on Russia.

These sanctions have sanctioned banks, removed significant institutions from global banking systems, and cut off Russia’s central bank from the majority of US currency transactions. As a result, nations that still do business with Russia are rushing to find methods to comply with sanctions. India and China continue to be significant consumers of Russian fuel.

There won’t be a full-throated welcome of Russia at this summit, without a question, and there will undoubtedly be difficult moments there. However, there is one area where these nations actually share an interest behind the difficulty (de-dollarization),” Hameiri remarked.

Any form of significant departure from (a system denominated in US dollars) has the potential to be important.

Cross-purposes

Given the stark contrasts in the political, economic, and geopolitical objectives of its members, the BRICS organization has long struggled to maintain coherence, while sharing some similar interests.

Apart from Brazil, the BRICS countries other than Russia abstained in a United Nations General Assembly resolution that called on Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine, which was supported by 141 countries. This is because the complexities of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may temper any significant outcomes of this week’s summit.

For its part, China has accused NATO of encouraging Russia to attack Ukraine, and India has also heard accusations along those lines in public discourse. Ramaphosa earlier this year warned MPs in South Africa that if NATO had “heeded warnings” about accepting Ukraine’s membership in its alliance, the war would have been avoided.

Additionally, despite Brazil’s vote at the UN to denounce Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, its leader, Bolsonaro, has now backtracked, declaring days earlier that the nation will stay “neutral.”

According to Sino-Russian relations analyst Alexander Gabuev, under normal circumstances, China would follow the usual course, praising BRICS as “a kind of soft alternative to the G7” and attempting to “portray BRICS as a leader for the developing world… against the club of wealthy capitalist democracies.” He continued by saying that members would support one another’s major initiatives.

“Now it’s just harder to do because of Putin in the room,” said Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Meanwhile, a longstanding source of internal friction within BRICS remains unresolved: tensions between India and China, which in 2020 spiraled into a violent border clash.

According to CPR’s Singh, BRICS has been one means for India to “ensure some type of engagement with China.” And this is still important since New Delhi is careful of upsetting Beijing, especially now that it is a partner in the Quad security grouping with the US, Japan, and Australia and is increasingly seen by the US as a component of its plan to confront China, the analyst added.

However, these connections also make India less willing to support significant BRICS summit outcomes.

“I would be surprised if any substantive initiative is announced, because India would then be sending a message to the Quad and to its Western partners that it is willing to work very closely with China and Russia,” he said. “That would make India’s position very complicated.”

Another concern is how other members of the bloc would react to a long-discussed initiative to broaden the bloc to include more developing nations, which is anticipated to be led by China during the summit on Thursday.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi urged the BRICS to begin a “expansion process” for new members during a meeting with his BRICS counterparts last month.

According to Gabuev of Carnegie Endowments, this could contribute to perceptions that the West has applied a double standard to upholding international norms. This, he claims, has fostered the idea that the developing world should create these norms instead.

Adding more nations lends it respectability, but, as he pointed out, it’s unclear at this point whether this will move beyond symbolism.