Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country with close links to Moscow, on his first foreign trip since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him in March.
Since sending soldiers into Ukraine in early 2022, the Kremlin chief has seldom traveled outside and is not known to have left Russia since the ICC issued a warrant accusing him of facilitating the illegal expulsion of children from Ukraine.
Russia does not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction and has rejected its allegations.
Putin attended a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of Russia’s Kant military airbase outside Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, a strategically-important facility which allows Moscow to project power in the region.
“This military outpost significantly contributes to boosting Kyrgyzstan’s defensive power and ensuring security and stability in the whole region of Central Asia,” said Putin, who said he expected Moscow to expand its military and defence ties with Kyrgyzstan.
His visit coincided with a Russian-led security bloc holding military drills in Kyrgyzstan.
The Russian leader is also due to travel to China next week for the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Neither Kyrgyzstan nor China are members of the ICC, which was established to prosecute war crimes.
Putin’s two-day trip to Kyrgyzstan will culminate in his participation in a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a grouping of former Soviet republics, in Bishkek on Friday amid signs that Russia’s influence in some parts of the Soviet Union, such as Armenia, is under pressure.
Moscow’s ties with other countries in an area it has traditionally regarded as its backyard have come under strain over their enforcement of Western sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine.
At a meeting with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Putin underscored Russia’s importance as the biggest investor in the Kyrgyz economy and said the two sides would further develop cooperation.
“Our country is the main supplier of oil products to Kyrgyzstan, we fully supply Kyrgyz consumers with gasoline (petrol) and diesel,” Putin told a briefing.
“We very highly value the Kyrgyz-Russian strategic partnership and our relationship as allies,” said Japarov.
Putin cited fast growth in Russian-Kyrgyz trade, which some in the West suspect is partly due to Kyrgyz intermediaries facilitating sanctions-busting by Russian businesses.
“Russia is one of the leading trade partners of Kyrgyzstan. Our trade turnover grew 37% last year to a record of nearly $3.5 billion. In the first half of this year it grew a further 17.9%,” said Putin.
The United States imposed sanctions on four Kyrgyz companies in July for re-exporting electronics components and other technology to Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s central bank last week urged local banks to tighten controls over compliance with Western sanctions against Moscow.