MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - Russia is rapidly expanding foreign arms deals worldwide, with Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin confirming to the Russian military's newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda December 20 that Moscow has signed military cooperation pacts with 39 countries in the last five years, many of them in Southeast Asia, including Laos, which has not been buying Russian weapons on this scale for decades.
The expansion is raising eyebrows and comes as relations between Russia and NATO have broken down.
Analysts said old Cold War alliances with countries such as Laos, Moscow's appetite for barter deals, and the potential for access to railroads under construction that will provide access to seaports and trade routes along the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai coasts, appeal to Moscow, and the arms sales are part of a larger effort by Russia to strengthen its links with these countries.
“Moscow’s motives appear to be a combination of commercial and the perhaps disruptive, in the sense that any erosion of U.S. or European defense interests is a de facto win,” Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with A2 Global Risk, a Hong Kong-based security consultancy, told VOA.
He said Russia had accounted for 25% of major arms sales in Southeast Asia since 2000, and according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Moscow sold $6.6 billion in arms to Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2017, as much as the U.S. and China combined.
The institute also says Russia accounted for 60% of arms sales across Asia and Oceania between 2014 and 2018.
However, Russia also needs to offset falling sales to India, and the MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30 fighters purchased by Malaysia in 1995 are nearing the end of their life. Greenwood said any replacement was unlikely to be procured from Russia, as they are also considering deals with U.S. and European suppliers.
Southeast Asia focus
As a result of declining arms sales to India, Russia is falling further behind the U.S. in global arms sales, analysts say, but it has remained the dominant player in Southeast Asia, where analysts said South China Sea disputes, terrorism and competition among rival states is increasing demand for high-tech weaponry.
Fomin said progress in developing military cooperation with traditional partners China and India had been made alongside fresh efforts with Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
“Their efforts to sell are obviously increasing and there’s a sense from some quarters that this is a strategic effort by Moscow – while others would say probably not, it’s commercial,” Greenwood said.
Russia remains a primary supplier to Vietnam, accounting for 60% of all military sales to that country – including submarines – and is seeking opportunities in the Philippines while stepping up sales to Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar.
Meanwhile, strategically important Laos, which forms a buffer between China and Southeast Asia, has increased its spending, acquiring Russian T-72B tanks, BRDM-2M armored vehicles, YAK 130 fighter jets and helicopters.
In addition, Russia and Laos last month launched the nine-day Laros 2019 exercise, their first joint military exercise, with more than 500 soldiers taking part alongside the recently acquired tanks, which was seen as part of a greater effort to deepen military ties with Southeast Asia.
Analysts said further joint military exercises with Laos are now in the offing together with more arms and training for Laotian officers in Russian military academies.
The timing could be related to Chinese railway construction, “which will connect southern-southwest China to Thailand,” Greenwood said, which would provide further seaport access.
Increased weapon sales worldwide can be traced to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine six years ago. Sanctions followed and the ruble collapsed, sparking a three-year financial crisis.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales said military technology is one of Russia’s much-needed strengths.
“Annexation of the Crimea was accompanied by very punishing sanctions by the United States and Russia went through a phase of trying to recover by developing its domestic market.
“That didn’t work, and they had to do overseas exports and the one thing the Russians have is military technology,” Thayer told VOA, echoing Greenwood.
Meanwhile, the issue for most Southeast Asian countries is that access to high-tech weaponry is limited to the U.S., which ties sales to human rights, and Russia, which offers soft loans, state-backed credits, barter deals, spares and servicing with a no such strings attached.
Don Greenlees, senior adviser at the Asialink think tank at the University of Melbourne, said U.S. costs and conditions, coupled with sanctions, mean easier options are available in Russia.
“If you want really high-level military technology and you’re a Southeast Asian country you’ve either got to go to Moscow or you’ve got to go Washington. And Washington hasn’t made it terribly easy in recent years for a lot of these countries to obtain the best kit,” he told VOA.
“And it’s also more expensive to buy it from Washington,” Greenlees said. “So Russia, for many of these countries, is the arms supplier of choice.”
The big picture
Thayer said Moscow also must act against any isolation spurred by sanctions and establish itself with Vietnam, with which it has always been a strategic partner, as a natural conduit in developing relations in Southeast Asia, but Laos “is just one small peg in the larger picture.”
Greenlees said Russia’s regional reemergence was still in its early days but from a big-picture geopolitical point of view, it’s the Sino-Russian alignment that concerns everyone.
So far, China has not complained about Russia’s push into its traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, it also could benefit from potential sales to countries alienated by the U.S. linkage of sales to issues like human rights, which analysts said could lead to a stronger alliance between Moscow and Beijing in Southeast Asia.
“If that leads to a hardening of East-West 'camps,' that would be a concern to the region. It could force the issue of 'taking sides and reduce the opportunities for small to medium sized powers to play the great powers off against each other,” Greenlees said.