When Vietnam and Russia established a new inter-parliamentary cooperation committee, an agreement finalized in December when Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin visited Hanoi, the camaraderie harked back to their old Cold War ties.
The agreement underlined a recent revival in bilateral cooperation, ranging across trade, investment and energy. But while Russia can’t compete dollar for dollar with China, South Korea or Japan for economic influence in Vietnam, its military ties with Hanoi are still second to none.
Last September, Vietnam placed orders for various Russian weapons and military services worth more than US$1 billion, according to the Russian official news agency TASS. Vietnam had earlier purchased six Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, the last one delivered in January 2018, in a $2 billion naval deal that was one of Russia’s largest ever.
Nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist rule in Moscow, a resurgent Russia is back in Asia offering arms sales, weaponry advice and military cooperation.
That Russia has recast its gaze on Asia is not by chance. The erstwhile Soviet Union wielded big clout in the region until it fell apart and its main component, Russia, became preoccupied with domestic turmoil and a shambolic economy.
But Russia’s return to Asia comes at a time when China is the region’s predominant power, a complicating factor for Russia’s ambitions in a post-Cold War order where no clear battle lines have been drawn.
China and Russia share an interest in checking and containing US strategic power in the region. That was on full display in September when Russia staged its biggest military exercise in decades in the country’s far eastern region.
The exercises, known as Vostok 2018, involved 300,000 soldiers, including 3,200 Chinese troops who drilled alongside their Russian counterparts.
Russia and China have come a long way back since the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s and the ensuing competition for influence among communist states and revolutionary movements in the region. The two sides even fought a brief border war in 1969, not far from the area where last year’s joint exercise was held.
Significantly, Russia has maintained its Cold War-era defense cooperation with Vietnam, witnessed in the recent sale of submarines that have bolstered Vietnam’s ability to counter China in the contested South China Sea.
At the same time, Russia exports sophisticated military equipment to both China and India, arguably the region’s two main strategic rivals. In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to New Delhi to sign a deal worth more than $5 billion for the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which analysts say aims to target perceived threats from China.
In 2017, China and India engaged in a months-long standoff near their tri-border junction with Bhutan as Indian troops moved to prevent Chinese soldiers from constructing a road through a disputed area. At the same time, also in 2017, Russia sold around $15 billion worth of weapons to China, including fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.
Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, wrote in a memo about the paradox of Russia’s professed support of Chinese interests while simultaneously arming and supporting politically China’s potential adversaries in the region.
Blank wrote in the memo that the two-way diplomacy was part of Russia’s hedging strategy against China that combines “support with visible but discreet resistance to excessive Chinese claims in the South and East China seas.” At the same time, Blank argued, some may see Russian support for China as being directed mainly against US pressure on China and on global issues like Syria in return for Chinese investment, particularly as other sources of foreign funds have lagged.
Others analysts believe that Russia does not want to see a new bipolar global system, this time dominated by the US and China, and would prefer a multipolar world order in which it has balancing power and retains a role as a global player.
That said, the economic aspect of Russia’s revitalized interests in Asia should not be overlooked. Russia is actively seeking new markets for its weapons, its most lucrative export item after crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), US companies continue to dominate the world’s top 100 arms exporters, but in 2017 Russian competitors moved into second place, a position that had been occupied by the United Kingdom since 2002.
US arms sales grew by 2.0% in 2017 to $226.6 billion, accounting for 57% of total top 100 arms sales worldwide, while Russian companies increased by 8.5% to $3.7 billion, or 9.5% of the top 100, SIPRI data released on December 10 showed.
Although the US remains by far the world’s biggest arms exporter, sometimes punitive US policies have often been a boon for Russia’s exporters. That’s particularly the case in Indonesia, a country the US is now looking to as an ally to counterbalance China’s fast regional rise.
The US levied restrictions on arms sales to Indonesia in 1991 when its soldiers opened fire on a pro-independence demonstration in East Timor. In 1999, the US and European Union imposed full arms embargoes against Indonesia after it staged a bloody military intervention in East Timor to prevent it from seceding after a UN-supervised referendum on independence.
Significantly, the embargo grounded US-supplied Indonesian planes because of restrictions on the sale of spare parts.
Russia has happily filled the gap by delivering more than $2.5 billion worth of weapons to Indonesia since November 1992. Sales have included armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, Kalashnikov assault rifles, fighter planes, attack helicopters, and other military hardware, official Russian media have reported.
The US arms embargo was eventually lifted on January 1, 2006, but Russian weaponry continues to flow freely into Indonesia.
Myanmar is another country that has been, and is still, subjected to Western arms embargoes where Russian weapons have filled the gap.
Russia has sold 14 MiG-29 jet fighters, at least nine Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunships and 12 Mi-17 transport helicopters to Myanmar. In January 2018, Russia announced plans to sell six Su-30 fighter aircraft to Myanmar.
Russian military instructors have been spotted at Myanmar airfields, presumably to assist in the use and maintenance of the Russian-made attack helicopters. Such training is not new: Many Myanmar soldiers and scientists have studied in Russia since the early 1990s.
But Myanmar-Russia relations have grown beyond arms and training. Myanmar imports Russian-made machinery, industrial equipment, vehicles, chemical products and metals, while it exports rice and textiles to Russia.
“We view Myanmar as a strategic partner of Russia in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting with Myanmar commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on the sidelines of the August 2018 International Military-Technical Forum-Army in Rostov, Russia.
That also includes shielding Myanmar from Western attempts to raise at the United Nations Security Council human-rights abuses perpetrated by the country’s security forces in ethnic-minority areas, especially against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state.
When the US State Department last January criticized Russia for expanding its military cooperation with Myanmar, the Russian Embassy in Yangon issued a statement “pledging non-interference in the domestic affairs” of the country.
At the same time, the embassy lashed out against the US: “In this connection, we would like to recall that the people of Southeast Asia have hardly forgotten the casualties and destruction inflicted upon them by US weapons during numerous recent wars … in the region.”
The US may be unfazed by such rhetoric, but it cannot help feeling the adverse effects of its sanctions policies. Measures meant to punish human-rights-abusing regimes have often backfired and impacted countries that should otherwise be regarded as allies.
In August 2017, Washington passed a new law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which aims to curb arms exports from Russia, Iran and North Korea and to penalize entities that undertake “significant” business deals with those countries.
Shortly after India signed a missile defense deal last year with Russia, Washington felt compelled to issue a statement that CAATSA sanctions against Russia did not aim to impose damage to the military capabilities of its “allies and partners.”
A New Delhi-based US Embassy spokesman said sanctions against India could be “waived” and that actions would be “considered on a transaction-by-transaction basis.”
India may not be the only country that is eligible for such US “waivers” on Russian arms sales. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that the US would block arms sales to Vietnam, a main opponent of China in the South China Sea.
If China is the adversary, waivers may follow, the argument goes in international defense circles. And it is still unclear what “significant” means in the context of the new sanctions regime.
The only action taken so far under CAATSA was in September last year, when China’s Equipment Development Department of the country’s Central Military Commission and its director Li Shangfu were sanctioned.
The violation: their involvement in Russia’s transfer to China of Si-35 combat aircraft and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system – the same defense system that India has agreed to buy from Russia.
In another sign of the new world disorder, this Thursday the US offered to hold arms-control talks with Russia at an upcoming UN meeting in Beijing. The meeting comes against the backdrop of US accusations that Moscow has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement by deploying nuclear-capable cruise missiles that could target US allies in Europe.
Russia has rejected the allegation, claiming that the missiles comply with the agreement, but the disagreement could cause the US to withdraw from the INF pact and heighten nuclear tensions worldwide, including in delicate Asian theaters.
China may have overtaken Russia as the main non-Western player in Asia’s geopolitics, but after years of decline and neglect, Putin’s Russia is a rising military power in the region again.
Russia has come a long way since 2000, when Putin took over an ailing country still traumatized by the demise of the Soviet Union. Putin does not want to resurrect the Soviet Union, to be sure, but he clearly has his sights set on restoring much of what his country once had, and lost, in Asia.