Subs, ships and aftersales service: how Russia’s military is making Moscow a player in the Asia-Pacific
Isolated from the West, Russia is looking east to China’s backyard for strategic partnerships and new markets for its weapons
When Russian troops stage their biggest military exercise in decades in the country’s far east later this month, Chinese counterparts will be there alongside them.
Even though the countries’ militaries routinely hold joint exercises, the decision to include China in Vostok 2018 surprised some defence analysts because the drills had previously been off-limits to foreign armed forces – and in some cases included potential conflict scenarios with China.
With both countries seeking to check US influence in the region, Russia’s invitation to China is a strong step forward in the already close military relationship between the countries – one that has been marked lately by increased bilateral drills, as well as technology and classified information exchange. But Russia’s break from precedent this year can also be seen as a sign of Russia’s desire to be a high-profile player in the East.
After all, Moscow isn’t only reaching out to Beijing. Across the Asia-Pacific, Russian military engagement is on the rise, from revived defence ties with Vietnam to arms sales as far afield as Fiji. At the same time, Russia is bolstering its own forces in its eastern bases.
Watch: Russia shows off naval power in military parade
This flurry of activity has prompted speculation of a resurgent and reassertive Russia in the Asia-Pacific. But defence specialists say the Kremlin has little interest in upending the region’s security status quo.
As Russia finds itself increasingly isolated from the West – and as regional competition between China and the United States has sent many Asian-Pacific countries looking for new strategic partners – Moscow is instead using its military to tap a wealth of diplomatic and economic opportunities in the region.
In the near term, this means winning new markets for Russian military exports, strategic access to new port facilities and airfields and preferential treatment for Russian companies in other sectors.
In the long term, observers say, these efforts might also help propel Russia’s ambitions to become a leading global power.
“The Russians were trying to present themselves militarily in the region not just as a force that engages in traditional deterrence of the US and its allies but as a promoter of Russian capabilities,” Alexey Muraviev, an expert in Russian military affairs at Curtin University in Western Australia, said.
“They are actively seeking new allies and reanimating ties with old clients. And, so far, they have been making significant achievements.”
Countries around the world routinely employ militaries to advance policy goals in other areas. But Moscow’s defence diplomacy push in the Asia-Pacific was noteworthy because it contrasted with the low-profile approach it took to the region in the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Muraviev said.
Just 6 million of Russia’s 144 million people live in the country’s far east, and in the past Moscow’s interests in the Asia-Pacific took a back seat to those in Europe and the Middle East. However, as markets in Asia boomed and economies in the West stagnated, Russia became determined to emerge as a player in the East as well.
A diplomatic pivot began in earnest in 2012 – and hastened when Russia’s military actions in Crimea and Syria prompted a flood of sanctions from the West.
Yet, without the economic dynamism of China or the US, analysts say Russia’s toolset for projecting and accumulating influence abroad is limited. Even in the energy sector, resource-rich Russia has not kept pace in the Asia-Pacific with exports from China, the US and other regional energy producers.
Russia retains a marked edge with its military, however, which is the second strongest and most technologically advanced globally, behind only the US.
In its Eastern Military District alone, Russia boasts a diverse arsenal of hi-tech land, air and maritime assets, including long-range bombers, top-of-the-line fighter jets and some of the quietest nuclear submarines in the world.
Much of this firepower is directed as a strategic deterrent towards the US and its allies. Barring the outbreak of major hostilities in the East, though, Russia’s military assets also serve to boost Russia’s credibility as a regional power, according to Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the National Research University in Moscow.
“A strong military is necessary for an independent foreign policy,” Kashin said. “And an independent foreign policy is associated with significant economic and political benefits.”
In both economic and political terms, Russia would struggle to compete outright with China and the US. In turn, Moscow had taken a pragmatic approach to maximise its opportunities, said Natasha Kuhrt, a war studies professor at King’s College London.
Whereas Russia often played a zero-sum game in other regions such as Europe, it broadly avoided talk of alliances in the East, Kuhrt said. Instead, Russia has presented itself as an alternative to countries not keen to line up behind Beijing or Washington.
A THIRD WAY
The pitch has certainly worked for the Philippines, especially as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pursues his own independent foreign policy agenda, according to Fe Apon, a Russia specialist at the Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies in Manila.
“Duterte really wants to develop relations with non-traditional partners for immediate, tangible benefits,” Apon said. “Russia is a natural choice in the military area.”
The growing ties between Moscow and Manila were evident in August, when the Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana announced plans for one of his country’s warships to visit the city of Vladivostok, home to the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The port call was billed as friendly reciprocation for recent Russian port calls in Manila, but it will also mark a historic first for a navy that traditionally operates closer to home.
Last month also brought reports that Russia might sell the Philippines two Kilo-class submarines, diesel-powered mainstays of numerous world navies that Russia has exported since 1985.
The subs would be the Philippines’ first, but the bigger news was the seller – the island nation has traditionally looked to the United States, or American allies in Europe and East Asia, to buy new vessels.
Apon said it seemed clear that Russia was willing to supply better military hardware than the US, even after six decades of close partnership between Washington and Manila. She said a Facebook post last month by the Philippine ambassador to Russia, Carlos Sorreta, summed up her government’s views.
“Russia is willing to provide brand new equipment customised to the specific needs of the Philippines, at favourable financial terms, with reasonable delivery times, full aftersales service, necessary training and without political conditionalities or limitations,” Sorreta said in the post.
While the US often imposes policy expectations on would-be partners or clients – such as a government’s attitude to human rights – Russia has few preconditions about other countries’ domestic affairs.
This was a key selling point for Indonesia, according to Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Indonesia is a former client state of the Soviet Union, and Laksmana said the country’s legacy familiarity with Russian equipment contributed to Russia’s desirability as a partner. Moscow also offers flexible financial terms on sales, including “soft loans” that carry below-market interest rates.
Indonesia has placed orders for Russian Su-35 fighter jets, while Moscow has leveraged its ties with the country to send clear signals to its adversaries of its expanding reach and influence.
TESTING THE WATER
In December, Indonesian officials welcomed two Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers upon landing at an airfield on a small Indonesian island north of Papua New Guinea. The bombers then launched a long-range air patrol from the airfield, Russia’s first from Indonesian soil.
Similar patrols from Russia’s domestic bases elicit routine protests from the US and Japan – and in this case, military bases in northern Australia were put on alert – but Russia’s muscle-flexing has ruffled few feathers in the region at large.
Muraviev said that here Russia benefited significantly from its limited activity in the Asia-Pacific in recent decades. Where Russian military actions elsewhere might be seen as bullish, here they seldom raised caution.
“Russia find themselves in a really comfy spot, where they are able to deter and signal to the US and its allies, while also promoting themselves as an alternative source of power to the US and China,” he said.
Even for Japan, which commonly butts heads with Russia over defence issues, Moscow’s military actions in the East have not stood in the way of joint exercises between Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Russian Navy, nor have they prevented Russian warships from making regularly calls at Japanese ports.
If Russia is wary of riling any power in the region, analysts say, it’s China.
More frequent and complex bilateral exercises, including China’s invitation to the Vostok war games, might improve trust between the nations for now. Still, Russia is unlikely to tie its fate too closely to that of its southern neighbour, said Bobo Lo, the former director of the Russia and China programme at Chatham House.
“Russia has no more interest in China dominating the Asia-Pacific than it does the US,” Lo said, explaining that Beijing could quickly squeeze Moscow out of the regional picture if it became too strong. “It would rather have a multi-vectored security environment in the region.”
Here, Russia’s interests overlap decidedly with many countries in the region, not the least with its long-time partner India.
“India’s basic strategic synergy with Russia lies in its support for a multipolar order, within which [India] can continue to grow,” said Abhay Singh, a retired Indian Navy commodore and a fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
For decades, India has been a large and reliable client for Russian arms sales. But recent years have also seen dramatic improvements in the country’s military ties with the US, Japan and others. Singh said India’s strategic diversification was vital to its interests but stressed his country had no intention of abandoning decades of hard-won trust with Russia.
However, Indian and Russian leaders might have different ideas when they talked about a multipolar world order, analysts said.
While New Delhi likely envisioned diplomatic and security world with many roughly equal powers, Moscow more likely had a “tripolar-plus” model in mind, in which Russia tried to elevate itself to the level of the US and China and positioned itself as “the great balancer” between the West and the East, Lo said.
Military prowess aside, though, Russia in recent history had struggled to implement foreign policy over a meaningful stretch of time, Lo said. Russia’s best bet, then, might be to invest other powers in its own long-term success – exactly what it has sought to do in the region so far.
“Russia has no illusions it will become a huge military player in the Pacific,” Lo said. “But the Russians also recognise if they want to be treated as a serious global player they must increase their presence in Asia first.”
Additional reporting by Lee Jeong-ho