Throughout history, Southeast Asia has often been described as the theatre of imperial competition. And in the past decade, the region has been at the forefront of great power rivalry between the U.S. and China, as both superpowers ramp up their strategic and economic presence from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
What’s often missed in mainstream discussions about Southeast Asian geopolitics is the growing role of Russia, which is intent on enlisting new strategic partners and tapping new export markets in one of the most dynamic regions on earth. By reasserting its position in the region, today Russia is seeking to regain some of the lost influence it used to enjoy at the height of the Cold War, when Moscow was at the center of multiple conflicts and major geopolitical realignments in Asia.
For Russia, there is also a great sense of urgency. Spurned by the West, and besieged by punishing sanctions, twenty-first century Russia is looking towards the East to rediscover its strategic destiny. Despite its steady demographic and economic decline throughout the decades, the Eurasian powerhouse believes that it still has much to offer.
Russia can still boast about its massive energy resources as well as its world-class military, which produces state-of-the-art fighter jets and hypersonic missile systems. Bereft of any territorial or maritime disputes with Southeast Asian nations, Moscow is also consciously positioning itself as a potential “third force” amid growing regional anxiety over a new cold war between the U.S. and China. In the long-run, Russia will have to double down on its regional economic diplomacy before it becomes a key player in the region.
The Other Pivot
Russia’s renewed interest in Southeast Asia should come as no surprise. After all, the Soviet Union loomed large in regional affairs throughout the Cold War, backing communist regimes and rebel movements across Southeast Asia.
If anything, Moscow was front and center during the Indo-China Wars throughout the latter-half of the 20th century, as Soviet-backed Vietnam waged a decades-long conflict with the United States and regional rivals. The end of the Cold War, which precipitated a ‘wild decade’ of economic instability and political uncertainty in Russia, marked a sudden collapse in Moscow’s strategic footprint in Southeast Asia.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Russia focused on regaining influence in the post-Soviet world, from Central Asia and the Caucasus all the way to Eastern Europe, including Belarus, Montenegro and Ukraine. It also steadily rebuilt its influence in the Middle East, with countries from the Persian Gulf to the Levant, and North Africa gorging on Russian-made weaponries and fighter jets.
The advent of Arab uprisings, which toppled multiple autocratic regimes, only reinforced calls for greater Russian strategic presence, most dramatically in post-conflict Syria. In fact, Russia became not only instrumental to the survival of friendly regimes in places such as Syria, but also took on a key role in broader international efforts to contain the so-called Islamic State in the mid-2010s.
Despite its Westward orientation, namely towards Europe and the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin also recognized the perils of ignoring the East, which is home to one of the most dynamic economies of the 21st century. Moscow’s pivot to Asia arguably began in 2012, when the Eurasian country hosted the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vladivostok.
Eager to impress its Asian neighbors, Russia spent as much $21 billion to host the event, building new infrastructure and revitalizing its easternmost economic hub, which is closer to Southeast Asia than the Russian capital. A year later, Russia hosted the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where Putin announced his plan to ‘march to the east’ before international investors and strategic experts.
Soon, major economic deals emerged, most notably the $400 billion, 30-years-long energy deal between Moscow’s state-owned gas company Gazprom and Beijing’s China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Russia pursued similar deals with other major Asian economies, such as South Korea.
The crisis in Ukraine, which placed the West and Russia on a collision course, only reinforced Moscow’s pivot to the East, especially Southeast Asia. Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the U.S. and its European allies imposed punishing sanctions, which slashed up to $50 billion per year from Russia’s Gross Domestic Product.
Russia’s Charm Offensive
Amid fraying ties with the West, Russia doubled down on its strategic engagements in Southeast Asia, where a growing number of countries have sought to mitigate their dependence on either the U.S. or China. For the first time in modern history, Russia deployed a defense attaché to Manila, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hosted visiting Russian warships, met top Russian leaders, and explored large-scale arms purchases from Moscow, from rifles to helicopters and submarines.
Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country, has also pursued warmer defense ties with Russia, eyeing squadrons of SU-35 fighter jets to modernize its armed forces and project power across the region. Moscow has been even more successful in Indo-China, home to one of its largest arms importers.
Amid rising tensions with China in the South China Sea, Vietnam has been on a buying spree. The Southeast Asian country, a former treaty ally of the Soviet Union, purchased $7.4 billion in Russian weaponries between 1995 to 2019, accounting for 61% of Moscow’s total sales in the region. In 2019, Vietnam signed a further $350 million contract for modern Russian combat training aircrafts.
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has repeatedly visited Russia throughout the years. During his most recent visit, where he received "honorary professorship" from the Russian Defense Ministry, he thanked Moscow for making his country’s armed forces “one of the strongest in the region”. A few years earlier, Laotian leader Thongloun Sisoulith was similarly effusive with his praises for Russia, claiming "everything that is in the Laos armed forces is connected with Russia."
Over the past two decades, Russia’s total arms exports to Southeast Asia amounted to $10.7 billion, far larger than exports from both the U.S. ($8.2 billion) as well as China ($2.6 billion). But Russia’s charm offensive is not confined to arms exports alone.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, which wreaked havoc across Southeast Asian economies, Russia claimed to have produced the first-ever vaccine, Sputnik V, which, according to Putin, is as "reliable as a Kalashnikov assault rifle." Throughout the past year, Moscow has launched its own ‘vaccine diplomacy’ initiative, exploring co-production deals with multiple Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Indonesia.
Fretting over lack of support from Western allies, Duterte ordered tens of millions of Sputnik V doses following a virtual meeting with Putin earlier this year. Recognizing Moscow’s growing regional influence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers held a special meeting with their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, earlier this year in order to discuss regional issues.
Despite Russia’s major strides, however, the Eurasian power still has a long way to go before becoming a true “third force” in the region. The Eurasian power’s Achilles heel is clearly economics, with bilateral ASEAN-Russia trade standing at a meagerly $18.2 billion in 2019. To put things into perspective, China’s (U.S.$644 billion) as well as U.S.’s ($292.4 billion) trade with Southeast Asian nations is exponentially larger.
Thus, enhancing trade and investment linkages will be central to accomplishing the ASEAN-Russia "Comprehensive Plan of Action" over the next five years. Major powers must realize that strategic influence ultimately boils down to economic diplomacy and the corresponding ability of external actors to assist post-pandemic recovery across Southeast Asia.