MOSCOW — China remains the biggest buyer of Russian weapons in Southeast Asia, but Moscow is increasing military ties with other countries.
Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar are among those nations that are eyeing closer military cooperation with Russia. This includes the purchase of jets, radars and drones as well as cooperation in bilateral military exercises.
Here’s a closer look at how the relationships are evolving.
Laos, which for years had a close relationship with the Soviet Union, recently took steps to further improve military ties with the Russian Federation. The two countries plan to conduct a bilateral military exercises in Russia, called Laros-2021. The first Russia-Laos military exercises were held in 2019 in Laos.
A spokesman for Russia’s Eastern Military District, Alexander Gordeyev, told Tass news agency in mid-April that the upcoming joint exercise will involve tanks and focus on the counterterrorism mission. The negotiations involved in scheduling the drill was conducted between officials from both countries in the Eastern Military District, based in Khabarovsk.
The Russian military is currently helping Laos remove mines and unexploded ordnance from its territory. Laos was heavily bombed by the U.S. as part of an anti-communist campaign. Russia previously built a de-mining center in the country to educate local personnel.
As further proof of the strong relationship, Laotian Minister of Public Words and Transport Sommad Pholsena in 2017, acting in the role at the time, to visited Crimea — territory seized from Ukraine by Russia and annexed in March 2014.
Citing Chinese sources, Russian media has also reported Moscow is building a military airfield in Laos, but Defense News was unable to independently verify this claim.
Mikhail Barabanov, a military expert with the Russian think tank Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Defense News that the report was “overblown” by the media. According to his estimates, Russian is simply participating in the reconstruction of a Laotian airfield.
Russia’s relationship in Laos is critical to Moscow “because the Chinese influence there is growing, and Russia doesn’t want to stay away from that race,” an analyst connected with the Kremlin told Defense News. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The Vietnamese market
Vietnam is another country playing an important role in Russian military cooperation in the region. In 2019, Hanoi bought 12 Russian Yak-130 jets for $350 million. The country remains among the top buyers of Russian arms, and then-Deputy Director of Rosoboronexport Alexander Mikhyev, who is now the director general, said at that time that “despite the growing competition, our models are still a priority.”
But experts from the Valdai Discussion Club, a government-connected foreign policy think tank, found in 2019 that Russia “is gradually losing its quasi-monopoly position in the Vietnamese arms market” due to competition from European Union countries and Israel. The experts recommended Russia provide a “more flexible price policy” and increase the quality of post-sale service.
Signs of cooperation
Meanwhile, in Myanmar, where the military recently ousted the civilian government and has killed hundreds of people amid protests, there are signs of military cooperation with Russia; this, despite the Russian Foreign Ministry expressing “concern” over the situation.
Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin visited the country February and took part in a military parade organized by the junta leaders. Fomin oversees military-technical cooperation in the ministry. He previously led the Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation.
In January, the month before the military coup, the government of Myanmar signed a contract with Russia to purchase Orlan-10 drones, Pantsir anti-aircraft systems and radar systems. The two countries have not signed additional contracts since.
Malaysia and Indonesia
In democratically governed Malaysia, Russian relations continue to suffer since 2018, when Malaysian officials complained to Russia that they were experiencing technical problems with 18 Su-30MKM jets bought in mid-2000.
For now, Kuala Lumpur doesn’t plan to purchase additional military jets from Russia until 2030.
Barabanov, of the CAST think tank, told Defense News that Malaysia is likely wary of making large aircraft purchases from Russia in light of Su-35 issues with Indonesia. For its part, Indonesia was considering purchasing the Russian jets, but Western media has reported the island nation is backing down due to American pressure.
Barabanov described both Malaysia and Indonesia as “unstable” partners for Russia due to their “constant change of orientations and extreme variegation of military equipment.”
Jakarta and Moscow had planned to sign a declaration toward a strategic partnership, which would have increased military ties, the plan was canceled as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to statistics from the Russian Federal Customs Service, cited by Russian media organization RBC, sales of Russian weapons declined 15.6 percent in 2020 from the year prior.
An unnecessary union
Compared to other regional relations, Sino-Russian military cooperation looks hassle-free. China is the second-largest foreign customer of Russian weapons after Algeria. But the pandemic has upended military sales to Beijing, Fomin told government-run news organization Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
Both countries “conduct technological exchanges” in the military sphere, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in October 2020. But while he said he could “theoretically” imagine a military union between China and Russia, both countries “do not need it.”
MGIMO University’s Andrei Bezrukov, a professor and former Russian intelligence officer, said in March on a local television show that some Russian elite do not want to see a close union with China. Dmitry Kosyrev, an independent China expert, said the professor was likely referring to pro-Western Russians.
Echoing Bezrukov’s comments, Kosyrev called Sino-Russia military relations an “alliance without obligations.” He noted that the nature of their bilateral military cooperation has changed drastically over the years.
“In the 1990s, our military-industrial complex was using China to survive,” he said. “But today we are cooperating in strategic things. We are not afraid that weapons we sell to China can be used against us.”
Alexander Bratersky is the Russia correspondent at Defense News. He has covered U.S.-Russian relations, NATO and Middle Eastern affairs, and Russian policy in Syria. He previously worked at the Moscow Times and Izvestia as a political reporter, as well as RIA Novosti as a Washington correspondent. He also dabbles in stand-up comedy.