Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Asia

Paul Schwartz and I have published a new policy memo through PONARS Eurasia. Here’s a preview. Full memo may be found here, and the complete report that it summarizes was also published last week by IFRI.

To great fanfare, in May 2016, Russia hosted the third ASEAN-Russia Summit at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Russia’s acceptance as an ASEAN dialog partner, this summit was intended to give new impetus to longstanding efforts by Russia and Southeast Asia to forge closer economic and security ties. Defying efforts by the West to isolate Russia, leaders from all ten ASEAN member states attended the summit.[1]Despite having recently skipped several high-level ASEAN summits, this time President Putin led the Russian delegation himself. He also met separately with the leaders of all ten ASEAN states. After the summit, Putin proclaimed that the two sides had reached agreement “on building a strategic partnership over the long term.” Demonstrating that this was not just mere rhetoric, the two sides also announced a raft of new measures during the summit, on topics ranging from security relations to closer political and economic ties. However, Russia’s ongoing Sino-centric focus, ASEAN’s limited ability to act collectively, and Moscow’s preference for bilateral relations will continue to predominate in its overall relations with the region.

A Pivot Toward Eastern Relationships?

In the aftermath of renewed conflict with the West over Ukraine, Russia sought to accelerate its much-discussed “turn to the East” in a bid to avoid isolation and to circumvent Western sanctions. This initiative, which was first launched after the 2008 financial crisis, was intended to allow Russia to reduce its dependence on the West, while harnessing the dynamic growth of the Asia-Pacific region as a means for modernizing the Russian Far East and ultimately Russia itself. The first concrete action to this effect was Russia hosting the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vladivostok in 2012, followed by an acceleration in efforts to increase economic cooperation. While Russia has consistently placed the highest priority on increasing its ties with China, it also sought to diversify its relations with other Asia Pacific countries in order to avoid becoming overly dependent on Beijing. Southeast Asia figured prominently in this effort, as Russia sought to build upon its existing relations with countries in the region, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, to maintain its strategic independence. In a move reminiscent of its recent policy in the Middle East, it also sought to expand relations with countries long considered U.S. allies such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The pivot to Asia came to include three components:

  • a civilizational alliance against Western “universal values”;
  • a geopolitical effort to provide a regional alternative to the U.S.-centered alliance system; and
  • a geo-economic push to integrate Russia into Asia’s dynamic economy.

Please click here to read the rest of the policy memo


Russian arms sales to South-east Asia are on the rise

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief. Written back in August. I’ll be back from my travels next week and will hopefully have some new material at that point.


Continuing tensions over the South China Sea have led South-east Asian states to modernize their militaries. Russia has become one of the key suppliers of weaponry – especially combat aircraft – to these states. However, these are first and foremost commercial undertakings that do not represent any sort of commitment to assist any of these states in the event of a conflict over disputed maritime territory in the region.

What Next

Moscow will have to tread carefully: on the one hand, it has a clear commercial interest in expanding defense-industrial ties – and on the other, it is wary of provoking a rising China. The region itself is not a strategic priority, with Moscow focused more on enhancing its already strong relationship with India as a way of projecting influence across Asia. So far, Beijing has not publicly objected to the role of the Russian arms industry in South-east Asia, perceiving it as opportunistic rather than strategically driven. This assessment is probably accurate for now, but as Russia makes greater defense inroads in the region, arms sales to South-east Asia may become a point of contention in Sino-Russian relations.


Russian arms sales to South-east Asia are broadly in line with defense contracts with other overseas customers. The bulk of contracts are for aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters). Ships and missiles also have a share of the market, while tanks and other ground forces equipment are much less significant. Vietnam and Indonesia purchase a significant proportion of their total military hardware from Russia. Russian exports play a much smaller role in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand, and Russian defense manufacturers have not sold any weapons to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei or Taiwan.

Vietnam’s increasing importance

Vietnam has recently become one of the world-leading purchasers of Russian arms. It received 6% of all Russian arms deliveries in 2010 and concluded 12% of all publicly identified contracts.

Some of the largest contracts have involved the air force. In the last decade, Vietnam has purchased 24 Su-30MK2 fighter jets; taken together, the deals are worth an estimated 1.5 billion dollars:

  • The first four Su-30MK2s were received in 2004.
  • In 2009, Vietnam purchased eight more planes, the first two of which were delivered in 2010.
  • Another twelve were ordered in 2010; eight to ten of these planes are expected to be delivered by the year-end.
  • The 2010 deal also included weapons for the eight planes ordered in 2009. The planes will be armed with 150 R-73 (AA-11) short range anti-aircraft missiles (SRAAMs) and 20 Kh-31A1 (AS-17) anti-ship missiles.

The navy has also made significant purchases:

  • These first of two Gepard class frigates purchased under a 350 million dollar deal in 2006 was delivered in 2010, with the second expected this year. These were armed with SA-19 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
  • In 2009, Vietnam spent approximately 2 billion dollars on six Kilo class diesel submarines, to be delivered beginning in 2013.
  • It is also acquiring Tarantul V class corvettes, two of which were delivered in 2008. Another eight are being produced in Vietnam.
  • In 2010, Vietnam received the second of two Bastion-P coastal defense systems, armed with 40 advanced Yakhont (SS-N-26) anti-ship missiles, which were ordered in 2007 as part of a 300 million dollar deal.

Indonesia’s focus on Russian aircraft

Although the Indonesian military has traditionally imported most of its weapons from NATO states, in recent years it has increasingly turned to Russia. This has been especially notable in the air force and in army aviation. The first Indonesian purchase of Russian military equipment took place in 2001, when the army bought twelve BTR-80A infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). Another 17 BMP-3F IFVs were purchased in a 40 million dollar deal in 2008, with delivery completed in 2010.

In 2002, the army bought six Mi-17V5 armed helicopters. Another six of these were purchased in 2005 and delivered in 2008. Army aviation also operates eight Mi-35P attack helicopters, purchased in several deals over the last decade. Four of these helicopters, purchased in 2008 for 54 million dollars, were delivered last year. These helicopters are armed with 9M114 (AT-6) Spiral anti-tank missiles and Igla-1 (SA-16) portable SAMs.

The air force has purchased two types of fighter jets – Su-27SKs and Su-30MKs – in three separate deals worth a total of 500-550 million dollars. Infamously, the bulk of the payment in the 2003 deal was made in palm oil, rather than currency.

In addition, the navy is considering buying two Kilo class diesel submarines, though a contract has yet to be signed; a South Korea competitor is still in the running in the final stages of a tender that was initially proposed in 2006, but repeatedly postponed due to lack of funding.

Burma’s shift towards Russia

When Burma began to modernize its military in the 1990s, it mostly purchased weapons and systems from China. This began to change in the last 10 years, as the air force began to look to Russia for both its fixed wing combat aircraft and helicopters. Since then, orders have included:

  • ten MiG-29B and 2 MiG-29UB (two-seater) fighter jets, received in 2001-02 as part of a 130 million dollar deal, and armed with R-27 (AA-10) air-to-air missiles and R-73 (AA-11) SRAAMs;
  • 20 MiG-29SMT fighter jets, ordered in 2009 as part of a 570 million dollar deal, to be delivered this year;
  • eight to ten Mi-35 attack helicopters, ordered in 2009 for 50 million dollars;
  • 50 Mi-24 attack helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters, ordered in 2010; and
  • an unknown number of Pechora-2M SAM systems, ordered in 2009.

Malaysia’s limited purchases

Malaysia buys weapons from a wide range of suppliers. Its most significant Russian acquisitions have been aircraft, though some missile systems were also purchased in the past. It has acquired:

  • 18 MiG-29N fighter aircraft ordered in 1995 but modernized in 2002-03, of which 14 are still in service;
  • 18 Su30-MKM fighter aircraft, armed with a range of anti-air and anti-ship missiles, purchased in 2003 and received in 2007-09;
  • 100 9M131 (AT-13) anti-tank missiles purchased in 2001; and
  • 382 Igla-1 (SA-16) portable SAM systems, including 40 launchers, purchased in 2002.

Emerging cooperation with Thailand

Most Thai military equipment comes from the United States, China, or West European suppliers. However, the army has recently begun to engage with Russian and Ukrainian manufacturers. In 2008, Thailand signed contracts to purchase Mi-17V5 helicopters and 36 Igla-S (SA-24) portable air defense systems. The Iglas were delivered in 2010, and at least one of the helicopters was delivered in February 2011. In terms of IFVs, Thailand has been more reliant on Ukraine than Russia.


  • Despite Vietnam’s recent bravado over its ability to deploy a submarine fleet imminently, delivery from Russia is unlikely until 2013.
  • Sales to South-east Asia lend credence to Moscow’s strategy of moving away from overdependence on one or two major arms customers.
  • As Russia source ever more of its military equipment from abroad, it will depend on foreign buyers to keep certain defense sectors afloat.