Russia’s economy may be putting the brakes on Moscow’s Asia-Pacific ambitions, but the Kremlin is still keen to seek out opportunities to grow its power and influence, Jacky Westermann writes.
When a Russian naval vessel paid a historic first port visit to Port Moresby in May, the news made headlines around the region. The 7,000-tonne training ship, Perekop, part of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet, stayed for three days and sailors on board met with the leadership of PNG’s navy and armed forces.
I argued last year that the Pacific has joined the list of the Kremlin’s playgrounds. So has the time come for Canberra to start worrying? No. But there are plenty of reasons why it’s crucial to not underestimate Russian interests in the Pacific, even though there isn’t any direct threat towards Australia at the moment.
Russia is a Pacific country. Its main focus is Northeast Asia and it has a history of relations with some Pacific nations, some of which are increasing, particularly as military relationships. Moscow recently became an ASEAN dialogue partner, which led to its participation in the 4th ASEAN defence ministers’ meeting last October.
Due to deteriorating relations with Europe and the US, Moscow has increasingly turned eastwards, a pivot of its own to the Pacific that began, as Washington’s did, as a way of scoping for new or extending existing relations, and to maintain Russian influence in the region. Malin Østevik and Natasha Kuhrt have suggested that because of the Russian economy and driven by national interests, the Kremlin has been attempting to diversify bi- and multilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific.
Russia has been planning to invest more in its military forces in its far east—especially its Pacific fleet—for a long time, even preceding 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and its relationship with the West began deteriorating. Moscow wants to have the ability to be more involved in security matters in the region, especially when they’re connected to core Russian security interests such as geopolitics power and energy.
However, the poor state of Russia’s economy will be the controlling factor in how far the Kremlin can make big investments possible: the Eastern Military District’s planned investments, for example, suffered from international sanctions.
The Pacific has become a growing export market for Russian-produced arms. The last couple of years have also seen a high level of Russian diplomatic engagement and priority being given to fostering relations across the region.
For example, Russia is bumping up its ties with Manila. In October last year, three vessels arrived in Manila on a visit related to a Kremlin donation of military equipment to the Duterte regime. That visit followed Russia participating in a joint exercise with the Philippines earlier in 2017.
One of the most surprising and concerning moves has been Russia’s military cooperation with Fiji and its donation of 20 containers of arms to the Fijian military forces in 2016. The Fijian Government said the shipments contained small arms for use in UN peacekeeping missions. However, the arrival of Russian soldiers to ‘train’ Fijian soldiers in the use of small arms raised eyebrows and generated speculation that other weapons were included as well.
While Hanoi has a long history of buying Russian arms, including frigates and submarines, in early April this year, Vietnam signed a new agreement—a military cooperation roadmap—with the Kremlin for bilateral strategic relations until 2020.
It includes, among other things, the deployment of a Russian rescue boat, officer training for Vietnamese officers in Russia, as well as joint exercises. Vietnam also operates a Russian K‑300P Bastion‑P coastal defence system, which could be deployed in the Spratly islands.
While the Russian Government has officially stated that it isn’t involved in the South China Sea dispute, its behaviour tells a different story. By being a partner and arms supplier to both China and Vietnam, the Kremlin created a win‑win situation for itself—keeping arms industry clients while indirectly following strategic interests without needing to make public statements.
At the end of last year, the RAAF base in Darwin was put on high alert when two Russian Tupolev Tu‑95 strategic bombers flew close to Australia’s northern waters. The bombers took off from the Biak airfield in Indonesia’s Papua province, where more than 100 Russian soldiers had arrived in early December for military exercises, indicating warming relations between Moscow and Jakarta.
While the Russians claimed that the flight was simply a patrol, some experts saw it as an opportunity to gather intelligence. What’s certain is that by ‘showing up’ down south, the Russian Government has demonstrated the reach of its strategic military capabilities. The Tu‑95 bombers have a range of 15,000 kilometres without refuelling.
Whether Russia’s increased engagement in the Pacific aims to establish bases similar to those of the US across the region remains to be seen. But its arms exports and growing partnerships certainly offer Russia greater opportunities to negotiate cooperation in fields other than defence, such as economics and energy.
What’s clear is that the Kremlin aims to establish a global presence—some officials claim that this has already been achieved—and that consequently requires greater involvement in regions other than Europe and the Middle East.
However, the current economic situation certainly puts a big question mark over the ability of the Kremlin to do so sustainably.
With that in mind, it should be expected that Moscow will focus on North-eastern Asia for now, however, take steps to statically deepen existing relations or start looking for new opportunities to enlarge Russia’s wider Pacific presence militarily, economically and strategically in the years ahead.
Behaviour such as the fly-over to demonstrate capabilities will be maintained. The Russian Government likely will continue to try filling gaps created by disinterest or turn-away from Western governments, even if it isn’t in the same way as China is able to. Nonetheless, it should motivate players in the region, such as Canberra, to engage more in its neighbourhood in the long-term.