Russia’s Continuing Ties to Southeast Asia—and How They Factor Into the Ukraine War (3 parts)

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Russia’s Continuing Ties to Southeast Asia—and How They Factor Into the Ukraine War: Part 1

Longstanding ties and weapons sales to a number of countries in Southeast Asia insulate Russia from ASEAN criticism over Ukraine war.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar's armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, attends the IX Moscow conference on international security in Moscow, Russia, on June 23, 2021.
Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, attends the IX Moscow conference on international security in Moscow, Russia, on June 23, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via Reuters

Blog Post by Joshua Kurlantzick

March 8, 2022 4:08 pm (EST)

In recent years, Russia, which had not had much of a strategic or economic presence in Southeast Asia, has become a more involved player once again. It has cultivated close ties with Myanmar, regularly selling weapons to Myanmar and cultivating strategic ties. Particularly after the February 2021 Myanmar coup, when even Beijing seemed to have doubts about how the coup had destabilized the country and led to potential risks to China’s investments, Russia stood strongly behind the junta. Russian officials participated in a prominent military ceremony in Myanmar after the coup, Russian continued to supply large numbers of arms to the junta, even as it launched a scorched earth policy against coup opponents and ethnic minority groups, and the Kremlin invited junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to Moscow in June (before he had any major visits to Beijing), sending a strong signal of support to Naypyidaw.

In return, the Myanmar generals have echoed Moscow’s line on Ukraine, praising Moscow for “balancing global power,” according to a report in the Irrawaddy. The generals have kept up their drumbeat of support for Russia’s war since them, even as they use similar brutal tactics against civilians and anti-junta fighters within Myanmar.

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Russia also has longstanding ties to Vietnam, which date far back into the Soviet Union era, when Moscow was Hanoi’s major backer in the Vietnam War. Although the United States has built close strategic and defense ties with Hanoi, and lifted its embargo on selling deadly weapons to Vietnam four years ago, Hanoi has been reluctant to buy large quantities of U.S. arms, and its defense forces remain highly dependent on Russian platforms and arms. Vietnam and Russia have a strategic relationship (although Vietnam also has a comprehensive partnership with Ukraine), but it would take years for Hanoi to wean itself off of Russian weapons. (Other Southeast Asian states including Indonesia and Malaysia also buy weapons from Russia.)

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Perhaps as a result, Vietnam abstained from the UN resolution on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a significant statement for a country that views itself as a rising power in Southeast Asia, a leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and one Washington’s most important partners in the region now.

Russia has built closer ties with other Southeast Asian states as well. It has bolstered its links with Laos in recent years, building on security and political ties that already were historically quite close. It has stepped up sales of weapons like helicopters to Laos in the past four years, and has used high-level visits on both sides to solidify political links.

Although Laos is a small country, since ASEAN operates by consensus, the views of Laos and Myanmar (and to a lesser extent Vietnam) make it harder for ASEAN as an organization to come to any forceful statement on the war in Ukraine, and generally to adopt a position of either indifference or outright neutrality, simply calling for a cease-fire after days of saying nothing.

Russia’s Continuing Ties to Southeast Asia and How They Affect the Ukraine War: Part 2

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Russia’s ties across Southeast Asia keep most countries in the region from opposing the war in Ukraine.

Rescue workers stand near a heavily damaged building, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 14, 2022.
Rescue workers stand near a heavily damaged building, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 14, 2022. Oleksandr Lapshyn/Reuters

Blog Post by Joshua Kurlantzick

March 14, 2022 4:24 pm (EST)

While Russia’s closest partners in Southeast Asia are Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos, all of which are dependent on Russian military hardware and, in the case of Laos and Myanmar, are helped by Russian rhetorical support for their highly authoritarian regimes, Moscow has in recent years been a more active presence in other parts of Southeast Asia as well.

After the Thai military launched a coup in 2014 that kept it in power until 2019 (when it stage-managed an election), ties cooled, at least for a time, between Bangkok and treaty ally Washington. The Thai military sought out Beijing to publicly balance its deteriorating relations with Washington, but it publicly wooed Moscow as well. The Thai military stepped up bilateral visits with top Russian officials, and also sought a range of deals for Russian arms.

According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, Russia sold nearly 30 percent of all weapons to Southeast Asian states last decade, making it the largest arms supplier to Southeast Asia. Moscow often offers cheaper equipment than potential competitors like the United States, and sometimes sells military equipment for barter rather than strictly for cash, which is attractive to many Southeast Asian states. (Some Southeast Asian defense platforms, like Vietnam’s, also were based on Soviet weaponry and so remain highly dependent on Russian arms.) Russia also, until COVID-19, was an increasingly important source of tourism for Thailand, whose economy is highly dependent on tourism. (Many of those Russian tourists are now stranded in Thailand, unable to get flights home and also unable to obtain more cash because so many credit cards and other financial firms have sanctioned Russia.)

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Still, Thailand did join the UN vote against the invasion of Ukraine, but the Thai government still has noted that its position on the war remains neutral, which it says is in the “national interest” of the kingdom. Thailand’s foreign minister also pointedly noted that the kingdom will not “rush” to condemn Moscow, according to ThaiPBS. That neutrality is similar to the overall position of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has maintained a neutral stance, with its foreign ministers together issuing a bland statement that just called for “restraint” and did not even mention the Russian invasion.

Indonesia and the Philippines have taken similar approaches. They both voted to condemn the invasion at the United Nations. But Jakarta, which has a tradition of attempting to remain neutral in major world conflicts, has hosted ASEAN-Russia maritime exercises, and has become a growing consumer of Russian weapons, has tried to avoid saying anything of consequence about the conflict. It also has clearly stated it will not impose sanctions on Moscow, a position similar to that of Manila.

Indeed, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared he wants Manila (like Thailand a U.S. treaty ally) to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict, a position similar to that taken by the leading contender to replace Duterte in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Of the leading Southeast Asian states, only Singapore has been aggressive in condemning the Ukraine invasion; Singapore, an important financial center and private banking center, also has imposed a range of financial sanctions and export controls on Russian banks and other financial institutions.

Russia’s Ties to Southeast Asia and How They Affect the Ukraine War: Part 3, Singapore and Vietnam

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The latest in our series on Southeast Asian relations with Russia looks at two important U.S. partners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on May 22, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on May 22, 2019. Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

Blog Post by Joshua Kurlantzick

April 7, 2022 8:59 am (EST)

As I noted in two prior blogs, Southeast Asia has been divided in its response to the Ukraine war. States like Indonesia have emphasized neutrality, or tried to say as little as possible about the war.

Some other states, like Singapore, have joined European countries, the United States, Japan, and other leading democracies in imposing sanctions, and have sharply criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Singapore, a small city-state that has always felt itself surrounded by major powers, certainly could see some of the dangers of a world in which giant autocrats wield power with no limits – and the dangers of a world in which any rules and norms collapse.

Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong recently appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he clearly explained this view, summarizing in essence why Singapore has gone along with the tough approach toward Russia, even as some other major Southeast Asian states like Indonesia have just offered platitudes about the conflict and about neutrality, or tried to say as little as possible about Ukraine. The Singaporean prime minister noted, when asked by CFR President Richard Haass why Lee thought the war has a negative impact on the Indo-Pacific region:

“It [the war] [has] damaged the international framework for law and order and peace between countries. It violates the U.N. charter, it endangers the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones. [italics added by me]. And if a principle is accepted that crazy decisions and historical errors are the justification for invading somebody else, I think many of us are going to be feeling very insecure in the Asia-Pacific, but also in the rest of the world.”

While Singapore is at one extreme in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is at nearly the other pole, in terms of its response to the Ukraine war. Among Southeast Asian states, only Myanmar, ruled by a junta with close ties to Russia, voted against the UN resolution condemning Russia.

But Vietnam abstained, as did tiny Laos, a country in which Vietnam wields significant influence. (Vietnam has expressed concern about the conflict and issued the standard calls for an end to the conflict.) Indeed, of all the countries in Southeast Asia except Myanmar (which is fully on Russia’s side), Vietnam has to negotiate the trickiest situation regarding the Ukraine war. On the one hand, it has become one of the closest U.S. strategic partners in Asia, works closely with the United States on many strategic issues, and seems to be drawing closer to Washington as China becomes more aggressive in the South China Sea. Vietnam certainly, like Singapore, fears a world in which powerful, large autocrats have increasingly unfettered power – Vietnam has a long and bloody history of conflict with China, and there have been massive anti-China protests in Vietnam in recent years.

But, as I have noted in prior posts, Vietnam also is heavily dependent on Russian arms platforms for its military, dating back to Vietnam’s close relations with the Soviet Union, which was its major patron in the Vietnam War era – and to which Hanoi still surely has a sense of gratitude for that assistance, as Hai Hong Nguyen notes in the Diplomat. Vietnam also, however, has warm ties to Ukraine and has a comprehensive partnership with the country.

Still, these links to Ukraine are not enough to make up for Vietnam’s dependence on Russian arms platforms and historical ties to Moscow, which is probably why Vietnam abstained on the UN resolution about the Ukraine war. While Vietnam has the potential to wean itself off of Russian arms platforms, Moscow’s weaponry is often much cheaper than that offered by the United States or other providers, Vietnamese soldiers and officers are familiar with these arms, and Russia provided the bulk of arms during Vietnam’s major military modernization drive in the late 1990s and 2000s and early 2010s. Of course, following the Ukraine war, it may be harder for Vietnam to get Russian arms (it had already become harder after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea), so in the long run Vietnam might be forced to diversify further.

As Le Hong Hiep notes in Fulcrum, a leading Southeast Asia publication, “Rising difficulties in procuring Russian arms may have explained why, also according to SIPRI data, Russia accounted for 90 per cent of Vietnam’s arms imports in the period 1995-2014, but only 68.4 per cent in the period 2015-2021. “

Yet Russia remains the cornerstone of Vietnam’s military platforms, and, interestingly, there seems to be some divisions within the Vietnamese public about the Ukraine war as well. As To Minh So notes, “a Gallup International Poll in 2017 on perceptions of Global Leaders found that Vietnamese [were] more favorable of Putin than Russians, with 89 percent approving his leadership.” However, To Minh So also notes that, during the Ukraine war, public opinion in Vietnam appears less supportive of Putin, as much as can be judged via the state media (which has not called the war “an invasion”) and other outlets in an authoritarian country. Still, given the extensive level of public support for Putin just five years ago (and after Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea), it is easy to imagine that the Vietnamese public is heavily divided on how to view the Ukraine conflict.

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