Russia’s war in Ukraine challenges old comrades in Southeast Asia

Vladimir Putin’s absence from the G20 Summit in Bali also undermines talk of a Russian pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

Indonesian police line up during a security parade on November 7, 2022 in preparation for the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
Indonesian police line up during a security parade on November 7, 2022, in preparation for the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia [File: Firdia Lisnawati/AP] (AP Photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has oozed a casual resentment when describing the “irreversible and even tectonic changes” that he says have led the West to become a spent force in the world.

“Western countries are striving to maintain a former world order that is beneficial only to them,” he told attendees at the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok in September.

Those days were numbered, he insisted.

The future was in the “dynamic, promising countries and regions of the world, primarily the Asia Pacific region”, he said. Putin was followed on the podium by Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing – the symbolism was not lost on close observers of regional politics.

This week Putin was invited to attend the Group of 20 meeting, which opened on Tuesday on the Indonesian island of Bali. It appeared to be the perfect venue for him to double down on his overtures to the Asia Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia — one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions.

But it was not to be.

Putin skipped his moment in the Balinese sun due to undefined “scheduling” reasons.

With Putin a no-show, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a captive audience when he addressed the summit virtually on Tuesday after his invitation to attend by the summit’s host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Putin’s absence from the G20 undercuts “talk of a Russian pivot to Asia”, wrote Susannah Patton of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

Now with the Russian army retreating in parts of Ukraine and international sanctions biting deeply into Russia’s economy, some old friends in Southeast Asia appear to be avoiding direct eye contact as Putin looks east. Others are actively looking the other way, and Myanmar seems to be Moscow’s last true friend in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing shake hands and pose for a photo during their meeting on the sideline of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing meet at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2022 [File: Valery Sharifulin/Sputnik/Kremlin pool via AP]

Old comrades, short memories

Russia has no major strategic interests in Southeast Asia, but Soviet-era relations run deep and Moscow has long political and emotional connections to the former nations of Indochina: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Hanoi, in particular, remembers Russian support during the war against the US-backed regime in South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s — a war from which it emerged victorious in 1975.

Vietnam and Laos abstained from UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Ukrainian territory, and voted against suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

In Monday’s vote on a resolution requiring Russia to pay reparations for the damage caused to Ukraine, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were among the 73 members of the assembly that abstained. Among countries in the region, only Singapore and the Philippines backed the resolution.

Vietnamese communist soldiers moving forward under covering fire from a heavy machine gun during the Vietnam War.
Vietnamese communist soldiers moving forward under covering fire from a heavy machine gun during the Vietnam War, circa 1968 [File: Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Vietnam’s decision to abstain at the UN is perfectly legal, argued Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. But it is also “morally questionable” as Vietnam had failed to defend the “principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity”, he writes. That is no small oversight for a country whose successful liberation struggles against foreign occupiers — China, France, and the United States — is a defining national motif.

“Vietnam’s move is aimed at avoiding criticism and potential retaliation from Moscow,” said Huynh Tam Sang, pointing out the material behind the fraternal: trade links between Hanoi and Moscow amounted to almost $2.5bn in the first eight months of this year, and Russia is a primary investor in Vietnam’s oil and gas sectors.

Russia is also Vietnam’s largest arms supplier.

“It is not in Vietnam’s interests for Russia to be weakened,” Carlyle A Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra, told Al Jazeera in a recent interview.

Historical threads

Vietnam’s support for Russia needs to be understood in terms of Hanoi’s traditionally fraught relationship with neighbouring China. Vietnam fought its own border war with China in 1979 and has often relied on its relations with Moscow as a counterweight to pressure from its historic rival.

Neighbouring Cambodia, however, with its Putin-esque authoritarian leader Hun Sen who has held power for 37 years, has shown surprising insubordination to its former Soviet-era aid donor and political supporter.

The then Soviet Union was one of the earliest countries to help rebuild Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime when the government in Phnom Penh — installed by Vietnam — faced near-total Western sanctions. One of Phnom Penh’s most popular markets is still known as the “Russian Market” owing to the large population of Russian diplomats and technical assistants from Soviet states who frequented its stalls during the 1980s.

Just last year, Hun Sen received Russia’s Order of Friendship medal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen during their meeting at the ASEAN-Russia summit in Sochi, Russia.
Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen during their meeting at the ASEAN-Russia summit, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, in 2016 [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool/AP Photo]

But that has not prevented the Cambodian leader from taking a “surprisingly hard-line stand” against Moscow over the war in Ukraine, according to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Hun Sen has not just called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine an “act of aggression”, but he has also questioned Russia’s ability to emerge victorious, and expressed a willingness to take in Ukrainian refugees, Storey notes.

Hun Sen’s pro-Ukraine stance appeared to prompt the Russian ambassador to remind him in a tweet that it was Moscow who came to Cambodia’s assistance “in the most difficult period in its history” following the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia was unmoved by the Russian reminder.

Phnom Penh has been a cosponsor of condemnatory UN resolutions on Russia’s invasion — although it has abstained on some Ukraine-related votes — and more recently, Hun Sen invited Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address by video link last weekend’s summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh. The invitation was apparently torpedoed by the need for consensus among the ASEAN leaders.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have been more cautious in their public pronouncements on the war, with G20 host Indonesia careful to preserve its traditional non-aligned stance.

But, Indonesia’s Widodo did visit Kyiv first and Moscow the next day in late June when he went to discuss the global food crisis with Zelenskyy and Putin, and presumably extend personal invitations to the Bali summit.

Russian market for arms

Russia’s arms industry is the “single largest supplier of major weaponry to Southeast Asia”, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Russia accounted for more than a quarter of all major weapons deliveries to the region over the past 20 years, according to SIPRI, and when Moscow cannot sell its weapons for hard cash, it has been willing to do barter deals or provide loans instead.

The Indonesian government planned to buy 11 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft from Russia in a deal that involved payment of half the cost with the equivalent in agricultural and other produce, according to reports.

In the Philippines, Russia said in 2018 that it was “more than willing” to provide a soft loan so that Manila could buy its first-ever — but Russian-built — submarine, the country’s Philippine News Agency reported.

As SIPRI points out, sales of Russian weaponry to Southeast Asia are “an important element of Russia’s total export income and essential to maintaining the economic viability of the Russian arms industry”.

But with US sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, some regional governments have already begun to move away from Russia.

Manila did not buy the Russian submarine, and Jakarta announced in December that the Sukhoi fighter deal was dead.

Now, with a plethora of Ukraine war-related sanctions awaiting those dealing with Moscow, Russia’s export arms industry looks set to feel the collateral damage of Putin’s Ukraine invasion.

Take the Philippines, for example.

Over fears of sanctions, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said last month that his country would source military helicopters from the US after scrapping a $215m deal to buy 16 heavy-lift helicopters from Russia.

The government of Marcos Jr’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had signed the deal with Russia in November 2021. But even Duterte wanted to put distance between himself and Putin, whom he had once described as his idol, after the Ukraine invasion.

“Many say that Putin and I are both killers,” Duterte said three months into the invasion in May.

“I’ve long told you Filipinos that I really kill. But I kill criminals, I don’t kill children and the elderly,” he said, comparing his brutality to that of Putin in Ukraine.

“We’re in two different worlds,” he added.

’21st-century imperialism’

The Southeast Asia outlier is military-ruled Myanmar, which has thrown its full support behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Already warm relations between Russia and Myanmar have deepened further since the invasion of Ukraine and last year’s coup by the military that toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

As the International Crisis Group notes, the Myanmar military has positioned itself as “Russia’s most uncritical post-invasion partner in Asia”, and Russia has backed the military regime in terms of providing international diplomatic cover and advanced weaponry.

Ian Storey of the ISEAS sees three factors at work: “Diplomatic validation, arms sales and energy cooperation.”

Moscow moved quickly to recognise the Myanmar generals when they seized power, and the generals have reciprocated by endorsing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Military leader Min Aung Hlaing has declared Russia to be Myanmar’s “forever friend”, in comparison with China being described merely as a “close friend”, as Storey notes.

Similar to Vietnam, Myanmar’s military also needs Russia as an alternate supplier of weapons and a counterweight to China. Myanmar announced in September it would buy Russian oil and pay in roubles.

But the Russia-Myanmar relationship is more than an odious alliance, it is also a timebomb for ASEAN.

Storey notes that Moscow’s arms shipments are driving the Myanmar regime’s ability to wage a sustained war against its population and armed ethnic groups, which undermines the potential for peace talks and a negotiated settlement, which ASEAN wants to see achieved.

Smoke rises from a village in Myanmar's Kayah State after it was bombed by the military.
In this image taken from drone video provided by Free Burma Rangers, black smoke rises from burning buildings in Waraisuplia village in Kayah State, Myanmar, in February 2022, where the military targeted civilians in air and ground attacks [Free Burma Rangers via AP]

Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, said Southeast Asia’s relationship with Russia is complex.

Russia does, traditionally, hold appeal for those with anti-Western sentiment in the region, and Putin’s hyper-masculine image chimes in a region with a history of personalist, strongman politics.

However, Southeast Asia’s experience with Western colonialism, and the commitment by nations in the region to the preservation of their sovereignty, allows countries to recognise neo-imperialism when it appears in the invasion of Ukraine, Poling told Al Jazeera.

Countries in the region “look and see a resurgent Russian empire, and that this is imperialism in the 21st Century,” Poling said.

That sentiment was articulated in a speech by Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, condemning Russia’s invasion and announcing sanctions on Moscow in February, Poling said.

“Ukraine is much smaller than Russia, but it is much bigger than Singapore,” Bakakrishnan said at the time.

“A world order based on ‘might is right’, or where ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’, such a world order would be profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera