- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
In recent years, as Russia under President Vladimir Putin has increasingly tried to project power around the globe, one of the areas it has focused on has been Southeast Asia. While Moscow’s attempts at expanding its influence in the region attracted less attention than its efforts in Africa or Eastern Europe, Russia had quietly boosted its military ties and diplomatic engagement in Southeast Asia. Now, however, that influence seems to be dramatically fading, largely cutting Moscow out of a critical region in global politics.
Moscow had not been a player in Africa for decades after the Cold War, but via the Wagner Group as well as the Russian military, it has recently involved itself deeply in a range of African states. According to the Brookings Institution, Moscow signed 19 military cooperation agreements with African governments between 2015 and 2019. The Tony Blair Institute further notes that “Russia has deployed private military contractors in at least 21 countries since 2014, with the majority on the African continent.” Russia has used the Wagner Group to support a range of anti-democratic figures in Africa, including Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya and Col. Assimi Goita’s military junta in Mali, and it is now cozying up to new military regimes in Niger and Gabon. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, the Kremlin has also tried to foment coups in Montenegro and Moldova, while seeking to destabilize the entire region through influence operations and disinformation, to say nothing of the war in Ukraine.
Similarly, Moscow had not played a major role in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War era, but in recent decades countries in the region had increasingly turned to Russia for cheap and reliable arms. In fact, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute noted that Russia had sold about 30 percent of all the weapons purchased by Southeast Asian between 2010 and 2019, often using flexible funding arrangements, including barter. As The Economist noted, in the 20 years prior to the war in Ukraine, Russia was by far Southeast Asia’s biggest arms supplier, to the tune of $11 billion in sales. Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and several other states in the region still rely on Russian weapons for many of their arms platforms.
The Kremlin also launched a diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia, boosting bilateral exchanges with countries like Indonesia and Thailand. This engagement was welcomed by regional governments that, long caught in a squeeze between the United States and China, were looking to other outside powers to diversify their strategic partnerships.
In so doing, Russia also positioned itself as a major power that did not care what kind of government it was dealing with. Moscow engaged with Thailand while it was ruled by a harsh military junta between 2014 and 2018, and was one of the few states to openly defend Myanmar’s military junta at global institutions after it seized power in 2021. It has also hosted the country’s military leaders since the coup and continued to sell weapons to the heavily sanctioned country, weapons that are now often used to indiscriminately bomb civilian villages and commit other atrocities.
Moscow also increasingly began to project more naval power in the region, as part of Putin’s long-standing goal for Russia to regain its status as a Pacific power. Until more recently, Russian warships had regularly transited contested areas of the South China Sea, and the Russian navy held maritime exercises with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Russia saw this full-spectrum engagement pay dividends following its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when countries like Myanmar and Vietnam either backed the invasion, in the case of the former, or abstained from United Nations resolutions condemning it, in the case of the latter.
But Russia’s brief interlude of greater influence in the region is now waning. It has stood almost alone in its full-throated backing of the junta in Myanmar; even China has had clear qualms about some of the regime’s actions and has maintained the pretense of trying to promote peace. Yet despite deliveries of Russian weaponry, Myanmar’s armed forces are now losing territory, personnel and momentum to ethnic militias and armed opposition fighters. If the junta eventually collapses, any government that emerges to take its place will not forgive Russia easily.
Meanwhile, Thailand is no longer ruled by a military regime, even if the Pheu Thai-led coalition government that emerged from the country’s recent elections has moved closer to the ruling establishment and included pro-military parties as part of a deal to take office. Still, with many Thais angry at Pheu Thai for dumping Move Forward—the progressive party that won the most seats in the election—to secure power, the current government will likely be more hesitant about openly embracing Russia and buying more Russian arms or defending Russia internationally.
In other countries, too, from Vietnam to the Philippines to Singapore, fear of Beijing’s growing regional assertiveness has led governments to move closer strategically to the United States. In his first year in office in the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has repaired the damage done to relations with Washington by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, including by granting the U.S. military critical basing access. Meanwhile, Vietnam just upgraded its relationship with Washington to a comprehensive strategic partnership during U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit, a major step forward for bilateral relations.
Moscow will almost certainly pay a cost due to this trend, as Russia is increasingly linked to China in many leaders’ minds, given how close Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have grown since the start of the war in Ukraine, which China has essentially backed.
The toll of the Ukraine war on grain shipments to the region and the region’s overall economies is also souring many Southeast Asian leaders and publics on Moscow. In addition, sanctions against Moscow by the U.S. and Europe have also constrained Southeast Asian states’ ability to do business with Russia, while dampening the appeal of closer diplomatic ties as well.
Then there is the fact that Russian weapons, a major source of Russian power, are no longer that attractive in the region, in part due to quality concerns but also because of the corruption often involved in Russian arms deals. As The Economist reported, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines have all canceled plans for various purchases because of corruption. It doesn’t help Russia’s cause that it no longer has much equipment to sell to foreign states anyway, since it is funneling its best weaponry to the front in Ukraine. Regional states were also already wary of being targeted by U.S. sanctions if they bought Russian arms even before the war in Ukraine, and that risk has only grown now, although Vietnam—whose ties to Moscow go back to Soviet support for Hanoi during the Vietnam War—is reportedly planning to purchase Russian weapons in contravention of possible sanctions.
Ultimately, too, Russia is simply being outclassed by new competitors in Southeast Asia. The U.S. continues to sell weapons to the region and will likely sell even more, particularly to Vietnam, over time. Meanwhile, South Korea has become a major provider of reliable, relatively inexpensive arms to Southeast Asia, essentially filling the role Russia historically played. Seoul has already begun working with Indonesia on naval weaponry, and has sold warplanes to Malaysia and arms to the Philippines. It is likely to secure many similar deals in the region moving forward.
Russia, meanwhile, faces a much less vital role in Southeast Asia now and in the future. Given the military, economic and diplomatic costs of the war in Ukraine for Moscow, that’s a loss it can’t easily afford.