Why Russia Is Arming a Longtime US Ally in Asia

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY; Image Getty

Why you should care

A quietly blossoming partnership between Moscow and Manila is reshaping the geopolitics of Asia.

Sharing the stage with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club Forum in early October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was his usual brash self. He denounced the United States and Europe. The ostensible reason was the West’s opposition to his drug war that has killed thousands of Filipinos. But the audience before him — Russia’s foreign policy elite — was no coincidence.

Duterte’s visit to Russia was the latest move in a fast-blossoming security partnership that’s quietly reshaping Asia’s strategic chessboard — between the Philippines, a traditional American ally, and Russia, Washington’s top adversary. Since Duterte took office in 2016, Russian warships have visited the Philippines six times. Russia in 2017 donated thousands of assault rifles and helmets, nearly a million rounds of ammunition and 20 trucks to the Philippines.

The Philippines has also expressed interest in purchasing Russian submarines and helicopters, much to Washington’s chagrin. Moscow recently offered to help train the armed forces of the Philippines and host joint military exercises. And in September, Russia appointed its first defense attaché to the Philippines since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia is for the first time intruding on the territory of both the United States and China.

AlexeY Maslov, National Research University Higher School of Economics, moscow

For Duterte, the relationship is one of growing necessity with Western governments increasingly reluctant to sell arms to the Philippines. In 2016, the U.S. blocked the delivery of 26,000 assault rifles to Manila following concerns that the Duterte government’s committed extrajudicial killings and other human-rights violations in its effort to root out drug dealers. But the Moscow-Manila bonhomie isn’t complicating only the U.S.-Philippines relationship.

Despite the Kremlin’s loud declarations about its new partnership with China, Russian political elites are increasingly concerned about becoming too dependent on their southern neighbor amid its estrangement with Europe and sanctions from the U.S., say analysts. They’re also growing frustrated with China’s lackluster desire to invest in Russia or join it in resisting the West’s sanctions against Moscow, says Alexey Maslov, a professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. To address this growing imbalance, Russian is seeking out partnerships with other players in Asia — including those that have a difficult relationship with China. The Philippines — which is locked in a maritime dispute with China — fits the bill perfectly.

“The Philippines are a very important partner in this sense, because Russia is for the first time intruding on the territory of both the United States and China,” says Maslov. “It is a new and very important step for us.”

Other reasons too are pulling Russia and the Philippines closer, starting with Duterte’s avowed admiration for Putin and his willingness to defy the West. Early in his presidency, Duterte praised Putin as his “favorite hero” and proclaimed his intention to balance the Philippines’ relationship with the U.S. by drawing closer to Moscow and Beijing.

Russia’s military support for the Philippines is also driven by a shared desire to see it prevail in a decades long-battle against jihadist rebels based in the southern part of the Southeast Asian country. Moscow is keen to keep Islamist insurgencies from spreading to Russia’s borders, says Dmitriy Mosyakov, a Southeast Asia expert at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Oriental Studies.

“We understand that when it comes to these radical Islamic groups, today they are fighting in the Philippines, tomorrow they could be fighting in Syria, and the day after tomorrow they could be fighting in Central Asia or some other regions,” he says. “In such a situation, we are helping ourselves by helping the Philippines.”

Russia's Defence Minister Shoigu in Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C front) receives a batch of Russian military goods from Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R front).

Source Vadim Savitsky/Getty

To be sure, tighter Russo-Filipino military cooperation faces considerable obstacles despite a strong shared interest. Viktor Murakhovsky, editor-in-chief of the defense journal Arsenal of the Fatherland, tells me that he’s skeptical that the Philippines will make any major Russian arms purchases given its limited military budget. He questions whether Moscow even has much to offer Manila in terms of weaponry. “The Philippines, due to their location, put an emphasis on naval equipment and aviation that can assist their navy,” he says. “We don’t have many arms in these areas which could even theoretically interest the Philippines.”

Having Russia train Filipino troops is also easier promised than done, he says. The two countries have never participated in joint military exercises, and the Philippines has never sent its officers to study at Russian military academies — important measures for building trust and exchanging information between two militaries. To move toward a structured, long-term military partnership, the two countries would have to begin practically from scratch and spend years just laying the foundation, Murakhovsky cautions.

While Duterte might take steps in that direction, Murakhovsky says he’s not confident subsequent administrations in the Philippines will buck pressure from Washington like the current president has. “It is important to remember that the entire military-political machine of the Philippines used to be oriented toward the United States,” he says. “Hoping that the whole machine would do a 180-degree shift would be very presumptuous.”

But other Russian analysts like Mosyakov point to the speed at which the Philippines has already pivoted toward Russia under Duterte, as a sign of optimism for future ties between Moscow and Manila. “The Philippines was the most closed-off country in Southeast Asia from Russia,” Mosyakov says. “If you look at what’s happened between 2016 and now, we’ve gone a long way.”

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