S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems roll through Red Square in Moscow as Russia celebrated the 74th anniversary of the World War II victory over Germany. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow Returns to the Asian Theater

Al-Ayaam, Ramallah, August 15

Russia had a presence in a number of Asian countries before the fall of the Soviet Union, whether through invasion – as was the case in Afghanistan – or through the delivery of weapons and training of troops, as was evident in the cases of India and Vietnam, for example. But this presence began to decline gradually after the end of the Cold War for two main reasons: First, most of the Soviet Union’s proxy countries began opening up to the West and adopting free markets; second, Moscow became too preoccupied with its own domestic politics and the need to address the failing economy. Today, we are witnessing something like a Russian awakening in terms of the need to return to the Asian theater, particularly in terms of not leaving it up for grabs to US or China. This is being achieved through Moscow’s same old tricks; that is, by signing extensive arms deals. This has been the case with Vietnam, when, in September 2018, Hanoi and Moscow signed a $1 billion military deal. Previously, the two countries had signed a $2 billion contract to provide Hanoi with six submarines, the first of which had already been sent to Hanoi in January 2017. What happened between Russia and Vietnam was repeated with India, a former strategic ally of the Soviet Union. In October 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited New Delhi for the signing of a $5 billion military deal, under which the Russians would provide the Indians with sophisticated Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Analysts say India had to buy weapons to protect its territory from potential threats following the incursion of Chinese forces into the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan. Moscow’s return to Asia comes at a time when the Asian geopolitical landscape has changed, with the advent of the Chinese dragon as a politically, militarily and economically vigorous force with ambitious targets in the Indian and Pacific oceans. But Moscow appears to be sticking to its ambitions and betting that its policies will parallel Beijing’s policies to counter US and Western influence in Asia. The most recent evidence is an unprecedented joint air exercise between the Russian and Chinese air forces over the Sea of Japan, not to mention a joint military exercise last year – for the first time since the 1960s – involving 300,000 Russian troops and about 3,200 Chinese Red Army soldiers. However, Russian-Chinese cooperation could be undone by suspicions and concerns in Beijing. The Chinese are alarmed by the military agreements Moscow has concluded with two bitter rivals (India and Vietnam). So it is said that Moscow is trying to satisfy Beijing by exporting its sophisticated weapons to China as well. In 2017 alone, Moscow sold Beijing $15 billion worth of weapons, including advanced Sukhoi fighter jets, air-to-air missiles. Moscow is also courting Indonesia, with which it signed weapon deals amounting to $2.5 billion at a time when Washington and the West banned weapons sales to Indonesia because of Jakarta’s crackdown on East Timor. What happened in Indonesia also applies to Myanmar, which, after facing a Western arms embargo due to its repressive policies, has become dependent on Russia for arms and diplomatic support. –Abdallah al-Madani

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