The highest ranking Russian military official to visit Thailand in a decade will wrap up four days of talks Friday as Moscow further deepens ties with Southeast Asia.
After stopping first in Laos, Colonel general Oleg Salyukov, the commander-in-chief of Russian land forces, was scheduled to meet senior Thai military officials including Defense Forces chief general Surapong Suwana-adth. Russia’s Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit Thailand later this year to mark the 120th anniversary of bilateral relations.
“Russia is trying to play a balancing game by recognising that Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific are very much driven by geopolitical fluidity,” said Alexey Muraviev, a Russia strategic and defense affairs specialist at Curtin University in Perth.
Since hosting the first ever meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers in Moscow last April, Russia has worked to diversify its economic, diplomatic and security ties throughout the region. That includes longtime US allies in the region like Thailand and the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia, according to an appraisal of its 2016 diplomatic outcomes.
In January, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he’d consider joint naval exercises with Russia, months after deciding to reduce military drills with the US, the Philippine’s long-term treaty ally. Russia is also in competition with Saab AB, Airbus Group and Lockheed Martin Corp. to sell fighter jets to Indonesia.
Russian efforts to strengthen its links with Bangkok come as Thai relations with Washington have cooled since the 2014 military coup, with the US stemming military aid to its longstanding ally in line with its “coup clause” that cuts foreign assistance to countries that overthrow democratically elected governments.
In addition to signing a military cooperation agreement with Russia in St. Petersburg last May, Thai leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha and Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev agreed to try to increase bilateral trade to $10 billion a year. Commerce between the two countries was valued at $3.98 billion in 2014, according to the Russian embassy in Bangkok.
Last year two Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 LR planes were commissioned into the Royal Thai Air Force, mainly for the use of the royal family and other VIPs, with Russia also planning to deliver four military transport Mi-17V-5 helicopters to Thailand later this year.
“The Russian defense industry has managed to get a small symbolic defense niche in a market dominated by US defense companies,” said Muraviev. “The Russian helicopters are not a game changer but it is a first step.”