Russia Arms Old And New Friends In Asia
On the way to the annual summit meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Australia, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has scheduled a brief stop-off in Jakarta on Thursday. High on Putin's agenda: the signing of a $1 billion arms deal that includes supplying Indonesia with two Kilo-class submarines, the first of a small fleet of the vessels.

It comes on the heels of other deals to sell advanced Su-27 and Su-30 combat fighters to Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in the region, helping to entrench Russia's place as the leading arms supplier to Asia.

The signs that the Russian bear wants to return to its old stamping grounds in East Asia and the Pacific have become increasingly apparent in recent times, analysts say.

On Aug. 8, in what looked like a rehash of a Cold War script, two Russian strategic bombers flew provocatively close to a U.S. military base at Guam. According to the Russian account, U.S. fighter jets were scrambled to meet the nuclear-capable Tu-95 Bear aircraft in a ritual from past decades, the opposing pilots exchanging smiles. U.S. officials denied the interception took place.

After beating a strategic retreat from the region with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, analysts say Russia is making a steady comeback with a more modern agenda for exercising regional military and economic power.

The Russian regional resurgence is still in its early stages, but it could potentially have a significant impact on the strategic environment in East Asia and the Pacific in the next two decades.

Russia, already the leading exporter of weapons to Asia, is aggressively promoting new arms sales. It has ambitious long-term plans to restore the strength of its depleted Pacific fleet and Far East forces. And it will become increasingly vital to Asia's energy security as it directs a greater share of oil and gas exports to the region.

"The West and the Pacific community must come to terms with the fact that Russia is back," said Alexey Muraviev, author of several works on Russia's military presence in the region. "Russia no longer wants to be driven by a Europe-Atlantic agenda alone."

Muraviev, a strategic analyst at Curtin University of Technology in Australia, said among the clearest manifestations of Russia's aim to once again become a "formidable Pacific player" were the growing use of weapons exports for diplomatic and commercial gain and plans to significantly increase the firepower of its own military forces deployed in Asia.

Some aspects of the Russian role in the military affairs of the region are already well entrenched.

Between 1998 and 2005, Russia struck agreements for $29.1 billion in arms sales to Asian countries, accounting for about 37 percent of the market, according to a report to the U.S. Congress on arms transfers to the developing world by the Congressional Research Service. New arms deals signed by the United States during that period accounted for about a quarter of the market.

The consumption of Russian military hardware has been led by two traditional customers, China and India, as both spend billions of dollars to rapidly expand their military capabilities by buying Russian combat aircraft, warships, submarines and missiles. Russia has been deepening both of those relationships by establishing joint-development programs of some weapons and agreeing to license the manufacture of others.

But it has also been aggressively seeking new clients.

In Asia, the congressional report said, "Russia's arms sales efforts, beyond those with China and India, are focused on Southeast Asia." It said Russia had agreed to flexible payment terms including "countertrade, offsets, debt-swapping and, in some key cases, to make significant licensed production agreements" to make weapons deals more appealing to relatively poor customers.

The latest deal with Indonesia for Kilo-class submarines, jet fighters, helicopters and tanks hinges on access to a $1 billion Russian loan to be signed during Putin's visit, the first to Indonesia by a Russian leader since the end of the Soviet Union.

Putin, who will travel on to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Sydney this weekend, will be discussing several economic agreements with Jakarta, including a joint aluminum smelting project. Russia has also expressed interest in building a joint satellite launching facility on the eastern Indonesian island of Biak.

But the spearhead for Russia's engagement across the region has so far been weapons exports. According to the United Nations conventional arms register, Russia has in recent years exported advanced fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, missiles, tanks and artillery to countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos and South Korea, usually on terms favorable to the buyers.

Payment terms aside, billion-dollar foreign contracts have helped sustain the cash-strapped Russian defense industry during times when domestic purchases of new hardware have been low.

Arms diplomacy can also help Russia rebuild diplomatic relationships and gain leverage in the region. Indonesia, which was cut off from access to U.S. military equipment and vital parts for several years because of Washington's objection to its human rights record, knows how effective arms sales can be as a diplomatic tool. The United States has since restored military ties to reward Indonesia for its cooperation in efforts against terror.

"The Russians are not indiscriminately selling arms," Muraviev said. "Russia has pursued a policy driven by strategic design. If it creates a strong client base, that can later be transformed into a larger relationship."

Some arms sales have put Russia at loggerheads with the United States and its regional allies. In 2005, Russia made a $700 million agreement with Iran for a surface-to-air defense system. For several years from the mid-1990s, Russia had an agreement with the United States not to sell weapons to Iran.

Similarly, Russia's sale of the capable Kilo-class submarines to Indonesia might not be a welcome move for some of its neighbors.

Russia's agenda to increase its regional influence goes well beyond the role of arms dealer. It has also announced ambitious plans to restore the might of its Pacific fleet and Far East forces, which declined sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union.