BANGKOK — While the U.S. alliance with Thailand suffers strains after Bangkok’s 2014 coup, Russia has delivered combat helicopters to the military regime and now wants to provide tanks, counterterrorism training, security intelligence and other assistance, Moscow’s ambassador to Thailand said in an interview.
In addition, Russian Ambassador Kirill Barsky noted that Thai Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon arrives Tuesday in Moscow for a four-day visit to strengthen military links after decades of relatively loose relations.
He said Moscow’s willingness to support Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader, contrasts sharply with the Obama administration’s public criticism of the junta.
Mr. Prayuth is invited to join a May summit in the Russian city of Sochi between the Kremlin and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose other members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
The Russia-ASEAN summit mirrors in some ways President Obama’s recent ASEAN Summit in Southern California, but it is not expected to include any similarities to what Mr. Obama told Mr. Prayuth. “We continue to encourage a return to civilian rule in Thailand,” the U.S. president said.
“Security is a very important area where Russia and Thailand can benefit from working closely with each other,” Mr. Barsky said in a recent interview.
“Just a couple of days ago, the secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev, paid a visit to Thailand and reconvened a meeting of the Working Group on Security Cooperation, and the discussion revealed a lot of opportunities and mutual interest of Russia and Thailand in the field of security,” the Russian ambassador said. “We have decided to kick-start collaboration on counterterrorism” and other security concerns, including “intelligence exchange and training of personnel.”
Gen. Prawit’s visit to Russia will continue the dialogue, he said.
“We are in the initial phase of that cooperation,” he said. “But I think we have very good prospects, because I registered strong mutual interest in cooperation in such fields of security as counterterrorism, counternarcotic drugs, fighting transnational crime, cybercrime and cybersecurity.”
Mr. Barsky was reluctant to discuss Russia’s recent sales of combat-capable MI-17 helicopters to Thailand and other military items.
“This is not the right place to describe what we do with Thailand in terms of military and technical cooperation. This is a sensitive issue,” the diplomat said. “But, believe me, that this business is going on, and we are supplying Thailand with the items that they are interested in, and we are eager to expand the scope of our cooperation.”
Asked why he considers the issue sensitive, Mr. Barsky said: “I’m sure that if you ask your American friends to tell you everything about their military armament supplies to Thailand, they will ask you to go to hell.”
In December, Russia delivered six “multifunctional MI-17 V-5 helicopters, ordered by the Royal Thai Army for purchase in 2014,” according to the Russian Embassy’s website.
“This model of the famous Russian MI-17 helicopter can be used not only for transportation purposes but also in combat,” the embassy said.
The Russian news agency Tass reported Thursday that this was “the first time that the Thai military preferred a Russian aircraft to a U.S.-made” craft, adding that the Prayut regime “plans to buy [an] additional batch of Russian Mi-17 V-5 helicopters.”
“We hope that the negotiations will bear fruit as early as this year,” a source in Singapore told Tass.
Thailand previously purchased U.S.-built Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters as well as European helicopters. This Buddhist-majority nation is a non-NATO treaty ally of the U.S. in Southeast Asia.
The Pentagon last week concluded its annual 10-day Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand alongside more than two-dozen nations, including combined arms live-fire practice and an assault in the countryside.
“The political line of NATO toward Russia remains unfriendly and closed,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Feb. 13 in Munich, responding to events in Syria.
“It can be said more sharply: We have slid into a time of a new Cold War,” Mr. Medvedev said.
During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow fought proxy wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“The Thai government may be leaning further towards authoritarian friends in Russia and China — who are only too happy to overlook its domestic troubles in exchange for mutually beneficial trade or influence — but in the modern context it is difficult to envision Thailand returning to a situation as it was during the Cold War, where its foreign relations were dominated by a single great power,” said Jacob Hogan, a fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies in the Political Science Faculty at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
In 2014, “Thailand’s military government sought out more supportive partners as Bangkok’s post-coup d’etat relations with the United States, European Union and other democratic states in the region, such as Japan and Korea, cooled,” Mr. Jacob said Sunday in an email interview.
“But with the Russians and Chinese very happy to overlook Thailand’s domestic situation, in return for lucrative arms and energy sales and business opportunities, many in Thailand are nervous about the impact that these deepening relations with authoritarian states will have on Thailand’s long-term democratic consolidation,” he said.
Responding to published reports that the junta wants to buy Russian T-90 tanks, Mr. Barsky said, “You know the saying: ‘A puncher always has a chance.’”
He said Moscow “of course” has a chance to sell tanks to Bangkok in addition to other military equipment despite decades of weapons supplies to Thailand by the U.S., China, Sweden and other countries.
Thailand currently uses U.S.-built tanks, plus 10 recently purchased T-84 Oplot tanks from Ukraine.
Bangkok also reportedly is considering the purchase of Chinese tanks.
“Arms sales is a business. And, like in every other business, there is a competition. Of course Thailand is, to Russia, not a very familiar market — like China or India or Algeria or Vietnam,” Mr. Barsky said. “So we have to fight to get our position, to get our share of this market. And to squeeze in a new market is not an easy job.
“So we are trying our best. My impression is that Thailand is wishing to diversify the sources of its armaments, and this is why Thailand is anxious to procure more weapons from China, the Republic of Korea, India and Russia,” he said.