BANGKOK, Thailand — Russia is trying to earn some major goodwill in Southeast Asia by offering weapons, investment, tourism and diplomatic support to Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, to buffer the Kremlin’s mounting losses elsewhere caused by U.S. and allied sanctions against its invasion of Ukraine.
While the Biden administration and major U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia have condemned Russia‘s military move against Ukraine, the charm offensive here underscores that fact that a number of major players around the globe are still on the fence over how to respond and whether to sign on to punishing economic and financial sanctions the U.S. and European Union have imposed.
One of the most complex displays of the Kremlin’s maneuvering to keep friends and influence people is unfolding here in Thailand, a non-NATO U.S. treaty ally and long a bulwark of American influence in the region. Russia‘s top diplomat has praised Bangkok for its stand to date.
“We appreciate the balanced position of the Royal Thai government,” Russian Ambassador Evgeny Tomikhin told reporters late last month. “We have no political dispute.”
On Feb. 28, Thailand declined an unusually pointed, public demand by 25 Bangkok-based European ambassadors appealing to the government to condemn the invasion.
“We need to keep a balance,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters, explaining why he rejected their demand.
Coincidentally or not, on the same day Thai government officials on Phuket island, the country’s international tourist playground, hosted a visit by Ambassador Tomikhin.
The Russian delegation reportedly suggested upgrading links between luxurious, beach-blessed Phuket and Russia‘s relatively prosperous northeast Kamchatka Peninsula to benefit both countries.
Some see Bangkok following China’s lead in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, hoping to stay mostly on the sidelines as Russia battles the U.S and its allies, and pressing for a peace deal without issuing any moral judgments. Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday issued a joint statement after a meeting in Tunxi, China, calling for new peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
A statement after the meeting said China and Thailand “will join hands to curb the negative fallout [from the war] and maintain the momentum of global economic recovery.” Higher energy prices, sanctions and supply chain and tourism industry disruptions from the conflict recently moved the Bank of Thailand to revise downward its official growth forecast for 2022 from 3.4% to 3.2%.
Thailand is being especially gracious to Russia because in July the two countries expect to celebrate the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations. That link is esteemed among Thailand‘s ruling right-wing royalists and others because it began with intimate personal ties between the then-Siamese and Russian royal families during Czar Alexander III’s reign.
In 1891, three years before becoming the next czar, Nicholas II traveled through Bangkok and met Siam’s King Chulalongkorn.
In 1897, King Chulalongkorn visited the newly enthroned czar in St. Petersburg and they established diplomatic relations.
“The king’s close personal ties with the Royal House of Russia, where he sent one of his sons, Prince Chakrabongse, to study for eight years [including at a military school] directly helped Siam vis-a-vis French and British colonialist ambitions,” the Royal Thai Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, said on its website.
While there, the prince married a Russian woman.
Russia initially provided diplomatic support bolstering Thailand against 19th century French and British colonialists before Siam renamed itself Thailand. But Nicholas II appeared to side with France after 1902, causing relations to wane.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand attracted thousands of Russian tourists. Luring them back is part of Thailand‘s economic plan to resurrect its devastated international tourism industry, and officials report that 23,000 Russians — a fifth of the total international traffic — visited Thailand in January.
Russians currently in Thailand, or hoping to arrive, cannot pay hotel and other travel bills or business investments via the SWIFT international banking system because of U.S. sanctions. But they can enjoy China’s UnionPay transfers which are used in Thailand, Russia and elsewhere.
Some Thai banks customarily issue UnionPay debit cards to Thai and foreign clients, alongside Visa and Mastercard.
Russia and Thailand are not major trading partners, though Russia exports steel, scrap metal, fertilizers, minerals, synthetic rubber, diamonds, and paper to Thailand, while Thailand sends Russia sugar, rice, gems, clothes, canned food and furniture.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank, said Thailand, like many countries in the region, finds itself balancing traditional ties to the U.S. with the emerging economic, military and diplomatic might of China. For Bangkok, the resulting “bamboo diplomacy,” coupled with the need to put a priority on domestic problems, translates into a deep reluctance to alienate anyone in the emerging divisions between major powers anywhere in the world.
“In the main, … Thailand tries not to take sides in the geopolitical squabbles among the great powers. Hence the Thai government’s assertion of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine War,” Mr. Storey wrote in an analysis last week for the institute’s journal Fulcrum, which focuses on Southeast Asian issues.
Thailand‘s “rather passive approach to international affairs is also a product of its domestic politics, which have been roiled by a series of political crises, some violent, in the wake of the country’s two military coups,” he wrote. “These crises have taken up much of the establishment’s policy bandwidth, leaving little space for foreign affairs.”
Russia is seeking other diplomatic opportunities in the region, particularly with nations already at odds with the U.S. and the West. Neighboring Myanmar‘s coup-installed military regime perceives Russia‘s war as “the right thing to do for Russia to consolidate its sovereignty,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said.
The Kremlin was “showing the world that it stands as a powerful nation in the global balance of world peace,” he told the U.S.-backed Voice of America’s (VOA) Burmese News.
The junta’s No. 2 commander, Soe Win, recently visited Russia reportedly to sign military contracts worth $2.3 billion, including a new air defense system, the VOA report said.
“In late January of this year, a Russian vessel was pictured unloading a consignment of BRDM-2M 4X4 armored vehicles, and shipping containers full of other [military] toys-for-the-boys, at Yangon’s Thilawa port,” it reported.
During the past 10 years, Myanmar‘s purchases from Russia include MiG-29 jet fighters, Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile and gun systems, artillery, helicopters, radar, and Orlan-10E surveillance drones.
Myanmar‘s junta, which seized power in a February 2021 coup, is desperate for Russian support. Much of the international community shuns the junta because of the military’s assaults against pro-democracy activists and others.
“Russian arms deals have continued since Myanmar‘s coup,” wrote Edith Mirante, a pro-democracy activist and author of two books about Myanmar. Myanmar has also purchased weapons from Ukraine and Belarus.
Some analysts suspect Russia may be trying to gain access to a port along Myanmar‘s warm southern coast on the Bay of Bengal. Access to the port, which widens into the Indian Ocean, would complicate the “Indo-Pacific” military strategy both the Trump and Biden administrations have pursued as a way to contain China.
In June 2021, newly empowered coup Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia — his seventh trip — and noted, “A lot of our citizens have been sent to Russia for their studies. When it comes to cooperation, the military technological sector cooperation is the deepest,” the general said.
Myanmar has used Russian helicopters and artillery against minority ethnic Karen, Kachin, and other guerrillas fighting for autonomy or independence in mountainous terrain along Myanmar‘s borders along Thailand and China.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Russia is experiencing mixed luck.
Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand all endorsed a U.N. General Assembly resolution that demanded Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.”
Tiny, wealthy Singapore took Southeast Asia’s hardest stance and copied some U.S. sanctions barring transactions with top Russian financial institutions. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered a strong condemnation of what he called the “unprovoked attack by Russia on Ukraine” in an Oval Office meeting with President Biden last week.
“The sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected,” Mr. Lee said. “The unprovoked military invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext is unacceptable.”
The one-party regimes in Vietnam and Laos abstained on the U.N. resolution. Both countries’ communist nationalists achieved victory with Soviet military assistance during the 1965-75 U.S.-Vietnam War, plus economic aid during the 1980s.
Since 1995, Vietnam has relied heavily on Russian weapons, including submarines and fighter jets, buying $8 billion in Russian military hardware and turning Moscow into Hanoi’s biggest weapons supplier. Earlier this year, Hanoi and Moscow celebrated their 20th anniversary of strategic partnership.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meanwhile appears wary of trying to circumvent U.S.-led sanctions and may cancel plans to buy Russian weapons, although he noted in a March 17 interview that he considers Russian President Vladimir Putin “a personal friend.”
Muslim-majority Indonesia considered buying squadrons of Russian SU-35 fighter jets but switched to Western manufacturers during international brinkmanship weeks before the invasion.
Reacting to the Russia-Ukraine War, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said Jakarta believed that “the territorial integrity of a country must be adhered to, and [condemned] any action that clearly constitutes a violation of the territory and sovereignty of a country.”