Southeast Asian countries appear poised to maintain ties with Russia as a trio of global summits loom, despite US-led efforts to isolate Moscow during its invasion of Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine and its repercussions – rising fuel, energy and food costs and supply chain disruptions – will weigh on back-to-back rallies in Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok.
The diplomatic whirlwind begins this week with a gathering of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was largely muted during the invasion of Ukraine – except of Singapore, which imposed sanctions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked to send a video message to ASEAN and has been invited to attend the G20 summit in Bali, which follows him, in person.
G20 host Indonesia has sought to carve out a role as a peacemaker, inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as Zelensky, although neither has confirmed his attendance.
In ASEAN, Ukraine will sign a “friendship and cooperation treaty”, the first step towards the establishment of formal relations.
Despite these moves, analysts expect ASEAN countries to continue their longstanding policy of strategic closure.
“I think what the bloc is going to do is continue cooperation with Russia in a very usual way,” Joanne Lin of the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore told AFP.
“Many member states are very good at compartmentalizing issues.”
Putin signaled a pivot to Asia in September in the face of a deluge of Western sanctions, hailing the “colossal new opportunities” offered by the region.
Analysts say Russia hopes to curry favor with ASEAN countries struggling with rising energy bills by offering oil and gas, while cementing ties with longtime allies such as Myanmar and Vietnam.
As Europe tries to wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons, Moscow scrambles to find new markets and offers huge discounts.
Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina is in talks to buy crude oil, while Myanmar and Laos are also hoping Moscow can ease fuel shortages.
“Russia will try to present itself as a neutral economic and political partner, respectful of ASEAN’s agency and independence,” Asia Society Australia chief executive Philipp Ivanov told AFP.
Over the past year, the Kremlin has intensified its contacts with longtime allies in the region, particularly Vietnam and military-controlled Myanmar, a major buyer of Russian arms for its fight against pro-militias. democracy.
Putin welcomed junta supremo Min Aung Hlaing as guest of honor at an economic forum in Vladivostok last month.
Overtures have also been made to Thailand, with the kingdom’s foreign minister visiting Moscow last month for trade-focused talks.
Thailand’s crucial tourism industry, which is struggling to rebound from the pandemic, is turning to Russia as sanctions make travel to Europe more difficult for Russians.
Russian carrier Aeroflot resumed direct flights to the Thai holiday island of Phuket last month, more than six months after they were suspended following the invasion of Ukraine.
Thailand, along with Vietnam and Laos – another longtime Moscow ally – joined China and India in abstaining in a UN General Assembly vote last month. last to condemn Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine.
Against Moscow’s inducements, Southeast Asian countries will assess the risks of violating US sanctions or stoking Washington’s ire.
Earlier this year, Malaysia was forced into a hasty denial after its ambassador in Moscow appeared to suggest it was willing to sell semiconductors to Russia.
And the threat of US sanctions has frustrated two major Kremlin arms deals in the region.
In July, the Philippines canceled a $216 million deal to buy 16 Russian Mi-17 helicopters.
Last year, Indonesia said it had backed out of a deal for 11 Russian Su-35 jets.
As Western sanctions and boycotts rage, Moscow needs to bolster its supplies of raw materials, vehicle parts, semiconductors as well as consumer goods such as electronics and clothing.
Russia – Southeast Asia’s largest arms supplier for the past 20 years – is also desperate to bolster its strained military export industry.
“Russian defense companies have been willing to accept partial payment in raw materials (and) to pursue joint production,” according to a report by the Yusof Ishak Institute.
And while China has been warmer, calling for deeper ties and avoiding criticism over Ukraine’s invasion, Moscow is seen as hesitant to become too dependent on Beijing.
Ivanov, of the Asia Society, said the pivot to Asia “is no longer a political option, but a necessity” for Russia and that diversifying ties would help it avoid “becoming a vassal state Chinese”.
“Russia has a lot of work to do in Southeast Asia to strengthen its economic and diplomatic engagement, and we can expect to see more of Russia in the region,” he told AFP.