MOSCOW -- Russia is quietly strengthening military ties with Laos in a bid to reestablish itself as a major player in Southeast Asia.
On Dec. 10, Russia and Laos launched their first-ever joint military exercise. More than 500 soldiers from both countries and numerous tanks are participaing in the nine-day Laros 2019 exercise at the Ban Peng training ground in Laos.
"Although the contingent of troops from Russia is not very big, this exercise is nevertheless the first attempt [by Moscow] to establish a military presence in Southeast Asia," said Alexey Maslov, a professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. "I suspect that Russia views Laos as one of the first stops for offering its military services to Asia."
Maslov explained that Russia hoped to use the drill with Laos to encourage other Southeast Asian countries to deepen their military ties with Moscow. He also predicted that Russia would follow up the joint military exercise by offering to sell Laos more arms and to train Laotian officers in Russian military academies.
The Laros 2019 exercise comes at a time when Moscow and Vientiane are rapidly expanding their military cooperation, particularly in the area of arms trade. Laotian Prime Minister Thonglong Sisulit went so far as to declare in 2018, "We can say that everything that is in the Laos Armed Forces is connected with Russia."
In December 2018, Russia delivered a batch of T-72B tanks and BRDM-2M armored vehicles to Laos as part of a contract signed by both countries' defense ministers earlier that year. The first shipment of Russian YAK 130 fighter jets arrived in Laos the following month.
This newly delivered Russian equipment was featured prominently in a military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Lao People's Armed Forces in Vientiane on Jan. 20. No less symbolic was the fact that the Russian Defense Ministry had opened its first representative office in Laos just a few days earlier.
Moscow and Vientiane are also increasing their coordination on national security issues. In May 2018, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, hosted his Laotian counterpart for a meeting to discuss expanding military cooperation. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev traveled to Laos in April to hold security consultations with the country's leadership.
"Russia has staged a comeback not just in Laos, but also in Southeast Asia. And military-technical cooperation is key to this because it is an area where Russia surpasses the U.S. and even China," said Dmitriy Mosyakov, a Southeast Asia expert at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Oriental Studies.
During the Cold War, Moscow was the leading military and economic patron of communist governments and movements in Southeast Asia. But Russia largely disappeared from the region following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nearly 30 years later, Russia is reasserting itself as a major player in Southeast Asia, and its arms exports are leading the way.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia sold $6.6 billion in arms to Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2017, making it the largest weapons supplier to the region. By contrast, the U.S. sold $4.58 billion in arms and China sold $1.8 billion in arms to Southeast Asia during the same time period.
For Moscow, Vientiane is a natural defense partner despite its economic limitations, Maslov explained.
"Laos is not a country with a well-developed economy, but it really needs to strengthen its military. Old Soviet-era ties will play a big role [in promoting military cooperation]," he said.
So what is behind Russia's renewed interest in Southeast Asia? Following Moscow's estrangement from the West over the Ukraine crisis, it began to look elsewhere for new partners. Southeast Asian countries naturally caught Russia's interest, explained Vladimir Mazyrin, head of the Center for the Study of Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"Since we received considerable support from the countries of Southeast Asia and East Asia, we obviously try to compensate in these regions for what we currently lack from our Western partners," he said.
Mazyrin told the Nikkei Asian Review that Russia's bid to sell arms in Southeast Asia was not just about opening up new markets, but also to help ensure stability in the region. For Moscow, that means preventing domination by either the U.S. or China, he said.
While Russia still has a long way to go in Southeast Asia, its military cooperation with the region is already beginning to deliver political dividends, argued Mosyakov.
"Look at how Laos and Cambodia voted on [the recent UN resolution on] Crimea, at the extent to which the countries of Southeast Asia are increasingly aligning with the Russian position on even this issue," he said. "All of this is happening because an atmosphere of trust and cooperation is emerging between Russia and Southeast Asia."
Is Russia worried that its growing military presence in Southeast Asia could harm its relationship with China, which views the region as its backyard? The Russian experts interviewed by Nikkei said that it wasn't. They contended that the Sino-Russian partnership is too important for both parties to allow disagreements over Southeast Asia to distract them. Moreover, they emphasized that Beijing had not voiced opposition to Moscow's military role in the region.
"If we sensed that strengthening military ties with Southeast Asia could harm relations with China, we obviously would not be doing it at such a high level and so openly," Mazyrin said.
He added that Beijing might prefer that Moscow arm Southeast Asia rather than to have Washington do it, since Beijing itself had received Russian weapons and therefore was more familiar with them.
Mazyrin said, "China knows what arms its neighboring countries and potential adversaries will have. It would be much worse for China if these countries instead armed themselves with American weapons."