Russia’s military power in the Indo-Pacific is often confined analytically to the Sino-Russian relationship vis-a-vis the U.S. While the extent of that relationship remains heavily debated, Russia’s larger role as a security actor in the Indo-Pacific is ignored, despite possessing military relationships with states in the region, particularly with India and Vietnam. These relationships are underpinned by arms deals, joint exercises, and cooperation on policy, indicating a more complex and fluid position for Russia in the Indo-Pacific than the Sino-Russian relationship alone explains. Russia is a multi-dimensional security actor in the Indo-Pacific region and policy to the end of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” should take this into account.
Russia has always had security interests in the East. The 19th century competition between Tsarist Russia and Great Britain for Afghanistan, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Soviet Union’s defeat of Japan’s Kwantung Army in World War II demonstrate a long history of Russian interest in the Indo-Pacific. Russia has demonstrated interest in the Indo-Pacific when the region has been of geopolitical importance. Though Russia officially rejects the concept of the Indo-Pacific as an artificial American construct, its policy suggests a de facto recognition of the theater. As such, the focus on the region in international politics has influenced the Kremlin’s strategic calculus.
The contested southern Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan serve as one locus of Russian interest in the region. Russia deployed Bal and Bastion anti-ship missile systems and drones to the southern Kuril Islands in 2016 and began plans to construct military facilities on the islands. In August 2021, Defence Minister Shoigu announced that Russia would build “51 more pieces of military infrastructure” on the Kuril Islands. Then, in early October 2021, the Russian and Chinese navies held their first-ever joint patrols in the Sea of Japan. Four days later, Chief of Staff of the Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force Command, Rear Admiral Arkady Navarsky, told the Russian News Agency (TASS) that Russia’s Pacific Fleet would be receiving four new submarines. Moscow’s increased investments in its Pacific assets are indicative of its desire to be a proactive and influential player in the region.
During his tenure as Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov laid the groundwork for Russia’s “pivot to Asia” in the mid-1990s by initiating stronger relations with China and India. These two remain the only countries named as security partners in Russia’s 2021 National Security Strategy. Russia seeks with China a “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction” (всеобъемлющее партнерство и стратегический взаимодействие) and with India, a “particularly privileged strategic partnership” (особо привилегированное стратегическое партнерство). Such specifications suggest Russia’s relationship with these two Asian countries are different in nature, though it remains ambiguous, which ultimately Russia favours. In the Asia-Pacific, Russia aims to contribute to stability and security on a non-aligned basis (на внеблоковой основе).
Russia and India have had a strong but imperfect relationship since the Cold War era, the foundation of which is arms sales. In 2019 India purchased two Admiral Grigorovich class guided-missile frigates for the Indian Navy and in early 2021 India agreed to spend $5.5 billion on the Russian S-400 air defence system, against U.S. wishes. Between 2013-2017 35 percent of Russian arms exports went to India, with only 12 percent going to China. Nor was the relationship limited to arms sales. In September 2021 India participated in the Russian-led ZAPAD 2021 military exercise, a month after the 12th annual Indo-Russian joint military exercise Indra-21 was held in Volgograd. Bala Venkatesh Varma, outgoing Ambassador to Russia, told TASS that the Joint Commission on Technology and Science, and agreements on military technical cooperation and reciprocal defence logistical support are anticipated to be announced later this year.
Much like the Indo-Russian relationship, the Russo-Vietnamese defence relationship dates back to the Cold War and is grounded predominantly in arms sales. Vietnam alone is responsible for 61 percent of Russian arms sales to Southeast Asia over the past two decades. However, like the Indian relationship, more is afoot than simple weapons deals. Indeed, the first ever joint Russian-Vietnamese military exercise was held in December 2019 in the port of Cam Ranh. Prior to said exercise, in June 2021, Shoigu and his Vietnamese counterpart Colonel General Phan Van Giang held a video conference on deepening military and military-technical cooperation. Later that month, Deputy Minister of National Defence Senior Lieutenant Le Huy Vinh hosted Anatoly Chuprynov, the resident representative of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation in Hanoi.
Both India and Vietnam value their security relationships with Russia. The Russia-India bilateral summit in December 2021 is preceded by Russia and India’s first ministerial 2+2 dialogue, a format India previously only used with the U.S., Japan, and Australia. Moreover, India has opted to not only purchase Russian arms but invest in joint military technological development. The BrahMos cruise missile joint production venture and the Joint Commission on Technology and Science are investments that suggest New Delhi views Russia as a serious contributor to India’s long-term defence capabilities. Much like India, Vietnam initiated the June 2021 Shoigu-Van Giang conference and has made its desire to purchase the BrahMos cruise missile well-known. New Delhi and Hanoi are making efforts to sell cooperation with Russia to its domestic audiences, as well. Indian media outlets made note of China’s status as a mere observer to ZAPAD 2021, while India and Russia demonstrated joint operability. Equally, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s party website described strategic cooperation with Russia as the “top priority” of the party and state after Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich’s February 2020 Moscow trip.
The seriousness with which New Delhi and Hanoi address their relationships with Moscow is telling—Russia is considered as a possible restraint on growing Chinese military power in the region and as a “third-way” in the U.S.-China competition more generally. Vietnam explicitly pursues a multi-pronged foreign policy that does not give one external power too much influence over the country’s security and like Russia, India favours multipolarity. Both view it as beneficial to keep Russia invested in the region.
The West’s efforts to estrange Moscow and Beijing may be futile if not counterproductive, but there are reasons why the former may choose to distance itself from the latter to the end of its own interests. Both Russian and Chinese authorities reject bipolarity as the present or coming world architecture, though China’s status may no longer be “for China to choose.” An international structure in which China levels with or passes the U.S. in national power is unsatisfactory to Russia because Moscow aims for multipolarity and great power status. It is difficult to imagine China ceding influence to other states if this is achieved. Russia’s ambitions would then be frustrated by Beijing’s power, prompting antagonistic behavior towards China from Moscow.
The Sino-Russian relationship may otherwise weaken gradually as the economic relationship becomes more lopsided, with China eventually halting its purchase of Russian military hardware – in favour of domestically procured items -and climate change reducing the attractiveness of Russia’s fossil fuel reserves. Such conditions incentivise Russia to keep China at arms-length. India and Vietnam are unlikely to cut security ties with Russia, despite pressure from the U.S. to do so, because they view Russia as a counterweight to both China and the U.S., a role it served for these states during the Cold War. Moreover, Russia’s relationships with India and Vietnam do not threaten Russia’s great power ambitions, implying a certain level of durability.
When estimating the extent to which Russia may support China in competition or open conflict with the U.S., Russia’s assorted interests in the Indo-Pacific must be considered. The Sino-Russian relationship is worthy of attention, but there should be greater analytical curiosity regarding Russia’s other Indo-Pacific relationships and how they may affect Moscow’s decision-making, especially if China obfuscates Russia’s strategic end-goal of multipolarity. A scenario in which Russia restrains rather than emboldens China is a very real possibility. Stranger things have happened.
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