AUCKLAND: Russia’s “hard” power is generally well-understood. President Vladimir Putin has ensured this is the case, particularly through his proclivity to showcase Russian strength in Ukraine and Syria.
And who could forget Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons? Not Donald Trump: In February, Washington cited Russian missile provocations as the reason the US was suspending compliance of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
On the other hand, new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) suggests a rather different dimension of Russian power: Being the key provider of arms and military technology to the Asia-Pacific region. This “soft” power is much less obvious than Russian military movements but carries its own array of geopolitical consequences.
SIPRI tracks the world’s largest arms producers (a group it terms the “Top 100”), and their sales of weapons and military technology. In its year-end roundup for 2018, it announced that Russia had overtaken the United Kingdom to become the second largest arms producer behind the United States.
Russian arms giants accounted for about 10 per cent of the top 100’s total arms sales last year – about US$38 billion.
RUSSIAN WEAPON SALES ARE DRIVEN BY ASIAN COUNTRIES
The data reflects that Russia’s strong year-on-year growth in arms sales (up 8.5 per cent from 2017) is driven by Asian states. South and Southeast Asia now account for over 60 per cent of Russia’s total arms exports. By most estimates, Russia is the largest arms exporter for the whole Asia-Pacific region.
The role of smaller Southeast Asian states in this regional trend is easily underestimated. Significant attention (not to mention American sanctions) was drawn when India and China each purchased Russian S-400 air defence systems, in deals worth US$5.5 billion and US$3 billion respectively.
These high-profile agreements between global powers belie the fact that Southeast Asian states purchase more Russian arms than India and China put together.
Take Vietnam, which placed an arms order for Russian weapons last year worth US$1 billion, or the Philippines, both the purchaser of Russian heavy weapons and the recipient of weapons and vehicles donated by Moscow.
Approximating the cause of this Southeast Asian security spending is not terribly difficult. China remains an aggressive and territorial presence in the region, quite willing to use military force to intimidate the smaller states dotted around the South China Sea.
However, Southeast Asian countries are also understandably wary about another threat: Terrorism is an ongoing security issue driving states to acquire superior hardware and equipment.
This growing web of arms deals strengthens Russia’s “soft” power by helping bring Asian states into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Weapons agreements should be understood as contributors to a broader military relationship, as opposed to discrete transactions (one does not buy S-400 air defence systems at the supermarket). Russia is increasingly taking part in joint military exercises with its Southeast Asian security customers, for instance.
The preponderance of Russian arms in Asia has brought its share of unintended consequences. Experts deem Southeast Asia a “crossroads” for small arms smuggling and weapons trafficking.
To take just one example, United Nations estimates suggest there are more than 1,100,000 unregistered guns in the Philippines. 26 people are killed every day by small arms, a number on the rise since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office with a message of outright support for vigilante murder.
It is inherently difficult to quantify the number of Russian arms in this deluge of illegal arms, amidst a sketchy track record for maintaining control over foreign weapons for some countries in the region. This uncertainty aligns dangerously with the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region.
Some have even raised concerns that groups such as Islamic State are receiving weapons trafficked through Southeast Asian hubs such as Thailand and Malaysia.
In 2017, the Malaysian Border Security Agency director-general even went on the record to admit:
It’s not easy to detect a person attempting to sneak in weapons.
In any case, the rise and rise of Russia as a regional arms giant is of significant consequence to the entire Asia-Pacific.
The Kremlin’s export drive in South and Southeast Asia represents an ongoing expansion of Russian influence. As regional tensions around the South China Sea continue to build, we should well expect more states to join the queue in buying Russian weapons.
Each arms deal helps solidify ties between Moscow and its customers. Leveraging national arms production to build Russian “soft” power is fast becoming a strategic gold mine for the Kremlin.
Matt Bartlett is a New Zealand-based lawyer, with experience in emerging technology and data analytics. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute's blog The Interpreter. Read it here.