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Despite its “pivot to the East,” Moscow had long been unable to formulate a regional security policy that would appeal to its Asian partners and explain why Russia should be more involved in the region. Nothing reflected this more clearly than the speeches Russian officials delivered at the Singapore Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asian counterpart to the Munich Security Conference.
Russia is represented at this high-profile forum by Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, whose speeches in the last two years have elicited at best confusion and at worst cutting ridicule. In his 2014 address, which came soon after the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, Antonov said that the biggest threat that the Asia-Pacific region faces comes from Western-sponsored color revolutions and the resurgence of Nazism in Eastern Europe.
In 2015, a few months after the war in eastern Ukraine broke out, the deputy defense minister focused on Russia’s efforts to increase transparency in its military activity (though he couldn’t refrain from mentioning the “Ukrainian nationalists”). In the serious level of conversation at the Singapore forum, which is dominated by discussions about territorial disputes, United States-China rivalry, and regional crises, all these references to Russia’s domestic policy sounded out of place and simply convinced those present that Russia either had a poor understanding of the situation in the region, or was turning into China’s subservient sidekick.
In this context, Russia’s latest address at the Singapore Forum can be considered a breakthrough. While this year’s conversation still revolved around the South China Sea and United States-China relations, putting the spotlight on U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and top Chinese representative Admiral Sun Jianguo, the subject of international terrorism, especially the potential radicalization of Muslims in South and Southeast Asia, unexpectedly became another important subject at the forum.
The defense ministers of the region’s two largest Muslim countries—Indonesia and Malaysia—spoke on this subject at length. Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen was most vocal, recognizing the fact that fundamentalists with Syrian combat experience are active in the region. Even prosperous and ostensibly stable Singapore has seen an increase in radicalism among migrant workers from neighboring countries. The Singaporean press is filled with reports on the dangers of terrorism and instructions on what to do in the event of an explosion or hostage-taking.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s decision to focus on counterterrorism therefore fell on fertile ground this year. It’s not entirely clear whether the Russian officials consciously chose to pursue a different approach, or whether they were still guided by Russia’s domestic agenda, where the Ukraine crisis has given way to the Syrian conflict. Whatever the thinking, the change in topic was very effective.
Antonov focused on international terrorism as a threat to global and regional stability in his speech at the forum’s final plenary session. He related the details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria and said his country was prepared to share its combat experience with states in the region. He was also less confrontational toward the United States. While criticizing Washington for trying to distinguish between “good and bad terrorists” and for refusing closer cooperation with Russia on Syria, Antonov concluded that numerous issues of common interest make cooperation between the two countries inevitable.
The initial text of Antonov’s speech contained Russia’s official position on disputes in the South China Sea, according to which Russia doesn’t take sides in territorial disputes and supports their resolution on a bilateral basis without international involvement. The deputy defense minister refrained from reading this passage, possibly to placate his ASEAN partners. However, his failure to articulate Moscow’s position on the region’s most pressing security issue did not detract from the effectiveness of the speech.
In fact, everything seemed to go Russia’s way that day. Antonov spoke alongside the Singaporean and Canadian defense ministers. The speech after Antonov’s, given by the Singaporean official, one of the region’s preeminent experts on security in the Asia-Pacific, backed up the arguments of his Russian colleague in every respect. In the absence of a Chinese representative, who would usually face most of the questions, Antonov was left to field the majority of the audience queries and did so very well.
He spoke and answered questions in excellent English, turning the session into an interactive discussion. A few of his jokes made the audience laugh. (In contrast, Admiral Sun spoke Chinese, making it difficult for the audience to interact with him.) Antonov demonstrated his in-depth expertise on North Korea’s nuclear program and U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in the Asia-Pacific. Before switching to the defense sector, he worked for the Foreign Ministry, where he played an important role in Russia-United States negotiations on missile defense and the New START Treaty.
On the whole, the forum delegates saw the Russian address in a positive light. Many of them wanted to know the specifics of how Russia tracks militants who return home from Syria. Some other questions related to the exchange of intelligence data with Middle Eastern countries. Even some American participants who stayed for the final session admitted that “the Russians looked a lot better than usual.”
The subject of counterterrorism and an energetic PR campaign that highlights the Syrian operation being conducted by Russian Aerospace Forces isn’t just a rhetorical tool that will allow Russia to become a player with its own reasonable agenda in the Asia-Pacific region. It could also help to promote Russian military technologies among ASEAN countries. In light of the fact that Indonesia and Malaysia are particularly interested in Russian SU airplanes and other weapons, all of Russia’s activities at the Singapore forum seem—for the first time—coordinated and focused on a pragmatic agenda.
For instance, on June 4—the day before his speech—Antonov hosted a reception for the military delegations of ASEAN and its dialogue partners aboard the Varyag cruiser, the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, which just happened to be paying a friendly visit to Singapore, giving the guests an opportunity to take a look at the ship and its weaponry.
For Russia to take advantage of this modest success and expand upon it, in addition to arms deals Moscow will have to clearly articulate its proposals on counterterrorist cooperation, offer Southeast Asians the relevant aspects of its expertise, and consistently promote this agenda at a variety of forums. That would naturally include the East Asia Summits, the region’s main security forum that is attended by heads of state—though the Russian president has yet to attend
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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