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Warmer ties with Russia unlikely, even as geopolitical ground continues to shift

Malaysia's trade volume with Russia is nominal while its geopolitical interests differ from those of other Asean member states.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
Sukhoi jets from Russia soar through the sky as part of an honour guard during the recent Merdeka celebrations at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur.
Sukhoi jets from Russia soar through the sky as part of an honour guard during the recent Merdeka celebrations at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur.

While a number of countries in Southeast Asia have shown signs of fostering closer relationships with Russia as the geopolitical ground shifts in response to its invasion of Ukraine, it remains to be seen if Malaysia will follow suit.

And according to at least one expert, such a scenario would be unlikely, given Malaysia's own geopolitical interests which vary from those of Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand – all of which recently inched closer to Russia.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Thomas Daniel of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis) said Vietnam and Myanmar, for example, depend heavily on Russia for its armament and military assets. 

"Russia is the major weapons supplier in both countries. The West might exempt sanctions on Vietnam so that the country can continue to buy or upgrade its military assets from Russia. 

"Vietnam is a big factor in the geopolitical contest in the South China Sea. They can't alienate Vietnam," he said. 

Vietnam's military firepower has largely comprised Russian assets since the Vietnam War. 

The country has six Russian-made kilo-class submarines, 80 Sukhoi fighter jets as well Russian-made artillery. 

In Myanmar, meanwhile, Moscow remains one of its few allies as it steps up its crackdown on activists in the country. 

For the most part, Asean countries were reluctant to follow the Western-led call for the condemnation of Russia leader Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Singapore was the only state that condemned the invasion and imposed sanctions against Russia. 

Malaysia, meanwhile, voted in favour of the United Nations' resolution to condemn the invasion but held back from imposing similar sanctions. 

Thomas said while Malaysia had purchased some Russian military hardware, the amounts were not as significant as those bought by Vietnam or Myanmar. 

It previously purchased 18 MIG-29N and 18 Sukhoi SU-30MKM, the latter of which forms the backbone of its air force combat fleet. 

Trade volume with Russia, too, was "negligible", Thomas said – 0.33% of total exports and 0.5% of total imports. 

"The other thing is, Malaysian companies trade a lot in the international market and they are very sensitive towards sanctions. 

"Most of these companies are not trading with Russia," he said. 

Thailand, on the other hand, depends on tourism as the main driver of its economy and had expected some one million tourists from Russia following the resumption of direct flights to popular tourist destinations in the kingdom.  

These flights were halted after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a recent survey, Malaysia was the only country that had a favourable view of Putin, with a 58% score on the favourable percentile.

However, Oh Ei Sun from Singapore's Institute of International Affairs said whether Malaysia would move to form better ties with Russia depended on the degree of economic interaction between the two countries. 

"Malaysia is a country highly dependent on foreign trade and investment. If our economic woes worsen and traditional Western investors are unable or unwilling to invest more, or to grant us further tariff-free or low-tariff market access, and Russia is willing to do so to the same previous degree of its Western counterparts, then our re-orientation to Russia is possible. 

"The ball is in Russia’s court," he said.

One example of such an event occurred earlier this year, when a sanctioned Russia-flagged ship was denied entry to the Kuala Linggi port in March. 

On the defence front, meanwhile, Thomas said Malaysia was unlikely to continue purchasing equipment from Russia despite the latter's offer to replace the mothballed MIG fighters with newer jets. 

"It might be a problem for Malaysia to upgrade or buy more Russian assets. The existing Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) has already put a pause for Malaysia in considering more Russian aircraft," he said.

He added that Malaysia would not be able to get an exemption from US sanctions, unlike India or Vietnam. 

CAATSA was reportedly one of the reasons Indonesia ditched its purchase of new Russian jets, opting instead for French and American fighters last year.