Increasingly hurt by sanctions and frozen out by the West over its meddling in Ukraine, Syria and the recent US presidential election, Russia is seeking to pivot to Asia and establishing a beachhead in a decidedly warmer locale – Cambodia.
Following a meeting with ASEAN officials in Vientiane, Laos last week, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov arrived in Cambodia where he pledged Russian assistance in developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and the renovation of Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, according to Cambodia’s state media.
A spokesman from the Russian Embassy in Phnom Penh said the hospital’s renovation is still being considered, and that more proposals for cooperation will be drafted before the next Cambodia-Russia intergovernmental commission meeting in Moscow this summer.
Analysts, meanwhile, are touting the visit as part of Russia’s efforts to widen its sphere of influence in Asia as it loses its standing in the West.
“Rhetoric-wise, ASEAN has always been important to Russia,” said Anton Tsvetov, a Russia and Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow.
“However, after the Ukraine crisis there was an increase in the significance attached to all things Asia-Pacific. So paying attention to Southeast Asia became a foolproof way to highlight the global nature of Russia’s interests and at the same time present a diversified vision of an Asian strategy.”
During the last several years, both the United States and the European Union have increased sanctions against Russia over its support for separatist factions in eastern Ukraine. In light of Moscow’s relative isolation from the West, the country has moved to tighten its alliance with China, a strategic partner of Cambodia’s that has been less critical of Russian foreign policy.
According to Alexander Korolev, a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, China and Russia have developed a complementary relationship in their involvement with countries like Cambodia. This allows Russia to make a pivot to Asia that’s about more than just Beijing, while expanding its influence beyond the energy sector, Korolev said.
“I don’t think Russia is really offering anything new to the region. But Russia is interested in diversification and will try to pursue all types of projects, especially if it’s not energy projects because Russia wants to move beyond pipelines,” Korolev said. “In the context of Western sanctions and the pivot East, Cambodia is a segment of the broader program, the goal of which is to diversify economic links.”
But not everyone thinks Russia has completely abandoned energy projects. According to Nicholas Trickett, a Russia and Asia analyst in Washington, Moscow is aiming to use trade and agriculture partnerships to open access to Cambodia’s energy and mining sectors.
Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation, is already building two nuclear reactors in neighbouring Vietnam.
“[Russia and Cambodia] have suggested that a nuclear energy pact will be signed this summer, a big win for Russian diplomacy,” Trickett added.
What’s more, the relationship between Moscow and Phnom Penh allows both countries to undermine US influence in the region, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Cambodia has recently moved to distance itself from the US, cancelling joint military exercises, reviving the contentious issue of war-era debt and asking a US Navy unit delivering humanitarian aid to leave the country. This leaves extra room for Moscow, which doesn’t place the same demands on Cambodia’s human rights record, said Thayer.
Indeed, Russian and Cambodian approaches to human rights have proven similar in recent years, with both countries drawing criticism from observers and activists for what they see as restrictions on opposition groups and civil society. Cambodian security officials have also taken to railing against the threat of “colour revolutions”, the non-violent popular movements that toppled regimes in the former Soviet sphere.
“Russia has limited resources, it’s no longer the superpower, like the Soviet Union. But there is this new push to break out of the isolation from the sanctions, do anything to one up the United States, and there is an opening there in Cambodia,” he said.
According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry, this opening will only continue to widen.
“We have long-standing bilateral relations [with Russia],” Sounry said. “Recently, the two countries have pushed for more bilateral cooperation in many fields.”