Is Russia is seeking to gain a foothold in the South Pacific region? Writing from Australia, Ewen Levick discusses the various indicators and assesses the implications for the region.
The roaring sound of fighter jets scrambling from the nearby RAF base is nothing new for the residents of Lossiemouth in northern Scotland. It has almost become routine as Russian planes repeatedly test NATO air defences across Europe. The most recent incident, on 15 January, saw RAF jets intercept two Russian long-range bombers fifty kilometres off Scotland’s coast.
It is less common, however, for residents of Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, to hear the same sound. The local airbase went on heightened alert back in December to trace two Russian bombers flying over the Timor Sea. The bombers had taken off from Indonesia’s Biak airfield, which is on an island located just north of New Guinea. What were Russian bombers doing near Darwin, over a thousand kilometres south of the equator?
Russia has two tactical reasons for sending bombers so far south. First, like the bombers flying near Scotland, the Russian flypast of Australia’s north coast forms one part of an extensive effort to test the response times of the US and its allies. One Russia-aligned blog describes the way US and allied air defences ‘light up like a Christmas tree’ whenever Russian bombers are nearby. Aside from numerous incidents across Europe, Russian planes were spotted off California in 2013, and Guam in 2014, suggesting that Moscow is testing response times across the Pacific. Second, the Russian flights from Indonesia may have been gathering intelligence on the growing American military presence in Australia’s Northern Territory, which includes a task force of Marines.
The Russian flights from Indonesia may have been gathering intelligence on the growing American military presence in Australia’s Northern Territory, which includes a task force of Marines.
Russia also has a broader strategic reason for sending bombers to the South Pacific. There is speculation that the Kremlin is seeking a military base in the region. This speculation emerged after Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Fiji in 2012. One year later, Fijian Prime Minister Vorege Bainimarama undertook a state visit to Moscow. Relations continued to develop, and in 2016, a cargo ship quietly arrived in the Fijian capital of Suva carrying twenty containers of Russian military equipment, including small arms and possibly a helicopter. The Kremlin has invited Fijian military officers to train in Russia.
These moves have strengthened Russo-Fijian military relations at a time in which post-coup Fiji is moving away from its traditional ties with Australia and New Zealand after the imposition of sanctions (now lifted). One analyst has highlighted the possibility that Fiji might eventually grant forward basing rights to the Russian Navy.
It is possible that Russia’s interest in acquiring a South Pacific base similarly motivated December’s deployment of strategic bombers to Indonesia. According to one Russian air force officer, the purpose of the mission was to “train pilots in navigating the Southern Hemisphere”, and “confirm the support logistics of Biak airfield”. Although this was a prepared statement for the media, it does suggest that the Kremlin sees potential for a long-term military presence there. In this context, it is interesting to note that Biak airfield is located directly between American bases in Australia and Guam, placing both within range of Russian bombers on the island.
Moscow’s purported quest for a southern base comes during a time of expansion for its military presence in the Pacific. The Russian Pacific Fleet is due to receive ten new warships this year. However, the fleet is based in Vladivostok, in eastern Siberia – far from strategic maritime chokepoints such as the straits of Malacca, near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Similarly, Russia’s Pacific air assets are based in the Amur region, which is even further north than Vladivostok. This distance makes it difficult for Moscow to project its growing military power into the Pacific. Russian ships enjoy preferential access to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, but that is the extent of Russia’s foreign basing rights in the region.
Moscow’s purported quest for a southern base comes during a time of expansion for its military presence in the Pacific.
Sending bombers to Biak airfield may have been intended to mask this relative weakness. The planes made the flight directly from Siberia, refuelling in mid-air, and were accompanied by a number of Russian troops. Another demonstration of Russia’s regional presence came a week before the bombers’ flight, when two Russian warships conducted an unofficial visit to Indonesia for joint drills. These deployments are demonstrating Moscow’s reach and are also building face-to-face ties that may help facilitate future negotiations on acquiring naval basing rights or permanent access to an airfield.
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC INFLUENCE
The presence of the Russian military in Indonesia only tells some of the story. Russia has also been quietly increasing its political and economic influence in the country. In 2013, a man named Oleg Deripaska made a number of visits to Jakarta. He met with the Yudhoyono government and told them that his aluminium company, Rusal, would invest in a multi-billion-dollar smelter on the condition that Indonesia ban exports of bauxite (aluminium ore) and nickel ore. The Indonesian government agreed and the global price of aluminium and nickel increased, along with the share market values of Rusal. American miners in Indonesia were subsequently forced to halt shipments and cut output as a result of an increased export tax brought in under the new rules.
Oleg Deripaska has a very close relationship to Vladimir Putin: an American diplomatic cable once described him as ‘one of the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis’. Although Deripaska had a clear financial interest in the export ban, his extensive links to Putin make it possible that he was also acting on behalf of the Kremlin. In an interesting twist, Deripaska has donated up to $60 million to companies owned by Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.
Russia has also become Indonesia’s largest military supplier. The Indonesian Air Force already operates sixteen Russian fighters and is shortly expected to sign an order for eleven more, although the order has been delayed by budget difficulties. Whilst Jakarta is also purchasing equipment from the US and South Korea, the Russian deal comes off the back of meetings held in 2016 between the current Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Putin, as well as the two countries’ foreign ministers, in which they signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ to exchange intelligence data, and establish joint industrial facilities in Indonesia. Moscow is not alone in selling arms to Jakarta, but Russia and Indonesia certainly enjoy a warm economic and military relationship.
In addition to growing relations with Fiji and most recently Indonesia, Moscow has made large aid donations to Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Vanuatu in exchange for diplomatic recognition of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia seized from Georgia during the war in 2008. Russia has also organised meetings in recent years with senior representatives of Vanuatu, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau.
What started with the flight of two Russian bombers over the azure waters of the Timor Sea ends with a web of Russian military, political, and economic influence in the South Pacific.
What started with the flight of two Russian bombers over the azure waters of the Timor Sea ends with a web of Russian military, political, and economic influence in the South Pacific. Moscow’s influence in the region remains limited at this point – the Russian bombers were only in Indonesia for five days, and the extent of Russian political influence in Jakarta is likely tied to the economic value of arms deals and mineral projects. Similarly, the meetings with Pacific island nations took place on the sidelines of major summits – this is not diplomatically unusual.
Nevertheless, there is a clear pattern of evidence showing that Russia is stepping up its activity in the South Pacific. The details of what Russia gained from the 2016 arms shipment to Fiji remain murky. It is also unclear whether the visit to Biak airfield is the first of many. Russia’s ability to coerce Indonesia into banning the export of valuable minerals suggests that it may have the influence required to gain forward basing rights for the Pacific Fleet, or further access to Indonesian airfields for its strategic bombers.
The residents of Darwin, like those of Lossiemouth, may soon become used to the sound of scrambling jets.
Ewen Levick has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He is a writer and analyst. His main research interests are in international security and national strategy. He previously served in the Australian Army. Contact Ewen at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature image: An F-15 Eagle from the 12th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, flies next to a Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber on 28 September 2016 during a Russian exercise near the west coast of Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo). [Licensed under Pd-USGov]