Ties between Russia and Thailand appear to be heating up on the defense front following a meeting in Bangkok on January 16 between Russian defense officials and military leadership of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. According to reports, the meeting involved discussions of a potential government-to-government accord aimed at military-technical cooperation. The agreement outline in question would extend Thailand partnership status on a jointly run production and maintenance facility for the Mil Mi-17V-5 transport helicopter export variant.
The Royal Thai Army (RTA) has an outstanding requirement for up to 12 additional Mi-17V-5s to replace the service’s legacy fleet of aging Boeing CH-47D Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. By forging a military-technical cooperation deal involving a Mi-17V-5 facility on Thai soil, the RTA not only would be adding extra rotor-lift heft to its current inventory of six Mi-17V-5 platforms ordered in 2008 and delivered in April 2011, but would be gaining the additional advantage of a localized maintenance and repair facility.
For Russia, the stakes are both military and political: military in the sense that it may gain additional defense export orders and growing market strength in Southeast Asia while providing revenue for its defense industry back home; political in that arms sales themselves come with their own diplomatic attachment, improving ties with a buyer and bolstering Moscow’s influence in said nation’s capital.
The move by the Royal Thai Armed Forces to reach out to Russia comes nearly three years after the latest military coup in Thailand ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and replaced her with a ruling military junta. As a result of both the coup and the political fallout afterward, Thailand’s relations with its traditional ally, the United States, have become strained. The RTA is seeking to replace much of its American-legacy helicopter fleet, particularly its Vietnam War-era Bell UH-1H Iroquois (Huey) and Bell 212/412 twin-Huey utility helicopters.
Ordering from Russia not only provides the RTA with a quality platform in the form of the Mi-17V-5, but also sidesteps the tricky political terrain of arms sales decisions by Washington. By buying military hardware from Russia (or in other cases, China), it eliminates the worry over political strings – such as respect for democratic norms or adherence to human rights concerns – being attached to a prospective sale.
Furthermore, from the Russian perspective, an agreement forged with Thailand achieves two objectives: it brings Thailand closer to Russia as a trading and military partner, and in turn continues the recent trend of pulling Bangkok away from its formerly American-oriented regional security approach. From the Kremlin’s standpoint with its zero-sum approach to foreign policy, the prospective steps being negotiated are a win-win. Moscow is also no doubt well aware of China’s growing economic and military ties with Thailand.
The metaphorical one-two punch applied by Thailand’s strategic rivals through improved Thai relations no doubt does not sit well with Washington. For the past decade it has assiduously worked at forging a loose alliance of Southeast Asian nations alarmed by China’s vast claims and increasingly militarized maritime presence in the South China Sea.
However, at the same time, a finalized agreement is not yet in hand. So unless Moscow extends Thailand a credit line for arms purchases, the RTA may be inclined to move forward on any further Mi-17V-5 order in batch purchases across an elongated timeline rather than pursue an immediate 12-unit buy.
As for Washington-Bangkok relations, although on a cooler footing the past two years than normal, they have not been completely frozen. Thailand will continue to balance diplomatic and security outreach with other regional powers while hoping a change in U.S. administrations will provide a fresh reboot to the long-standing working relationship between the two countries.
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