Russia’s New Frontier in Southeast Asia: Vaccine Diplomacy

By Meghan Murphy

Russia over the past year has engaged in a vigorous campaign of public diplomacy across Southeast Asia. Russian officials have appeared everywhere the United States has been wary of going—attending a military parade hosted by the Myanmar junta, presenting Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen with a friendship medal, and sending its foreign minister on official visits to Laos and Indonesia. Throughout this campaign, Russia has promoted its Sputnik V vaccine in the region, first as part of modest Covid aid donations but increasingly as larger sales.

In the same vein as U.S. and Chinese vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia, Russia is leveraging its own vaccines to form a more visible presence and reclaim some relevancy in the region.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has had a reduced presence in Southeast Asia, its political connections paling in comparison to those of both the U.S. and Chinese superpowers as well as other prominent players like Japan, the European Union, and India. Polling from the 2020 ISEAS report revealed that even when China and the United States are removed from consideration, Russia is only ASEAN’s fifth most “preferred and trusted strategic partner,” with only Laos registering Russia as even mildly influential.

By its own admission, Russia has had limited economic engagement with the region. Writing in the Russian journal, International Affairs, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confessed that “Russia’s economic cooperation with the Association [ASEAN] had been for a long time mostly skin deep, and even today it fails to keep up with the pace of our political dialogue.” In 2019, while the United States and Japan’s bilateral trade with ASEAN amounted to $292 billion and $116 billion respectively, Russia-ASEAN trade was only to $18 billion.

One area where Russia leads the pack in Southeast Asia, however, is in the realm of arms sales as ASEAN’s largest provider of weapons. From 2010 to 2019, Russia accounted for 26 percent of arms sales by value in the region, while the United States nabbed 18 percent and China just 8 percent. Hard hit by bilateral U.S. economic sanctions, Moscow has exploited weaponry sales to augment Russia’s slow growing economy—arms exports in 2015 accounted for over 4 percent of Russia’s GDP. However, Russia mostly uses arms sales to secure influence and leverage in Southeast Asia, defying restrictions set by the United States and its international partners and boosting the power of Asian militaries. For example, Russia exports weapons to Myanmar despite the United Nations’ non-binding arms embargo on the country.

In many ways, the Russian approach to vaccine sales follows a similar logic of seeking both influence and profit. While Russia began its vaccine drive with a few smaller donations of Sputnik V—80,000 to the Philippines, 1,000 to Vietnam, and an unspecified number to Laos—negotiations quickly turned to the sale and production of the Russian vaccine. Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have all purchased or announced plans to purchase Sputnik V directly from the Russian government. Additionally, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have signed deals to produce the vaccine, despite Sputnik V lacking a full endorsement from the World Health Organization.

Russian vaccine diplomacy must be understood within the context of Moscow’s broader strategic aims in the region. First, Southeast Asia as a region is a high priority for Russian engagement—just as it is for the United States and China—due to its market potential, rapid economic growth, and strategic location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Vaccine deals allow Russia to promote the idea that it is an Asian power with an important role to play in regional issues like public health. In the past year, Moscow has repeatedly emphasized its vision for alignment with the Asia-Pacific. Foreign Minister Lavrov recently said that Russia’s relief aid and vaccine sales “contribute to the health and safety of the human beings” across the region and will “[restore] normal post-Covid life.” He further criticized that the West for what he described as its “license protection” of vaccines and unwillingness to share with poor nations.

Vaccines—like arms—is an area in which Russia can punch above its economic weight. Like Russian-made arms, the Sputnik V vaccine delivers acceptable quality at low cost. Sputnik V is cheaper than both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at $10 or less per dose, and results from peer-reviewed studies show it is safe and effective—despite initial suspicions about Sputnik’s clinical trials among some scientists. A paper released on August 25 indicates Sputnik V protects against hospitalization due to the Delta variant 81 percent of the time.

Russia has yet to show that it can leverage its version of vaccine diplomacy into achieving its goals of becoming a truly influential player in Southeast Asia. But Moscow’s efforts could be key to improving its standing and advancing its interests in a region where 7 out of 10 ASEAN countries continue to lag behind the world average vaccination rate.

Meghan Murphy is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.