Both European and Asian countries continue to grapple with the downing of MH17 over southeastern Ukraine. Attention thus far has focused on Europe, which suffered 211 dead (including 193 from the Netherlands alone). The leaders of Germany and France have already called for a halt to arms exports to Russia, in particular arguing that France should suspend the delivery of its Mistral-class amphibious assault ships.
In Asia, the situation is different, in large part because Russia is an arms exporter to the region rather than an importer. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and China all purchase substantial amounts of Russian military equipment.
But now 43 Malaysians and 12 Indonesians have died, apparently victims of a Russian-made SAM system operated by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Moscow’s precise culpability remains uncertain, with the extent of training and technology transfer as yet unknown. We don’t yet have a firm grip on how much this incident will damage Russia’s international position. We do know that diplomatic disagreements can lead to arms export problems; some have (perhaps incorrectly) attributed Brazil’s purchase of the Swedish Gripen to frustration with American spying efforts.
Malaysia is a significant customer of Russian hardware. Su-20MKM Flankers, and MiG-29 Fulcrums make up the bulk of its fighter fleet, along with F/A-18 Hornets. Malaysia also purchases air-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, and similar ordnance from Russia. Indonesia buys a broader array of equipment from Russia, including helicopters and anti-ship missiles. However, both Malaysia and Indonesia have displayed considerable willingness to purchase weapons from other partners, making their relationship with Russia strictly arms-length.
The survival of these relationships depends, to some extent, on how deftly Russia plays the diplomatic game over the next few weeks. Thus far, it doesn’t look too promising. Russia’s quandary is to maintain a stance of studied belligerence towards Ukraine and the United States, moderate indignation towards Europe, and civilized behavior to the rest of the world. The downing of the Malaysian airliner puts these into tension. Russia has proposed a frankly incomprehensible theory about how a Ukrainian Su-25 might have shot down the Malaysian jet.
On the upside, not many of Russia’s customers in Southeast Asia have particularly transparent procurement processes. It’s hard to see the road from public outrage to significant changes in procurement decisions in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. We should also note that customers have expressed other concerns about Russian equipment; reliability problems have recently come to light with Su-30 engines on Indian Flankers. Nevertheless, Russia’s support of irredentism can have costs, even on the other side of a continent.