Russian navy woos Duterte

The destroyer, Admiral Tributs (552), in Vladivostok in 1992. Source: Wikimedia

The Philippines is planning naval exercises with Russia, which has deployed two huge vessels for a goodwill visit to Manila as the Kremlin moves to deepen defence ties with a Philippine president who is increasingly hostile to Washington. 

Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov, deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, led the visit which showcased what Moscow had to offer.

Compared with China, the US and Japan, Moscow’s strategic and maritime interests in the South China Sea are limited. The regional needs of the Russian navy have largely been met by Vietnam, which is seeking to offset China’s rising maritime dominance.

“You can choose … to cooperate with United States of America or to cooperate with Russia,” Mikhailov told the media in Manila. “But from our side we can help you in every way that you need.”

“We are sure that in the future we’ll have exercises with you. Maybe, just manoeuvring or maybe use of combat systems and so on,” the naval chief said.

Closer relations with Manila serve as a buffer against China’s regional dominance and a way to potentially divide US and President Rodrigo Duterte, undermining Washington’s interests in the region.

An anti-submarine ship, Admiral Tributs, and sea tanker Boris Butoma have impressive combat features and Filipinos will be allowed to inspect the vessels and see demonstrations of their capabilities.

The under-funded Philippine armed forces have struggled to deal with attacks by Abu Sayyaf militants and other Islamists in the south of the archipelago. Kidnappings in the Sulu Sea remain a major regional threat.

Russia could bolster the military through future combat exercises, Mikhailov said. “We have an experience in fighting these [security threats],” the admiral said. “We will share to you our knowledge on these problems, how to solve piracy and terrorism.”

A Russian delegation visited Manila in August and began drafting a proposed defence cooperation deal that could be signed during Duterte’s planned visit to Russia in April.

It is the third visit by Russian naval vessels to the Philippines, which was always firmly in the US sphere of influence during the Cold War.

After visiting Moscow in December, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was considering buying Russian sniper rifles.

Duterte says he wants to reduce US military deployments and scale down joint drills.