Thai junta looks to Russia to fill arms needs

Thailand’s military is increasingly looking beyond the US. Source: Wikimedia

Bangkok is pursuing closer ties and possible arms deals with Moscow as ties with Washington have cooled.

Two Thai deputy prime ministers are due to travel to Russia following a recent visit to Bangkok by the influential head of the Kremlin’s security council, Nikolai Patrushev.

Wide-ranging talks are planned on trade and security cooperation, as Moscow seeks to pivot east and develop its position as an Asian power.

More attention has been focused on Bangkok’s warming ties with China, including deals to develop a high-speed rail link through Laos to the Chinese mainland. There is also talk of the possible purchase of US$1 billion worth of Chinese submarines.

But in the last 18 months, the junta’s Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has met Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev three times. Prayuth will visit Russia in May for a summit between Russia and Asean, mirroring the one held recently with the US in Sunnylands, California.

Defence appears to be the main aim of the generals’ Russian romance.

Thailand provided countless billets and runways for US forces during the Vietnam War and the Pentagon still enjoys access to Thai airfields and ports. But for a second year in a row, the US has reduced regional military exercises, known as “Cobra Gold”, which Thailand hosted this month.

According to the Thai media, the junta is looking to buy around 50 Russian T90 main battle tanks to replace its aging US armour.

Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said no decision had been made on the tanks but US barriers on the arms it was prepared to sell the junta meant the Thais were forced to look elsewhere for around 50 tanks.

“The US won’t sell weaponry to us, and as of late we’ve been on a tight budget and can’t afford them,” Prawit said. A 2011 deal for 49 Ukrainian tanks fell through after only 10 were delivered, the deputy prime minister added.

“It’s not that we’ve decided to be on good terms with China and Russia and not with the US. We’re equally good to all of them,” Prawit said.

The junta is also on the market for more Russian Mil Mi-17V5 transport helicopters in addition to the six aircraft Thailand had already acquired, according to a Russian defence source.

The manufacturer, Russian Helicopters, has increased regional sales and industrial collaboration with partners in India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Bangladesh.

More than 900 civil and military helicopters produced in Russia were operating in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the company’s deputy general director Alexander Shcherbinin.

“This is the reliable operational base for developing regional support centres,” he said.

The Russian trade minister said Moscow was prepared to barter over US$160 million worth of arms in exchange for 80,000 tonnes of Thai rubber. It was the first time the Thai armed forces chose a Russian aircraft over US models.

The Mi-17V-5 can be used to deploy troops and transport arms, patrol and search and rescue missions.