Monday, September 10, 2007

Russia, Indonesia Set $1 Billion Arms Deal, Moscow Seen Trying to Boost Clout in Asia

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 7, 2007; Page A14

MOSCOW, Sept. 6 -- During a one-day visit to Indonesia on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin witnessed the signing of a $1 billion arms deal that many analysts here see as part of a broader Russian effort to restore diplomatic and military clout in the Asia-Pacific region and make some money, as well.

Indonesia, which until 2005 was under a U.S. arms embargo because of human rights abuses, will purchase Russian tanks, military helicopters and submarines. Last month, Russia said it would sell six fighter jets to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as part of the deal.

"The deals signed in Indonesia are part of a Kremlin strategy to expand its influence in Asia and the Middle East," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Russia is trying to pursue a multipolar policy in the world and considers itself to be one of its poles."

But unlike the former Soviet Union, he added, today's Kremlin is willing to ship arms only "to those countries who can pay."

Russia is helping Indonesia do that by providing a $1 billion line of credit, repayable over 15 years. Weighed down with foreign debt in the 1990s, Russia now has the world's second-largest foreign currency reserves after China because of soaring prices for its vast stores of oil and natural gas.
"We agreed to develop our cooperation in energy, mining, aviation and the telecommunications sector," said Putin, who stopped in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Australia. "There's also a good perspective in defense and military."

For Indonesia, the country's defense minister said, the deal comes with none of the strings that encumber similar purchases from the United States and Western Europe.

"Requirements for purchasing arms from Western countries are complicated, with preconditions attached, such as human rights, accountability, not to mention licensing," Juwono Sudarsono told reporters in Jakarta. "In our past experience with Britain, we were not allowed to use Scorpion tanks in Aceh, even though we were facing armed separatists."

In 2005, a peace agreement between rebels and the government ended three decades of conflict in that province. Since the lifting of the U.S. embargo later that year, Indonesia has mostly obtained spare parts and technical support from the United States, once its primary arms supplier.

Sudarsono said Thursday that he was glad to be able to "reduce dependence on the United States."

Under Putin, Russia has become determined to project its military, diplomatic and energy power into the Pacific, an area it neglected after the fall of the Soviet Union. Besides the arms deal, Russian companies have signed billions of dollars worth of deals in the mining and energy sectors with Indonesian companies, Russian officials said.

This year, Putin signed a $200 billion, seven-year rearmament plan for Russia's military. The package includes money for the Pacific Fleet, a major Pacific submarine base and new land- and sea-based intercontinental missiles. Last month, Russia resumed global patrols by its long-range strategic bombers, sending two of them far across Pacific Ocean waters to the vicinity of Guam island, site of a major U.S. base.

On Thursday, Britain and Norway scrambled jets to trail Russian bombers conducting the new patrols. The Russian Defense Ministry described the flights by eight strategic bombers as a "routine exercise" and said that although the aircraft had encountered planes from NATO countries, there were "no incidents."

Last month, Russia conducted a joint military exercise with China, one of its major arms customers. And it has made or is negotiating other arms deals across Asia, including with India, Malaysia, Burma and Vietnam.

Some observers remain skeptical that Russia will become a major competitor of the United States and, increasingly, China for influence in the region.

"In my view, what is happening is that when certain rough edges appear in relations between the USA and such countries as Malaysia or Indonesia, Russia immediately makes an attempt to squeeze in and fill this gap," said Alexander Golts, a military analyst and journalist in Moscow. "Its policy is developing these kind of niches. But we can hardly talk about any serious influence."

After a meeting, Putin and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said they had discussed Iraq, North Korea and Iran, among other subjects, and they obliquely criticized the Bush administration's approach to global issues.

"The two presidents strongly believe that international and regional conflicts . . . should be settled by peaceful means," they said in a joint statement. "The use of force is admissible as the last resort and only in accordance with the United Nations charter."

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