Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kingdom a warm respite for Russia

Kingdom a warm respite for Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre) shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting on the sidelines of the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi in May last year. AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre) shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting on the sidelines of the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi in May last year. AFP

Kingdom a warm respite for Russia

Increasingly hurt by sanctions and frozen out by the West over its meddling in Ukraine, Syria and the recent US presidential election, Russia is seeking to pivot to Asia and establishing a beachhead in a decidedly warmer locale – Cambodia.

Following a meeting with ASEAN officials in Vientiane, Laos last week, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov arrived in Cambodia where he pledged Russian assistance in developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and the renovation of Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, according to Cambodia’s state media.

A spokesman from the Russian Embassy in Phnom Penh said the hospital’s renovation is still being considered, and that more proposals for cooperation will be drafted before the next Cambodia-Russia intergovernmental commission meeting in Moscow this summer.

Analysts, meanwhile, are touting the visit as part of Russia’s efforts to widen its sphere of influence in Asia as it loses its standing in the West.

“Rhetoric-wise, ASEAN has always been important to Russia,” said Anton Tsvetov, a Russia and Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow.

“However, after the Ukraine crisis there was an increase in the significance attached to all things Asia-Pacific. So paying attention to Southeast Asia became a foolproof way to highlight the global nature of Russia’s interests and at the same time present a diversified vision of an Asian strategy.”

During the last several years, both the United States and the European Union have increased sanctions against Russia over its support for separatist factions in eastern Ukraine. In light of Moscow’s relative isolation from the West, the country has moved to tighten its alliance with China, a strategic partner of Cambodia’s that has been less critical of Russian foreign policy.

According to Alexander Korolev, a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, China and Russia have developed a complementary relationship in their involvement with countries like Cambodia. This allows Russia to make a pivot to Asia that’s about more than just Beijing, while expanding its influence beyond the energy sector, Korolev said.

“I don’t think Russia is really offering anything new to the region. But Russia is interested in diversification and will try to pursue all types of projects, especially if it’s not energy projects because Russia wants to move beyond pipelines,” Korolev said. “In the context of Western sanctions and the pivot East, Cambodia is a segment of the broader program, the goal of which is to diversify economic links.”

But not everyone thinks Russia has completely abandoned energy projects. According to Nicholas Trickett, a Russia and Asia analyst in Washington, Moscow is aiming to use trade and agriculture partnerships to open access to Cambodia’s energy and mining sectors.

Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation, is already building two nuclear reactors in neighbouring Vietnam.

“[Russia and Cambodia] have suggested that a nuclear energy pact will be signed this summer, a big win for Russian diplomacy,” Trickett added.

What’s more, the relationship between Moscow and Phnom Penh allows both countries to undermine US influence in the region, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Cambodia has recently moved to distance itself from the US, cancelling joint military exercises, reviving the contentious issue of war-era debt and asking a US Navy unit delivering humanitarian aid to leave the country. This leaves extra room for Moscow, which doesn’t place the same demands on Cambodia’s human rights record, said Thayer.

Indeed, Russian and Cambodian approaches to human rights have proven similar in recent years, with both countries drawing criticism from observers and activists for what they see as restrictions on opposition groups and civil society. Cambodian security officials have also taken to railing against the threat of “colour revolutions”, the non-violent popular movements that toppled regimes in the former Soviet sphere.

“Russia has limited resources, it’s no longer the superpower, like the Soviet Union. But there is this new push to break out of the isolation from the sanctions, do anything to one up the United States, and there is an opening there in Cambodia,” he said.

According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry, this opening will only continue to widen.

“We have long-standing bilateral relations [with Russia],” Sounry said. “Recently, the two countries have pushed for more bilateral cooperation in many fields.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • 11th Chaktomuk Short Film Festival draws to close

    Cambodia's 11th Chaktomuk Short Film Festival wrapped up successfully on November 28 after a four-day run, with the film “Voice of the Night” awarded top prize for 2022. Sum Sithen, the organiser of the short film festival, told The Post that the number of attendees to the