[Analytics] The ties that bind Mahathir to Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) at a summit meeting in Singapore, November 2018. Photo: Twitter. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Malaysia and Russia’s friendly ties were on full display at last week’s Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, where Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad led a delegation aimed at spurring bilateral investment and defense links. Nile Bowie specially for the Asia Times.

Speaking at the forum’s key event, Mahathir said Russian efforts to develop its most sparsely populated region “may mean the opening of a new market for Malaysia” and that Malaysian investors would flock to Vladivostok if greater economic opportunities in the region beckon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has identified the development of his nation’s Far East as a priority in pursuit of deeper engagement with Asia-Pacific economies. Mahathir’s three-day visit follows recent high-level defense consultations, including sales pitches for Russian-made aircraft.

After locking horns with China in a bid to renegotiate costly infrastructure deals and snubbing US President Donald Trump’s trade war, Mahathir’s embrace of Russia signals his bid to diversify Malaysia’s big power diplomacy. Against the backdrop of an increasingly bitter Sino-US rivalry, the Kremlin is all too willing to oblige.

Moreover, a shared distrust of the Dutch-led criminal probe into the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has improbably brought the two countries into closer alignment, including through greater military and technical collaboration.

Russia is offering to increase significantly its purchase of palm oil from Malaysia in a defense offset deal involving a Russian buy-back of grounded Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) MiG-29N jets, 10 of which were acquired in a 1995 deal that involved a palm oil trade-off.

A 2003 barter deal similarly saw Malaysia acquire 18 Russia-made Sukhoi Su-30MKM jet fighters. Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu said in July that only four of the 28 Russian aircraft owned by Malaysia could actually take to the skies due to maintenance problems and a lack of spare parts.

Moscow is offering to equip the RMAF with two squadrons of new-generation stealth MiG-35 fighters in a procurement trade-off.

Victor Kladov, director of international cooperation and regional policy at Rostec State Corporation, was a prime mover in enhancing Russia-Malaysia defense relations during Mahathir’s previous 22-year tenure as prime minister. He was recently handpicked as Putin’s special emissary to build bilateral relations with Malaysia.

The top Russian procurement official was quoted in Malaysian media saying that a decision on Malaysia’s purchase of defense assets would be expected at the EEF. Mahathir, however, signaled that the country was in no rush to open its coffers. “These are very expensive toys,” the 94-year-old premier said when asked if he sought to purchase new Russian aircraft.

“Spending money on expensive fighter planes is not very productive for us. We’re not going to war with anyone, but of course we have to keep up the level of technology in our own defense forces,” Mahathir told Russian state news agency Sputnik last week, adding that he was still studying the Russian proposal offer to take back and replace Malaysia’s older MiG fighters.

Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS) in Malaysia, told Asia Times that the Malaysian Air Force’s experience with Russian combat aircraft has been checkered.

“They tend to have poor serviceability rates and are expensive to maintain. If there are any major announcements in defense procurement, it wouldn’t be at the recommendation of the armed forces,” he said. The logic behind Mahathir’s embrace of Moscow “isn’t immediately clear to many in the Malaysian foreign policy establishment,” he added.

“In economic terms, Russia hardly looms large. Its GDP is smaller than Italy’s, and its GDP per capita is only slightly higher than Malaysia’s. Russia’s political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia remains weak. Nevertheless, Russia is seen as a potential source of investment and technology,” said the analyst.

“There appears to be enough willingness at the leadership level to make at least some inroads on basic defense collaboration,” Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, told Asia Times. “Given past limitations, the key will be if the results match the ambition.

“There are concerns that political and economic considerations are being weighed far heavier than practical defense calculations. If there isn’t a proper balance struck, that does not bode well for Malaysia’s defense policy,” he added.

Apart from economics and security, the two sides are building political bonds. Both accuse the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 downing of MH17 of being biased and politicized against Moscow, a controversial position the Malaysian premier reiterated during his interview with Sputnik last week.

Mahathir told reporters he wanted the incident investigated by a “neutral body” comprised of international experts and claimed that findings by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) were “insufficient” to identify the party responsible for firing the missile that struck the ill-fated Malaysian aircraft as it flew over war-torn eastern Ukraine.

“I am not doubting [JIT’s] truthfulness. But there are certain things that they claim [that are] difficult for us to accept, particularly the identification of the people who actually fired the missile. That is very difficult for anybody to determine,” Mahathir said. He also insinuated that Russia was named responsible to allow victims’ families to file insurance claims.

Mahathir’s latest remarks come days after a Dutch foundation representing MH17 victims’ next-of-kin issued an open letter addressed to the Malaysian premier that called his stance “an incredible slap in the face of the relatives” and accused him of “causing confusion about the actual position of the Malaysian government.”

The Southeast Asian nation is part of the multinational JIT along with Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ukraine. Mahathir’s contrarian remarks on the issue have left observers speculating whether his stance constitutes his personal opinion or a policy revision given that Malaysia’s representative to the probe had publicly endorsed its findings.

Asia Times published a two-part investigative report on MH17 in July to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, which can be read here and here.

Marcel van den Berg, an information and communications technology consultant and author of a popular MH17 blog, believes Mahathir’s stance on the matter has “nothing to do with evidence” but is rather a consequence of the country being politically sidelined after the MH17 probe began without its participation.

“From the start of JIT there has very likely been a lack of trust between Ukraine and Malaysia. The reason why Malaysia became a full member only four months after [the downing of MH17] has never been made public. Ukraine likely did not trust Malaysia because its close relations to the Kremlin,” he told Asia Times.

“The way the black boxes were recovered might have also done harm to the relationship,” said van den Berg in reference to a covert operation undertaken in late July 2014 by a Malaysian team to secure the flight data recorders and bodies of victims in cooperation with separatist rebels in Donetsk and their then leader Alexander Borodai.

When the Netherlands and Australia announced last May that they would hold the Russian state legally responsible for the downing of MH17, Malaysian authorities were only notified of the politically sensitive move just prior to its announcement “to prevent leaking that intention to Russia,” said van den Berg. “It shows a lack of trust,” he added.

A Dutch-language report from RTL Nieuws published last June quoted a source directly involved in the state liability case who said Malaysia is viewed with suspicion in The Hague over its ties with Moscow. That secrecy has helped to validate Malaysian perceptions that Russia is being politically scapegoated by the probe, van den Berg believes.

“It could be Malaysia is not given all evidence to prevent leaks. It could be a reason for [Mahathir’s] statements,” he said. The report also cited Dutch concerns that Malaysia could be a Russian espionage target. Sources quoted in the story were unable to say whether Malaysians have tipped off Russians officials with regards to JIT’s agenda in the past.

During his recent interview with Sputnik, Mahathir claimed that Dutch authorities “were the ones who actually opened up the recordings and read the recordings” contained in MH17’s flight recorders. “We were not together with them when they were doing this,” said the premier, which van den Berg disputed.

“Malaysian experts did attend the session in the UK where the data of black boxes was downloaded and listened to. However, Mahathir states this was not the case, contrary to what is documented in the final report of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB),” he said, adding that Malaysia had not indicated any objection to the findings contained in the report.

“Malaysia should have trust in the Dutch prosecution and judges and wait until the evidence is presented in court. JIT is a neutral body. If Mahathir disagrees, he should present facts and not make statements on, for example, the black boxes, which are not true,” van den Berg believes.

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