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Thailand-Russia relations remain strong, but at what cost?

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
October 21, 2023

Thai PM Srettha Thavisin met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing this past week. The motives behind the warm encounter appear to be economical. But at what cost to Thailand's reputation?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin shake hands during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse
The West has taken a dim view of those that maintain relations with Russian President Vladimir PutinImage: Grigory Sysoyev/dpa/picture alliance

Despite the West's best efforts to isolate Russia on the international stage following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow still enjoys warm relations with countries in Asia — Thailand being among them.

This past week, at the Belt and Road summit in Beijing, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin hailed Thailand and Russia's "long-standing close relationship" after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Srettha posted about his first meeting with Putin as Thai PM on X, formerly known as Twitter. Both discussed increasing trade and cultural ties, he said, and Putin accepted Srettha's invitation to visit Thailand next year.

Business at the heart of Srettha's motives

Experts say Srettha, who is a real estate tycoon, is just focusing on business.

"To boost the Thai economy to like 4%, and above, you need some foreign exchange. You need some customers. I think it's not like he's turned to Putin at the expense of the West. He wants to do both," Thitinan Pondsudhirak, a political analyst in Bangkok, told DW.

"While the social media backlash has taken the shine off his recent visit with Putin at the BRI Forum, Srettha cannot afford to be limited by optics only," said Mark S. Cogan, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai University, Japan.

"Thailand is still heavily tourism dependent, and while not as much so as it is on Chinese tourism, Russian attraction and investment in Thailand cannot be ignored," he said.

ICC arrest warrant for Putin

Thailand has continued doing business with the Russia despite Moscow facing Western sanctions and political isolation following its February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. Bangkok abstained from a UN vote to condemn Russia for its so-called annexation of four territories in Ukraine, too. Complicating matters further is the fact that Putin is also wanted by the International Criminal Court with The Hague having issued an arrest warrant in March of this year, "in the context of the situation in Ukraine."

An influx of Russians in Thailand

The Beijing meeting between the two leaders came right after Bangkok announced it would extend the length of time Russian tourists can stay in the kingdom. From November 1, Russian visitors will be allowed to stay in Thailand for 90 days — up from 30 — with the scheme effective on a temporary basis until April 30. Thailand hopes the move will boost its economy.

Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst based in Malaysia, says the decision "makes sense."

"Thailand hopes that by extending the welcome, more Russian tourists will spend more time exploring more of the country," he said.

Thailand has long been a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists. According to Thailand's Ministry of Sport and Tourism, nearly one million arrivals had already entered the Southeast Asian country by October 1. This means Russian tourists rank fifth among international visitors to enter the country this year. Authorities expect that number to grow to two million Russian visitors in 2024.

"It's not just the one million or more Russians that visit Phuket or other exotic destinations, but the real estate investments that in some ways stabilize tourism in Thailand by creating Russian enclaves in select neighborhoods, like Russian restaurants and other cultural familiarities," Cogan added.

As for trade, Russia is Thailand's 30th largest partner. Exports to Russia include vehicles, machinery, electronics, vegetables and fruit. Imports include oil, fertilizer and steel. Last year, Moscow pledged to increase bilateral trade with Thailand to $10 billion (€9.44 billion).

Status quo

Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, says Thai-Russian relations don't appear to be changing under Srettha Thavisin, compared with his predecessors.

"I don't just look at Prayut [Chan-o-Cha], but I also look at Thaksin [Shinawatra] as well, because you know, Pheu Thai is Thaksin's Party... he had good relations with Russia. Thavisin, perhaps, is not much different from Prayut when he was in power, because Thailand didn't make any comments on the Ukraine situation."

Srettha has been keen to boost Thailand's economy, one of the main campaign issues during the country's general election in May. But the Pheu Thai party's reputation took a hit from its supporters after forming a coalition that included pro-military parties in order to form a government.

"He only just thinks of economic policy and that is because that is the ticket that Pheu Thai is hoping to use to gain more popularity and change its reputation. If the economy is doing well, then they would have more opportunities to gain more seats in the next election," Titipol said.

'Populist policies'

To that end, Pheu Thai has also pledged to handout $10,000 Thai Baht (€259, $274) in digital money to every Thai citizen over 16-years of age. With a population of over 70 million, of which more than three-quarters fit into that age bracket, the move could prove costly.

"There is a big question about the source of money for their populist policies," Titipol said.

Thailand's former leader Thaksin Shinawatra returns from exile

Allowing for more Russian tourism and investment is one way of producing further income for Thailand. "By doing everything to show that they are also trying to generate more revenues for the government," Titipol said.

But with Russia's international reputation tarnished because of its war in Ukraine, Srettha cozying up to Putin may also come at a reputational cost, the political scientist added.

"I don't think this is good for Thailand's reputation as a supporter of democracy and human rights. And it will also destroy the reputation of his [Srettha's] government. He had a choice not to have that picture with Putin, but then it was his choice to actually show it. He doesn't really care about reputation and also indicated he doesn't quite understand geopolitics and how to actually balance and improve Thailand's reputation."

Edited by: John Silk

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco