On Tuesday, in a surprising move confirming the ongoing pivot by the Philippines away from the US sphere of geopolitical influence, and toward the China-Russia axis, the Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs and sea tanker Boris Butomato unexpectedly arrived in the Philippines to conduct military training exercises in what the Russian media described as "an unprecedented navy-to-navy contact between the two nations."
Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs has docked at the Manila South Harbor
The warships arrived in the region on Tuesday as Russian Navy Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov proclaimed a joint mission between Manila and Moscow to target the region’s two most pressing security concerns, maritime piracy and terrorism. The Rear Admiral said that "we’re very sure in the future" Russia and the Philippines will "get such exercises, maybe just the maneuvering." Alternatively, "maybe just use some combat systems and so on," he noted, so as not to tip Russia’s hand concerning its regional naval strategy.
A spokesman for the Philippine Navy told reporters this is the first official interaction with the Russian navy, an arch rival of its former colonial master and closest ally in the region, the United States. Mikhailov said they were willing to help train Philippine counterparts to fight piracy and terrorism and they hope to foster stronger security in the region.
Fast forward to today when Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said that he hoped Moscow, the Obama administration's sworn uber-hacking rival, would become his country's ally and protector as he toured one of the two Russian warships on a four-day visit to Manila. Duterte's remarks came a day after Russia's ambassador said his country was ready to supply the Philippines with sophisticated weapons and aims to become its close friend.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alights from the Russian Navy vessel Admiral
Tributs, a large anti-submarine ship, after his tour in metro Manila, Philippines
"We welcome our Russian friends. Anytime you want to dock here for anything, for play, for replenish supplies or maybe our ally to protect us," said Duterte while shaking the hands of Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov, head of the Flotilla of the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet. Rear Adm. Eduard Mikhailov and Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev, escorted Duterte and several cabinet members around the anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs. At one point the Philippine leader looked out from the ship's deck and pumped his fist in the air. After signing a guest book, he said "Friends, long live!" He added: "That's from the heart; I hope you can come back more often."
As NBC News adds, as a gesture of good will, Filipinos were allowed to tour the huge ships and Russian marines demonstrated their combat capabilities. Tobacco and beer magnate Lucio Tan, the 4th richest Filipino according to Forbes magazine, was among civilians who toured the ship. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who accompanied Duterte on the ship tour, expressed optimism about "the start of a partnership" between the two countries' defense establishments when he met with Russian navy officials Thursday night.
"May our common aspirations for regional and global peace and security enable us to become good partners, cooperating and coordinating towards tranquil and safe seas for all," Lorenzana said on board the Admiral Tributs.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (3rd L) talks to Russia's Rear Admiral Eduard
Mikhailov (4th R) at the anti-submarine navy ship Admiral Tributs
He said during his trip to Russia in early December, he agreed with Russian defense officials to finalize a memorandum of understanding that will be the basis of future military engagements, including joint military exercises. It is expected to be signed during Duterte's planned trip to Russia in April.
The visit by the Russian navy ships is the third to the Philippines and the first under Duterte, who while pivoting toward Russia and China, has repeatedly lashed out at outgoing President Barack Obama and his administration for criticizing Duterte's deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.
Duterte is due to go to Moscow in April. The visit by the Russian warships was the first official navy-to-navy contact between the two countries. Last month, Duterte sent his foreign and defense ministers to Moscow to discuss arms deals after a U.S. senator said he would block the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines due to concern about a rising death toll in a war on drugs launched by Duterte.
In contrast, he has reached out to China and Russia - whose leaders he has met recently - in a dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy that has put Washington in a dilemma.
The Philippines has depended heavily on the U.S., its treaty ally, for weapons, ships and aircraft for years, although it has turned to other countries for defense equipment. Russia and China have been delighted to fill the void.