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, on Tuesday the Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs and sea tanker Boris Butomato 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."
According to Reuters, Russia wants to hold maritime drills with the Philippines to help combat terrorism and piracy, sending two warships to Manila for the first official navy-to-navy contact, as President Rodrigo Duterte pivots to United States' traditional rivals. Admiral Tributs, an anti-submarine vessel, and a sea tanker Boris Butoma, arrived late on Tuesday for a four-day goodwill visit, with its crew expected to demonstrate anti-terrorism capability and hold talks, said Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov, head of the Flotilla of the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet.
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.
"We will show you what we can do, and we will see what you can do, and show us," he said, adding that the Russian Navy has carried out exercises with the Indonesian navy.
"The biggest problem now in the world is terrorism and piracy, and all our exercises we have, for example, with you we will have to fight these problems and we will show you what we can do and we will see what you can do and show us," he added as the Russian navy showcased the warships.
In recent months, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signaled a drastic shift from long-standing ties with the US as Manila seeks to bolster relations with traditional US rivals China and Russia. Duterte instructed the nation’s defense ministry to "reformat" drills with Washington, even though the Philippines was once a US territory and the two countries formally agreed to a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951.
Mikhailov indicated, however, that East Asian players, including China and “maybe” Malaysia could also coordinate with Russian-Philippine training exercises "in a few years." Maintaining the involvement of these regional partners is crucial for ensuring the stability of the South China Sea, where competing territorial claims continue to fuel geopolitical tensions.
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.
Washington and the Philippines have been holding naval exercises annually but Duterte has instructed the defense ministry to "reformat" drills with Washington, moving away from the South China Sea to repair relations with China.
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.
The Philippines has been struggling to prevent Islamist militants from abducting crew of slow-moving tugboat and foreigners sailing on yachts in the southern maritime borders with Indonesia and Malaysia.
In another diplomatic overture with Russia, last month, Duterte sent his foreign and defense ministers to Moscow to explore arms deal after a U.S. senator said he will block the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines due to concerns with the rising death toll in a war on drugs.