Among the countries scouring the Java Sea off Indonesia for the wreckage of the AirAsia Bhd. (AIRA) jetliner that crashed 10 days ago, one name stands out: Russia.
Russia sent two aircraft and 22 deep water divers on Jan. 2 at the request of the Indonesian government, Eduard Chiziykov, the head of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry operations group in Indonesia, told reporters today in Central Kalimantan. The Russian role in the search contrasts with its absence from the international effort to find Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 370, which disappeared in March.
Russia’s participation gives it the opportunity to join nations in showcasing their military capability to Southeast Asia at a time China, Japan and the U.S. are seeking to bolster their maritime influence in a region that is beset by competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
It also comes as President Vladimir Putin moves to smooth ties with nations including Indonesia after Russia was accused of supplying the missiles that shot down a Malaysian Airline plane over eastern Ukraine last July. There were 12 Indonesians among the 298 people on board.
“Russia suffered a huge blow, and this has been a big factor in the perceptions of Russia changing from strategic partner to adversary,” said Malcolm Davis, an assistant professor at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast. “There is a general mistrust of Russia and they are going to take a long time to recover from this.”
Indonesia today continued the hunt for the fuselage of the crashed jetliner along with the black box that may help explain what happened in the final minutes before the Airbus Group NV A320-200 plane disappeared off radar screens Dec. 28. So far 39 bodies of the 162 people on board Flight 8501 have been recovered as bad weather continues to hinder the search.
The Russian contingent takes the total to more than 5,000 people, 20 planes, 60 ships, 40 ambulances and 95 divers assisting in the search from countries including the U.S., China, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Russia’s Emergencies Ministry offered to provide equipment and send specialists for the search-and-rescue operations on Dec. 29, according to a statement on its website, which showed pictures of rescuers arriving in Jakarta and gave no other information.
“For the Russians, I think it is a very good opportunity to showcase some of their capabilities,” said Collin Koh, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The help will also “build some goodwill with Indonesia so they will become another selling point when it comes to arms negotiations.”
Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has said he aims to increase the defense budget to 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. Military spending has increased over the past decade and reached 81.96 trillion rupiah ($6.8 billion) in 2013, or 0.9 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Russia’s equipment included a remotely-operated submerged vessel that weighs about 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) and can operate at a depth of as much as 300 meters (984 feet), Alexander Shilin, deputy chief of mission at Russia’s embassy to Indonesia, said at the air force base in Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan on Jan. 3. The vessel has a sonar device which should help detect sounds from the plane’s black box.
“We’re ready to stay here as much as we are needed to help our Indonesian friends,” Shilin said.
One Russian plane, a BE-200 amphibious aircraft, yesterday sighted 30 objects floating in the water that looked like plane parts and a victim of the crash, Chiziykov said.
The recovery efforts are focused near Pangkalan Bun, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) southeast of Singapore. The international team set 1,575 square nautical miles (5,400 square kilometers) as the most likely area to find the wreckage.
Shilin said Russia had also participated in fighting forest fires in Sumatra in 2009 and the rebuilding operations in Aceh province after the tsunami in December 2004.