Russia denies envoy’s meeting with PH military chief related to VFA repeal

MANILA, Philippines – The Russian Embassy on Tuesday, February 18, denied that an earlier meeting between Ambassador Igor Khovaev and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Felimon Santos Jr was related to the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US.

“We are just doing our work on the way to develop bilateral cooperation between our nations, including military cooperation. And the courtesy call by the Russian Ambassador on the AFP Chief F. Santos has nothing to do with the known recent event in US-Philippine cooperation,” the embassy said in an official statement released as a response to reporters’ questions about the meeting.

Khovaev met with Santos on Monday, February 17, at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

The AFP Public Affairs Office said Khovaev had requested an “introductory courtesy call” from Santos, who assumed leadership of the military on January 4.

Because the meeting took place less than a week since President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the repeal of the VFA, and because Duterte earlier spoke of military cooperation with Russia as a possible counterbalance to the US, reporters sought comment from the Russian Embassy on whether Russia was swooping in on the vacuum left by the looming drawdown of US military presence in the Philippines.

“Russia and the Philippines have their own, absolutely independent course in the bilateral cooperation in military and military-technical spheres. We have never been dependent on the third party,” the Russian Embassy said.

The Russian government and the AFP “are just implementing the agreements reached last year” between Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met in Russia in October 2019, the embassy added. Military cooperation was a key subject in the leaders’ bilateral meeting.

Early in his term, Duterte sought to broaden the Philippines’ erstwhile minimal relations with Russia, as he broached forging an “independent foreign policy” that appears to have largely meant distancing from the US, a traditional ally, and drawing closer to US rivals like Russia and China.

Now, Russia is looking to supply the Philippines with weapons and military assets such as helicopters and submarines. In October, Khovaev said the Philippines could buy “as much as they wanted” at “very competitive prices.”

Much of the AFP’s assets were acquired from the US – both brand new purchases and hand-me-downs – and more acquisitions are lined up. Among concerns raised in acquiring Russian assets was whether they would be compatible with those from the US.

However, the AFP has been acquiring ships, drones, and other assets from suppliers from other countries such as South Korea and Israel.

Duterte scrapped the VFA on February 11, weeks after his political ally Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa said his US visa had been revoked, apparently as a sanction for his having led the violent “war on drugs” during his term as Duterte’s first national police chief.

The VFA will remain in effect for 180 days, or 6 months, until it lapses. US Ambassador to the Philippines Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez earlier said the interim period is meant to give US troops time to pack up and prepare for their exit. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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