In the wake of the military coup in Myanmar, Russia may have found an opening to further its military cooperation with the junta.
By Umair Jamal
Russia has emerged as the most prominent public supporter of Myanmar’s military junta in the wake of the country’s military coup.
Russia has not only vowed to further enhance its defense cooperation with Myanmar’s military but has also condemned the international community’s sanctions against the junta.
Moscow has decided to embrace the new military government despite the fact that the coup has resulted in the deaths of more than 550 people so far, nearly all killed by state security forces.
Analysts believe that both Russia and the Myanmar military are attempting to deepen cooperation in order make the most of the crisis by filling the void left by many other international players, particularly as the junta may be looking to balance China’s outsized influence in the country.
Russia eager to deepen ties with Myanmar’s military despite bloody coup
While the Myanmar military’s coup has been condemned globally, Russia has offered its diplomatic and military support to the Junta.
As the Myanmar military killed its citizens in the streets, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Alexander Fomin, attended the Myanmar military’s celebration of Armed Forces Day on March 27. General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief and coup maker, expressed “profound gratitude” for Moscow’s support at the parade. In his speech, Min Aung Hlaing also said that “the Russian government and responsible persons from the Russian armed forces are acknowledged and inscribed for their substantial support to the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] in a friendly manner, though we are far apart.”
A day before the parade, Fomin met the military chief and offered support for his regime. Calling Myanmar a strategic partner in the Asia Pacific region, Fomin said, “The Russian Federation adheres to a strategic line to intensify relations between the two countries.”
Fomin, who received a medal and a ceremonial sword from the military chief for his support, termed the coup a “purely domestic affair of a sovereign state.”
Russia has a long history of supporting Myanmar’s military by supplying arms and helping to build its counterinsurgent capacity. Russia’s military supplies continue to reach Myanmar despite the current political and security crisis. Researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global trends in military spending and arms sales, believe that most of the equipment being used against protesters in Myanmar may have come from Russia in the lead-up to the coup.
The military equipment seen on the morning of the coup “could have only been delivered quite recently” from Russia but has “not been documented” in official records, said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the SIPRI.
According to the institute, from 2014 to 2019, Russia accounted for 16% of Myanmar’s total defense procurement. Some estimates suggest that Myanmar may have spent US$807 million on Russian-made arms over the last decade alone. As recently as January, Russia agreed to equip Myanmar’s military with Orlan-10E surveillance drones, Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems and radar gear. It is likely that some of this material, particularly the surveillance drones, could be used against the protesters.
Russia’s actions are apparently aimed not only at protecting Myanmar’s Junta from international criticism but also shielding its vast businesses from sanctions. On April 6, Russia warned the international community that economic sanctions against Myanmar’s junta could trigger a civil war in the country. “A course towards threats and pressure including the use of sanctions against the current Myanmar authorities has no future and is extremely dangerous,” said a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman as quoted by Interfax news agency.
Russia and Myanmar’s militaries eye mutual gains
Moscow’s overt support for Myanmar’s junta highlights the fact that Russia hardly takes notice of pressure from the international community and is unworried about its image as it supports a now-bloody coup.
Russia’s behavior following the coup shows it is still focused on building security cooperation between the two countries. Over the last decade, thousands of Myanmar’s military officers have gone to Russia for trainings. A recently released documentary by the Russian Defense Ministry’s television network revealed that “many Burmese military personnel spoke fluent Russian.”
“Russia doesn’t care as long as it can continue to sell weapons,” said a Western diplomat in a comment to The Irrawaddy.
“Myanmar-Russia ties have always been cordial without any mishaps due to a one-dimensional policy approach focusing on military-related cooperation,” Kavi Chongkittavorn, an expert on the Southeast Asian regional affairs, wrote in an article for The Bangkok Post.
“Throughout the Putin years, Myanmar has been considered a gateway to ASEAN. With Myanmar’s growing integration with the regional economy, Russia’s economic sphere would also benefit,” he noted.
Others believe that Russia may be trying to raise its diplomatic profile in the region by maintaining a prominent role in Myanmar’s ongoing crisis. “Today, Russia’s high diplomatic profile in Syria, Libya, Belarus as well as in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has raised its international status as a key broker. Obviously, if Russia decides to dig deep in Myanmar, it could become one of the big catalysts in the Southeast Asian nation,” noted Chongkittavorn.
Dmitry Mosyakov, professor at Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, believes that Russia is eager to jump on the military junta’s bandwagon in an attempt to benefit from the ongoing crisis. “Russia is sending out a strong signal that from their side, relationships haven’t changed; it’s business as usual,” Mosyakov told The Moscow Times.
“Maybe now more than ever, [Myanmar’s] military leadership feels like it needs to purchase arms from Russia as it has a growing number of internal and external threats,” he added.
It is very possible that Myanmar’s coup had Moscow’s stamp on it. On the eve of the coup, Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar to finalize a new deal to supply arms to the country. Reports indicate that Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia around six times to date, including last June. Russia’s unconditional support for the coup likely has more to it than simply support for a longtime ally.
Some analysts believe that Myanmar’s junta, from its perspective, has been cultivating ties with Russia to lessen dependence on China which at times has criticized the military’s actions. China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, said in a statement that the ongoing violence in Myanmar is “absolutely not what China wants to see.”
“In terms of military links, the Tatmadaw appears to have more well-rounded engagements with Russia,” one diplomat told Nikkei Asia. “Diplomatically, [Myanmar’s junta] benefits from Russia holding a veto in the [United Nations] Security Council.”
One anonymous Myanmar academic told Nikkei Asia that “Unlike China, Russia does not play a role in [Myanmar’s ethnic] peace process, nor does it have extensive investment in [the country]…Russia’s lack of geostrategic interest makes it an appealing partner.”
“Min Aung Hlaing is personally distrustful of the Chinese,” according to one Asian diplomat who spoke with Nikkei Asia. “Only China presents an existential threat to Myanmar—not Russia.”