Russia Emerges as Key Backer of Myanmar’s Military Post-Coup
Russia is emerging as a key backer of Myanmar’s military regime, providing diplomatic support and discussing arms deals since the February coup that toppled the country’s democratically elected government.
Moscow hosted Myanmar’s coup leader for discussions about defense relations last month and sent a senior defense official to the Southeast Asian nation, one of the highest-ranking foreigners to visit since the coup.
Russia’s position stands in contrast with China, Myanmar’s neighbor, biggest investor and long-term backer, which has kept its distance and expressed concern about stability since the February coup.
The Russia connection is giving Myanmar’s generals options, lending the junta recognition and counterbalancing its reliance on Beijing for weapons and other support while the U.S. and other Western nations try to isolate the military-led government, according to foreign-policy specialists. Meanwhile, they said, Russia is seizing an opportunity to expand its influence and prop up a friendly regime, while thwarting Western democratic designs.
The Russian government and the Myanmar military’s information office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Post-coup, “China is trying to be sitting in the middle,” said Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who speaks for the former civilian government. Because of that, he said, “military relations between Russia and Myanmar are even now increasing.”
Myanmar’s military has used force to quell persistent resistance from civilians, with 912 people having died at the hands of the regime since the coup as of Thursday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nonprofit group based in Thailand that monitors arrests and fatalities in Myanmar.
The international opprobrium that has ensued means that Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, faces a dwindling number of defense suppliers, according to defense analysts, making Russia more attractive.
“Since the coup, you could make the argument that Burma would be more willing to look at procuring Russian equipment,” said Jon Grevatt, an Asia-Pacific specialist with defense analyst Janes. “The list of potential suppliers is diminished quite extensively.”
Last month, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a halt in arms sales to Myanmar and condemning the country’s military leadership. Belarus was the sole country to oppose the motion, with 119 countries supporting it and 36, including China and Russia, abstaining.
While the more powerful U.N. Security Council has issued several statements condemning the coup, it has yet to follow the General Assembly in endorsing an arms embargo. Myanmar’s biggest arms suppliers—Russia and China—have veto powers in the council and have called the coup a domestic matter for Myanmar.
As the General Assembly passed the resolution in late June, the leader of Myanmar’s junta, General Min Aung Hlaing, arrived in Moscow for a security conference, his first visit beyond Southeast Asia since the coup.
While there, he met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, but not with President Vladimir Putin. General Min Aung Hlaing said on Russian state TV that the two sides discussed air defense and that his country’s cooperation with Moscow “was originally planned in such a way that over time it should expand.” He also visited a manufacturer of military helicopters in the Russian city of Kazan.
“Myanmar is a time-tested strategic partner and reliable ally in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region,” Mr. Shoigu commented to Russian state media. “We are determined to continue making efforts to strengthen bilateral ties.”
No deals were announced, though regional policy analysts expect some are under way.
“I think there will be new contracts coming,” said Vasily Kashin, a military and China specialist at the Higher School of Economics, a research university in Moscow. “The Burmese will buy new weapons, first of all, because Russia doesn’t care about the new Western efforts. And it’s quite possible that now the Burmese government will place some extra orders because they’re facing some kind of spike in the civil war,” he said, referring to the conflict between the military and civilian protesters.
Mr. Kashin said that Russia could use fast-track procedures to deliver secondhand weapons to Myanmar.
Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that Myanmar imported roughly $807 million in Russian arms from 2010 to 2019. The institute’s data shows that Russia accounted for 16% of Myanmar’s arms imports from 2015 to 2019, second to China’s 49%. Myanmar has bought firearms, unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters from the two, among other arms and equipment, according to defense analysts.
Defense ties between Russia and Myanmar date to Soviet times, and in recent years Russia has expanded training and study programs for Myanmar’s military officer class.
In 2018, Mr. Shoigu visited Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital, as the two countries reached an agreement for the entry of Russian ships to Myanmar’s ports and a deal to buy six Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighters. The planes are due for delivery near the end of this year.
In January, before the coup, Mr. Shoigu was again in Naypyitaw to confirm the sale of radar equipment, unmanned aerial-surveillance vehicles and Pantsir-1 air-defense systems, which are also due for delivery later this year, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
In March, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin attended Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw, marking the highest-profile visit by a foreign government official to the country since the coup. That day was the deadliest since protests against the coup began. More than 100 people were killed.
Then in May, Myanmar’s air-force chief led a delegation to Moscow for a military-helicopter exposition.
The U.S. and the European Union have maintained arms embargoes against Myanmar since the mid-1990s when an earlier junta ruled the country. They, along with the U.K., imposed sanctions on the Myanmar military and its businesses after the coup.
The U.S. is urging countries to stop providing lethal arms and related security assistance. “The cessation of all such sales will limit Burma’s security forces’ ability to inflict violence on peaceful protesters and send a strong signal that the international community does not support the military’s actions,” said a State Department spokesman.
Myanmar and Russia are pursuing a more integrated defense and economic relationship, defense analysts say. Workers at Myanmar’s main Nampong Air Force base near Myitkyina, in the country’s northeast, have been assembling helicopters that Russia ships to them in kits, according to Messrs. Grevatt and Kashin.
In mid-June, Russia’s ambassador to Myanmar and Myanmar’s minister of industry agreed to resume development of a long-dormant 200,000-ton iron-smelting mine and plant in Myanmar’s Shan state. The project is funded by the Russian state budget through a subsidiary of Rostec, Russia’s defense-industry conglomerate.
“Russia continues with business as usual,” Mr. Kashin said. “We’re just dealing with the current official government and see no problem for changing course. It’s a big country, and you need to cooperate with them.”