Will Russian aid for Myanmar give Moscow an Asian foothold?
"Russia provides arms and diplomatic support to Myanmar's military junta, however, the war in Ukraine and Moscow's international isolation mean the partnership remains limited"
February 9, 2023 3:42 PM
As Myanmar this month marks two years since the country's democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup, Russia remains a key supporter of Myanmar's ruling junta, both diplomatically and materially.
Myanmar did not join in the international condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last February, and Moscow has consistently blocked UN Security Council resolutions condemning Myanmar's coup.
Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the Southeast Asian nation's military — called the Tatmadaw — is seeking domestic and international legitimacy. Hlaing has visited Russia three times since the coup.
In September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Hlaing on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum.
"Russia is not proactive, but rather reactive" when it comes to its ties with Myanmar, said Alexey Kirichenko, assistant professor at the Moscow State University. "This is a longstanding relationship that has been evolving for at least twenty years. It is not a desperate attempt to find a partner, but a situation in which both sides have something to offer to each other."
Russian arms supplying Myanmar's civil war
Russia does not have substantial investments in Myanmar and cannot compete with China economically. However, Moscow is a major supplier of arms to Myanmar's military.
Russia supplies the junta with Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones, radar equipment, as well as M-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, Su-30 fighter jets, and anti-aircraft missile systems.
The Moscow Times has reported that Russia sold Myanmar $14.7 million (€13.6 million) worth of radar equipment in February 2021 and $96 million worth of so-called "hidden" goods three months prior.
Russian weapons are deployed in the junta's fight against bands of resistance fighters, with Mi-35 helicopters and Yak-130 combat training aircraft particularly valued for defending military outposts.
The Tatmadaw is also seeking to modernize its forces with anti-drone systems that will likely be ordered from Russia. The money from these arms sales will also contribute to the Russian budget for the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine war threatens supply
As Russia's military has waged war in Ukraine for almost a year, it is not clear how the situation will evolve.
Importers of Russian arms have reasonable concerns that the contracts for arms supplies won't be fulfilled. According to a report by the Ukrainian military, Russia has already suspended a contract for supplying Ka-32 helicopters to Serbia and postponed another arms shipment to Algeria.
In trying to sap Russia from sources of funding, the US and the EU have imposed a ban on the export of dual-use goods to Russia.
These include, for instance, vehicle parts. Without them, Russia will find it hard to produce new arms for export. Last year, India already canceled a contract for the Ka-31 helicopter, MiG-29 fighter jets, and Mi-17 helicopters because Russia could not purchase high-tech production materials from European markets.
"Russian arms play an important role in Myanmar's civil war. However, a temporary pause in Russia's deliveries will not directly influence it," said Michal Lubina from the Jagiellonian University in Poland.
"Russia has already provided enough arms to the Burmese military, but they have not crushed their opponents yet and the question is whether they will. It is more about the will of the resistance," the political analyst added.
Myanmar's complicated ties with China
China is the top supplier of weapons to Myanmar, but the complicated history between the two countries contributes to the lack of trust on both sides.
Many generals now in Myanmar's junta remember fighting communist rebels funded by Beijing in the 1970s. Beijing also unofficially supports the Wa, Kokang, and Kachin ethnic armed groups fighting against the Tatmadaw.
"The Burmese generals found themselves in a conundrum. On the one hand, it is a nationalist government that resents any foreign interference. On the other hand, they staged the coup and consequently isolated themselves into a corner where they had to depend on China. If they have good relations with Russia, they are not at the mercy of China," said Lubina.
However, Beijing is aware that Myanmar's relations with Russia are not likely to affect Chinese interests.
A Russian foothold in Southeast Asia?
For Russia, there are limitations to a partnership with Myanmar. Trade is complicated by sanctions and difficulties with dollar payments. In the energy sector, Myanmar cannot afford to pay enough for Russian oil and gas to make it profitable for Russian companies.
However, by providing support to the Tatmadaw, which is seeking to cement long-term rule in Myanmar, Russia could build on its limited presence in Southeast Asia. Currently, Moscow maintains close ties solely with Vietnam.
"Should the junta succeed in the civil war, Russia will be the biggest winner because it was there for the military when they were in dire straits,” Lubina said.
For Myanmar, Russia is a less-threatening partner compared to China. Russia's center of power is far away and does not pose a threat of invasion or internal meddling.
"From the theoretical perspective, conflicts generally help Russia to acquire a bigger influence than its economic potential allows. In conflicts, a country can dispatch an army and use diplomacy, which Russia is good at. For Moscow, it is a cheap way of increasing Russia's importance in the world and overcoming isolation," Lubina said.