Russia’s appetite for influence and lucrative arms sales in Southeast Asia has been whetted by the latest coup in Myanmar, where isolated generals remain distrustful of China but still require allies on the United Nations Security Council.
Chinese investments had flourished in Myanmar under the now-deposed civilian government effectively led by former opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military, also known as Tatmadaw, benefitted through state-owned enterprises brought under its control before Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won historic 2015 elections.
However, relations between junta leaders and Beijing have long been strained over Chinese interference across their common border – an existential threat not shared with Russia – and Beijing’s assistance to long-running ethnic insurgencies, including the sale of weapons to rebels.
Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Russia and China are both manoeuvring to protect their vested interests in Myanmar.
“We’ve seen Russia step up to the plate twice with its actions in the Security Council on the Myanmar question and again joining with China and others in the human rights council to potentially oppose any form of condemnation of the new regime,” he said.
Russia and China used their power in the Security Council to water down the world body’s response to the coup, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
China labeled the coup a “cabinet reshuffle” while Russia called it a “purely domestic affair,” and, according to The Irrawaddy, a news site, even asked the international community for “practical assistance to the new authority of Myanmar.”
That was despite the message from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said he would do everything in his power to pressure Myanmar and “make sure that this coup fails.”
Guterres has also consistently slammed the repression and violence inflicted upon protesters.
Numbering hundreds of thousands, resistance groups have held nonviolent protests, marching through cities, promoting boycotts and labor strikes in response to the Feb. 1 coup and the Tatmadaw’s refusal to accept the November elections results.
The United States, Canada and New Zealand have already imposed sanctions on military leaders and pressure is mounting on the European Union, Australia and Japan to follow suit.
“Faced with the threat of sanctions from the West, Myanmar sees Russia as a natural ally in thwarting Western pressure and in managing regime consolidation,” said Mohan Malik, visiting fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Defence Department institution in Washington.
“Given China’s tendency to extract maximum concessions for its backing of the junta, Russia plays an important role as a counterweight to China both as an arms supplier and as a permanent member of the UNSC,” he said, referring to the U.N. Security Council.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Myanmar spent $2.4 billion on weapons between 2010 and 2019, including $807 million on Russian-made arms and $1.3 billion on Chinese munitions, often criticised as faulty.
Moscow has faced growing criticism at home from its own Muslim community incensed over Myanmar’s alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017, blamed on Min Aung Hlaing.
Protests have erupted in Grozny, where Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov warned he would oppose policies that support the Myanmar junta and has reportedly found support among Muslims in the neighboring Caucasus regions and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.
Analysts, though, said Moscow’s appetite for access to railroads, seaports and trade routes and its liking for barter deals, which appeals to the junta, would counter any opposition at home.
“The most interesting thing I think we see in the Russian case is some of the frankness on the Russian side about what this means for the future of Myanmar-Russian relations,” Murg said.
“You see defence contractors, others, basically licking their lips saying this is a new day, there are a lot of new opportunities for Russians in a post-coup Myanmar,” he added.
An initial military-technical agreement was reached between Myanmar and Russia in 2001, according to the Warsaw Institute, a nonprofit Polish think tank.
Myanmar has since acquired 30 Russian-made MiG-29 jet fighters, 12 Yak-130 jet trainers, 10 Mi-24 and Mi-35P helicopters, and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-tank and artillery systems and six Su-30SME warplanes.
In late 2019 Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin confirmed progress in fresh efforts at developing military cooperation with Myanmar, along with Cold War allies Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Then, a week before the coup, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu went to Myanmar and signed off on a deal to supply the formidable Pantsir-S1 air defence system, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radar equipment. He also finalised a flight safety agreement.
Arun Sahgal, a senior fellow for strategic and regional security at the Delhi Policy Group in India, said democracy remains an issue but, importantly for Moscow and Naypyitaw, India – a major buyer and servicer of Russian arms – would continue to do business with the junta.
Sahgal said India will “need to have a dealing with the government of Myanmar whoever is there and from inside to push the generals on the path of reconciliation with the political class rather than make a big song and drum about it.
“But they also look at Russia as a source of reasonably cheap weapons systems which are good, and which suits their purpose and there is also an eye that whatever they buy it can be maintained either by Russians or through contacts with India,” Sahgal added.
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