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Coming to Terms with Myanmar’s Russia Embrace: Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°173, 4 August 2022

August 4th, 2022  •  Author:   International Crisis Group  •  40 minute read
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What’s new? Myanmar’s coup and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have brought these already friendly countries closer together. Myanmar’s regime has positioned itself as Russia’s most uncritical post-invasion partner in Asia, while Russia has readily backed Myanmar’s junta, diplomatically and with arms. They are now gearing up for tighter economic and trade relations.

Why does it matter? Russia has thrown Naypyitaw a lifeline as it struggles to quash domestic resistance and secure international legitimacy, thus further antagonising countries pushing for Myanmar’s return to democracy. The West worries that Moscow could use these ties to dodge sanctions. Foreign governments supporting positive change in Myanmar have few good options.

What should be done? With few realistic ways to disrupt Russia-Myanmar relations, foreign governments should continue imposing targeted sanctions on the Myanmar regime and strengthen enforcement of bilateral arms embargoes. They should press ASEAN to keep excluding the regime from high-level meetings but avoid prematurely ending consensus diplomacy at the UN Security Council.

Overview

Myanmar’s relations with Russia have moved into higher gear in recent years with regular high-level exchanges and closer cooperation. Naypyitaw has also grown increasingly reliant on Moscow for advanced weapons systems and technical training of military officers. Myanmar’s February 2021 coup and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year later have deepened the trends: facing stronger international sanctions and diplomatic isolation, the two countries are actively exploring ways to strengthen their security and economic ties. Countries trying to promote positive change in Myanmar, many of which have adversarial relations with Russia, are concerned that the growing bond undermines efforts to sanction both, but there is little they can do to change it. Instead, they should continue imposing targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military regime, enforcing bilateral arms embargoes, and pressing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to continue excluding the regime from high-level meetings to dent its legitimacy. At the UN, however, they should avoid diplomatic moves that might break the Security Council’s fragile modus vivendi on Myanmar.

Over the past two decades, the Myanmar military has tried to hedge its reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and arms supplier by forging stronger links with Russia. This trend stalled when the country drew closer to the West starting in 2011, and then accelerated following the army’s violent expulsion of the Rohingya in 2017, which undermined its nascent engagement with Western militaries.

Since then, the two countries have grown closer, with Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing making annual visits to Russia. Moscow has so far looked at Naypyitaw primarily as a military and technical partner, with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leading the effort to position Russia as Myanmar’s main supplier of sophisticated weapons, such as helicopters, fighter jets and air defence systems. Russia has also provided postgraduate education to at least 7,000 Myanmar officers since 2001. Beyond military ties, Shoigu also sees advantages in securing a strongly committed partner where South and South East Asia meet, in addition to Russia’s longstanding partnerships with India and Vietnam. Until recently, the two countries’ economic and non-military trade relations remained modest, but they appear to be deepening. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s 3 August visit to Naypyitaw may accelerate that trend.

Following the Myanmar military’s coup and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both countries have become more heavily sanctioned and diplomatically isolated, increasing the importance of their relations with each other. Russia has provided unstinting support for the junta in Naypyitaw following the coup, as well as continued weapons shipments, and the Myanmar regime has in turn positioned itself as Russia’s most uncritical friend in Asia, vocally supporting the invasion of Ukraine. In recent months, the two countries have been developing direct banking and finance channels to support greater bilateral trade, including Myanmar purchases of Russian energy products.

 [Myanmar and Russia] are likely to ignore the possible long-term disadvantages of their growing relationship in favour of short-term benefits. 

Such deepening of relations entails risks for both countries. By backing a re-gime reviled in its own country, Russia may be imperilling its relations with any democratic or populist government that might come to power in Myanmar in the future. For its part, the Myanmar junta is making a bet on Moscow even as the latter faces a grinding and costly military campaign and struggles economically under the pressure of Western sanctions. Nonetheless, at a time when they face consider-able international pressure, both countries are likely to ignore the possible long-term disadvantages of their growing relationship in favour of short-term benefits.

Foreign governments wanting to promote positive change in Myanmar will have to take its ties to Russia into account. The best strategy will be to continue the forms of pressure they are already applying to Naypyitaw, without trying to rupture a bilateral relationship that is likely beyond their influence. They should redouble efforts to ensure effective bilateral arms embargoes by as many countries as possible, with Western governments, in particular, continuing to impose targeted sanctions on the regime, the military and economic interests linked to them. Although the lack of progress may tempt them to reach for a blunter instrument, these governments should continue to steer clear of blanket trade or financial sanctions, which would hurt the population more than the junta.

On the diplomatic front, outside governments will need to calibrate their actions. On the one hand, they should encourage ASEAN to continue its policy of excluding the regime from key meetings and summits. Keeping the generals out of ASEAN forums remains an important way to deny them the legitimacy they seek.

But at the UN a more nuanced approach is advisable. In particular, Western states should be careful not to push too hard on China in the UN Security Council in hopes of forcing a decision on tougher measures than Beijing will support, given that Moscow continues to defer to China on Myanmar issues. It has already become more difficult to secure consensus, and Naypyitaw’s critics should avoid steps that would sap the Council’s strength further.

The U.S. or its partners should not, for example, force a vote on a draft resolution if they know that China (and hence also Russia) will veto it, as this could foreclose future efforts at less ambitious, but nevertheless useful resolutions. Rash actions could also undermine the Council’s ability to respond to future developments of concern, such as the recent execution of dissidents (where the Council did issue a press statement) or possible regime violence in the run-up to planned 2023 elections. Moreover, they could damage the chances of extending the term of the Myanmar permanent representative to the UN, who is a holdover from the pre-coup period. This diplomat remains loyal to the ousted government and a key voice for the anti-coup resistance.

Overall, the focus of foreign governments wanting positive change in Myanmar should be to redouble efforts where they can be most effective – broader arms embargoes, continued diplomatic isolation of the junta, and sanctions targeting the military and its business interests – rather than being tempted by symbolic measures that will have limited impact or may be counterproductive.

I.Historical Relations

A.Navigating the Cold War

After gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar followed a non-aligned foreign policy, wary of being drawn in to emerging Cold War rivalries.  Over the following years, elected governments faced several communist insurgencies, including from forces ideologically aligned with Moscow. Myanmar-Soviet relations were defined by mutual suspicion, with Myanmar believing that Moscow was clandestinely supporting the insurrections and the Soviet Union seeing Myanmar as leaning toward the West. Thus, although the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1948, neither opened an embassy in the other’s capital until 1951.

Relations improved after Prime Minister Nu paid a two-week visit to the Soviet Union in 1955. Communist party leader Nikita Khrushchev went to Myanmar the same year (along with Premier Nikolai Bulganin), and made a return trip in 1960. On both occasions, the Soviet Union promised to provide assistance to Myanmar, but the scale was limited – the major components were construction of a technological institute and a modern hotel (the Inya Lake) in Yangon, as well as a hospital in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi. In exchange, Myanmar undertook to send the Soviet Union rice supplies of equivalent value – essentially a barter arrangement – but it rejected offers of further support, such as for the construction of a theatre and stadium, to keep the Soviets at arm’s length.  The Soviets also gave assurances that they would not support communist insurgency in Myanmar.

Moscow anticipated that relations would improve further after General Ne Win’s 1962 coup and his declaration of the Burmese Way to Socialism, which it interpreted as a tilt away from the West as well as Cold War neutrality.  Yet while Ne Win did visit the Soviet Union in 1965, the United States was also actively courting him, and he went to Washington the following year. Myanmar-Soviet relations thus remained friendly but mostly superficial. In 1971, Soviet Chairman Nikolay Podgorny travelled to Myanmar, but his trip did not lead to closer bilateral ties.  Ne Win remained determined to maintain a neutral stance, even quitting the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979 when he saw some of its key members being drawn into Cold War rivalries and concluded it had become a tool of the Soviet Union. For the Soviets, at the time, China, India and Vietnam were the priorities in Asia, not Myanmar.

II.The End of Myanmar’s Socialist Experiment

Myanmar-Soviet relations never had a reset, due to transformations in both countries. Political stagnation and the economic failures of the Burmese Way to Socialism led Ne Win’s rule to collapse in 1988.  The military brutally crushed a nationwide uprising, and a group of younger generals took power, styling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council. In addition to introducing economic reforms that ended Myanmar’s socialist experiment, these generals embarked on a rapid expansion and modernisation of the military in the 1990s.  It might have been a moment for significant arms purchases from Moscow. But as the junta was consolidating power, the Soviet Union had imploded, and the Kremlin was in no position to capitalise on events far from home.

Instead, the internationally isolated regime in Yangon turned reluctantly to China. The Myanmar generals had always been suspicious of China, which was still backing their main battlefield foes, the Communist Party of Burma insurgency.  But they lacked a more viable option, and for its part, Beijing saw an opportunity to strengthen its regional influence and decided to cast its neighbour a lifeline. In addition to providing political and economic support, Beijing sold billions of dollars of arms to Myanmar through the 1990s, becoming by far its largest source of military equipment.  There were only two confirmed arms purchases from Russia in this period, both of MI-17 helicopters (twelve in all, plus spare parts and training) worth an estimated $80 million.

III.A New Beginning

A.A New Strategic Partnership Takes Shape

By the end of the 1990s, after a decade of relying on China as its principal arms supplier, Myanmar was looking to diversify. Troops were reportedly dissatisfied with Chinese equipment, which was mostly second-hand and which they found to be of poor quality, requiring constant repairs.  Chinese fighter jets were particularly unreliable, causing the deaths of numerous pilots and leading air force personnel to refer to the aircraft as “flying coffins”.  Military strategists were also uncomfortable with the operational and intelligence risks of using so much weaponry from a neighbouring power, especially one that was also arming several insurgent groups in northern Myanmar.

At the same time, Moscow was seeking to increase its engagement with Asia. Through a series of summits in 2000, Russia’s new President Vladimir Putin reinvigorated his country’s longstanding strategic relationship with India, negotiated a strategic partnership with China, and renewed friendly relations with North and South Korea, as well as Japan.  Russia also actively participated in meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

In 2001, Myanmar and Russia signed a military-technical agreement, as part of which the Myanmar regime purchased ten MIG-29 fighter jets, its first major order of non-Chinese aircraft.  Thereafter, the two countries inaugurated an extensive training program, by which Myanmar officers spent four to six months in Russia learning to use the various weapons systems purchased by Myanmar. Since 2001, Myanmar has also been sending several hundred junior officers (and a few civilians) to Russia each year for postgraduate studies in subjects including engineering, computer science, medicine, aeronautics, and nuclear science and technology, although the number has declined somewhat over the last few years.  With the curriculum largely taught in Russian, students get intensive language instruction at Myanmar military institutes before departing, followed by advanced classes during their four to five years in Russia.  By 2017, some 6,000 Myanmar officers had reportedly obtained postgraduate degrees from Russian universities, a number which has now grown to at least 7,000.

Also in 2001, Moscow agreed to build a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar, but the plan was shelved in 2003, reportedly because Myanmar was unable to meet the cost. The plan was reactivated in 2007, and Russia began training Myanmar nuclear technicians, but amid domestic unease and international criticism, including from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Naypyitaw never went ahead with the deal.  Bilateral talks on nuclear technology cooperation in Moscow in July 2022 led the two countries to sign a memorandum of understanding on skills development, but there are no indications of any concrete plans to move forward with the construction of a reactor in Myanmar.

Over the next two decades, the Myanmar military continued its pivot to Russian equipment. From 2001 to 2021, data show that it procured $1.7 billion of arms from Russia, equal to the amount provided by China over the same period.  Purchases included twenty additional MIG-29s and ten MI-24 helicopter gunships in 2009, and a further 50 MI-24s the following year; an Antonov An-148 regional jet, which crashed in 2011, a few months after delivery; and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems.  In 2015, the military ordered twelve Yak-130 combat training aircraft (which may also be used operationally in light attack roles).  It also ordered six Su-30 multirole fighter jets (larger and more versatile than MIG-29s) in 2019, and in January 2021, just before the coup, the two sides signed contracts for Russian Pantsir-S1 truck-mounted air defence systems and Orlan-10E surveillance drones.  Officers say they consider the Russian equipment of higher quality than Chinese or domestically produced weapons.

 Military diplomacy has … increased over the last decade. 

Military diplomacy has also increased over the last decade. In March 2013, shortly after being appointed defence minister, Shoigu visited Myanmar in one of his first foreign trips, meeting Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and agreeing on a series of steps to cement closer military ties.  (In his interactions with Min Aung Hlaing, Shoigu has made much of the fact that he comes from the Buddhist-majority Russian state of Tuva, although he is himself an Orthodox Christian. ) Min Aung Hlaing, appointed as commander-in-chief in 2011, made his first trip to Russia three months after Shoigu’s visit, and subsequently has made several return visits (see Section IV below, as well as Appendix B) .  In November 2013 a destroyer from the Russian Pacific Fleet also docked in Yangon to commemorate 65 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries – the first such naval port call in modern times.

The military ties have only grown closer since then. Following the signing of a defence cooperation agreement in 2016, the Pacific Fleet has made regular port calls.  Myanmar has also participated frequently in Russian military competitions and multinational exercises, including the annual International Army Games and the Caucasus-2020 exercises attended by Putin.

B.Diplomatic Engagement Kicks into Higher Gear

Myanmar’s increased engagement with Russia from the early 2000s was military and technical in nature. Non-military trade relations, on the other hand, remained very limited, and bilateral diplomacy was low-key.  The two countries had long maintained resident ambassadors, but high-level visits were rare. The relationship began to change, however, as the Myanmar regime faced increasing Western sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

The U.S., whose appetite for intervention (military and otherwise) increased following the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks, toughened its rhetoric and policies toward Myanmar. In a 2005 speech, incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice included the country as one of six “outposts of tyranny” where the U.S. had a duty to help foster freedom.  Starting that year, Washington’s efforts to initiate scrutiny of Myanmar at the UN Security Council prompted Naypyitaw to boost its diplomatic engagement with Moscow. With some members opposed to adding the issue to the formal agenda, the Council held its first discussion, in December 2005, under a standing agenda item (“other matters”).

The following year, the U.S. and UK continued discussions on including Myanmar on the Council’s formal agenda, and they appeared to muster the nine votes necessary to put it there (procedural votes are not subject to veto).  China, which was backing Myanmar, thus began preparing for the possibility that it might have to use its veto at some point to block a resolution – a step Beijing had rarely taken until then, and something it was and continues to be very reluctant to do unilaterally.

China therefore urged Myanmar to secure Russia’s backing at the UN. In September 2006, Chinese diplomats acted as intermediaries in arranging an official visit to Moscow by regime second-in-command General Maung Aye, the first such high-level trip by a senior Myanmar leader since Ne Win’s visit more than 40 years earlier.  In a joint press conference after meeting Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, General Maung Aye spoke of “a new chapter in bilateral relations” and hailed the two countries’ “coordination at the UN and international forums”.  The two sides also signed agreements on economic cooperation, drug elimination and protection of classified information, and Myanmar expressed willingness to allow Russian hydrocarbon prospecting in the country, leading to the entry of Bashneft/Rosneft, which eventually secured exploration rights to an onshore block in 2013 (see Section IV.C below).

 In January 2007 the U.S. and UK tabled the draft Myanmar resolution at the Council, triggering the first Chinese-Russian double veto in UN history. 

In the same month that General Maung Aye visited Russia, Myanmar was added to the Security Council agenda following a U.S. request, despite objections from both China and Russia.  In December 2006, the U.S. circulated a draft resolution to other Council members, which China made clear it would veto. The draft called for releasing all political prisoners, starting an inclusive political dialogue, and ending the military’s attacks on and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities.  Despite knowing that it would be blocked, in January 2007 the U.S. and UK tabled the draft Myanmar resolution at the Council, triggering the first Chinese-Russian double veto in UN history.  In his explanation of vote, the Russian ambassador stated that “attempts aimed at using the Security Council to discuss issues outside its purview are unacceptable”, and that Myanmar’s “socio-economic and humanitarian” issues should be treated in the appropriate UN bodies.

C.Myanmar Comes in from the Cold

After 2011, when Myanmar initiated political and economic reforms under a semi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein (2011-2016), Russia remained an important military partner (see Section III.A above). Political relations also grew but were held back somewhat by Naypyitaw’s focus on reestablishing links with the West. Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin visited Moscow in February 2012, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, travelled to Naypyitaw a year later – the first senior Kremlin figure to do so since Chairman Podgorny in 1971.

But Russia’s increasingly strained relations with the West, particularly after its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in early 2014, led Myanmar to remain cautious in its engagement, limiting subsequent high-level interactions mostly to multilateral forums. In November 2014, in its capacity as rotating chair of ASEAN, it hosted the East Asia Summit, which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended. In a bilateral meeting with Thein Sein, Medvedev extended an invitation to visit Russia.  But in a sign of Myanmar’s caution, Vice President Nyan Tun went in his superior’s place, in June 2015.  The Aung San Suu Kyi administration, which took office in April 2016, adopted a similarly cautious approach at first, shying away from high-level bilateral exchanges, though that May, Myanmar’s figurehead president, Htin Kyaw, did have a meeting with President Putin on the sidelines of the Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi.

Russia has also engaged in public diplomacy in Myanmar, where it maintains one of the largest foreign embassies, with 21 diplomats.  Its ambassador since 2016, Nikolay Listopadov, has been posted to the country twice before (in the 1980s and 1990s) and is fluent in Burmese. He gives regular interviews in Burmese-language media, and posts articles and videos in Burmese on the embassy’s Facebook page.

IV.Friends in Need

A.The Rohingya Crisis

Under the Thein Sein administration, armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing generally deferred to the president on policy matters, including the national peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups and the diplomatic tilt to the West. Over that period, the commander-in-chief made only one trip to Russia – his first ever, in June 2013, which was a return visit following Defence Minister Shoigu’s inaugural trip to Myanmar earlier that year (see Section III.A above). He also visited Belarus the following year, and while transiting Moscow in November 2014, had an airport meeting with Lieutenant General (now Colonel General) Alexander Fomin, at that time Russia’s director of military-technical cooperation (and now its deputy defence minister).

Min Aung Hlaing was less inclined to cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi when she took over as de facto leader in April 2016, and relations between the two quickly became frosty.  The military’s brutal attacks on the Rohingya in 2017 left Myanmar, and particularly its army, more internationally isolated.  The opprobrium pushed Min Aung Hlaing to tilt more decisively toward Russia. In June 2017, he met with Defence Minister Shoigu in Moscow, then visited the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea, something that he must have known would antagonise Western countries, who were at the time deepening their engagement with Myanmar.  He has made high-profile trips to Russia every year since (see Appendix B).

 Russia saw an opportunity to deepen relations with a strategically located partner in Asia. 

For its part, Russia saw an opportunity to deepen relations with a strategically located partner in Asia. Although it was sensitive to the concerns of Russian Muslims, in particular those of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who opposed any Russian support for the Myanmar government in light of the Rohingyas’ persecution, Moscow moderated but did not reverse its position.  The Russian defence ministry has taken the lead on relations with Myanmar, with the foreign ministry playing a more minor role. The defence ministry’s prominence reflects the priority that both sides give to military-technical cooperation, as well as the seniority of Shoigu, who takes charge of Russia’s relations with several countries – such as Syria and Libya – where military issues are paramount.  Foreign Minister Lavrov’s 3 August 2022 visit to Naypyitaw may reflect Russian intentions of broadening the relationship to include greater economic cooperation and deeper political ties.

B.The Coup d’Etat

Following the 1 February 2021 coup d’état, and the bloodshed that it unleashed, the military regime found itself more internationally isolated than ever. China was deeply unhappy about the coup, which it regarded as a threat to its economic and strategic interests; the West disengaged from Myanmar and ramped up sanctions; and ASEAN took a firmer stance than many expected in barring the regime from key regional gatherings, such as summits and foreign ministers’ meetings.

Russia did not explicitly endorse the military takeover, with the Kremlin expressing concern at the “growing number of civilian casualties” and saying it was reviewing its relations with Myanmar, potentially including the military cooperation.  It also allowed a presidential statement at the UN Security Council that condemned attacks on protesters, as well as several (less consequential) press statements condemning regime violence and political repression and calling for dialogue and humanitarian access.  But in fact Russia doubled down on its strong support for the military, including by blocking (with China) any further meaningful action by the Security Council, such as diplomatic pressure through further presidential statements.  Deputy Defence Minister Fomin was the only foreign dignitary to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, on 27 March 2021, prompting Min Aung Hlaing to describe Russia as a “true and loyal friend” in his speech at the event.

Russia would soon display its forbearance. On the day of Fomin’s visit, regime troops killed 82 protesters in Bago using battlefield weapons, at that time the worst incident of regime violence since the coup.  Despite this bloodbath, and the Kremlin’s restated concerns about killing civilians, the Russian defence ministry issued a statement on 29 March referring to Myanmar as a “reliable ally and strategic partner” in South East Asia and expressing its desire to deepen military cooperation.

These actions gave the regime comfort that it continued to have a veto-wielding friend on the Security Council (one it could rely on even if China’s frustration with the junta made it less inclined to protect the latter diplomatically) – as well as a reliable weapons supplier at a time when the UN General Assembly was considering a (non-binding) resolution inter alia calling on countries to “stop the flow of arms” to the regime, which passed by an overwhelming majority in June 2021.

 Notwithstanding the coup that made him Myanmar’s de facto senior-most official, Russia treated Min Aung Hlaing as a military chief, not as a head of state. 

Just days after the General Assembly resolution was adopted, Min Aung Hlaing paid a high-profile visit to Russia, in what has become an annual ritual. He met Defence Minister Shoigu, telling him that “thanks to Russia, our army has become one of the strongest in the region”.  He also met Aleksandr Mikheyev, director general of arms exporter Rosoboronexport, to discuss weapons purchases, and travelled to the Republic of Tatarstan, where he saw the president, Rustam Minnikhanov, and toured a helicopter factory.  (Minnikhanov paid a return visit to Myanmar in April 2022. See Section C below.) As in the past, notwithstanding the coup that made him Myanmar’s de facto senior-most official, Russia treated Min Aung Hlaing as a military chief, not as a head of state. The visit did not include meetings with President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov or other top political leaders.

Min Aung Hlaing’s visit was pegged to the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security, where he was the first speaker at the second session on Asia-Pacific security affairs.  He was also awarded an honorary professorship by the Russian Military University.  During the visit, he gave several interviews to the Russian media in which he emphasised Naypyitaw’s close relationship with Moscow and pushed a narrative of Western interference in Myanmar.

Continuing his pattern of annual visits since 2017, Min Aung Hlaing travelled to Russia again in July 2022. He met with Deputy Defence Minister Fomin in Moscow, travelled to Tatarstan to meet President Minnikhanov and local business leaders and tour the Kazan Helicopter factory, and also visited St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk.  For unknown reasons his usual meeting with Defence Minister Shoigu did not take place; Russia characterised the trip as a “personal visit”, suggesting that it was initiated by Min Aung Hlaing.  Myanmar state media indicated that the main purpose of his travel was to consecrate a pagoda at Etnomir, an ethnographic theme park a couple of hours’ drive outside Moscow, and for this purpose the delegation was accompanied by nationalist monk Sitagu Sayadaw and several other senior Buddhist clerics.

Defence engagement also continued unabated, despite the regime’s brutal repression of dissent. In May 2021, three months after the coup, air force chief General Maung Maung Kyaw attended Russia’s largest helicopter trade fair, the HeliRussia exhibition in Moscow.  In August, Deputy Defence Minister Fomin then welcomed a Myanmar delegation to Russia’s International Army Games, saying it would “have an excellent opportunity to see a large series of [Russian] weapons and military equipment” and pledging to “further strengthen” military ties.  In March 2022, the regime’s minister for home affairs, Lieutenant General Soe Htut, travelled to St. Petersburg for Expotechnostrazh-2022, which bills itself as an “international exhibition of advanced security technologies”, and discussed procurement of military and cybersecurity equipment.

The Myanmar military has used weapons and military equipment procured from Russia to attack civilians, both prior to and since the coup, in what likely amount to crimes against humanity. The equipment it has used includes fighter jets and attack helicopters, and their associated munitions, as well as artillery and armoured vehicles.

C.Relations after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, the Myanmar regime reciprocated the strong support it received after the coup, becoming Russia’s most uncritical ally in Asia.  The regime offered immediate backing for Russia’s assault, with spokesperson Major-General Zaw Min Tun describing it as “an appropriate action” and an attempt by Moscow to “strengthen its national sovereignty”.  He also told a local media outlet that the invasion showed that Russia was still a “powerful nation that plays an essential role in keeping the balance of power for world peace”.

A few days later, Myanmar state media published a commentary blaming the people of Ukraine for choosing as president a “puppet of the West” who is “incapable and lacks rationalism”; the pseudonymous author also praised Putin as a “leader of vision”.  This unrestrained backing for Russia’s actions has not, however, translated into support in the UN General Assembly from Myanmar’s own representative there, Kyaw Moe Tun. The junta does not control Myanmar’s seat at the UN, which was never relinquished by the diplomat who held it immediately prior to the coup, and who has sided with the anti-regime opposition. Thus, Myanmar’s UN ambassador in New York voted in favour of a General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion on 2 March.

 Russia has become an increasingly strident voice of support for the Myanmar regime. 

For its part, Russia has become an increasingly strident voice of support for the Myanmar regime, including on the Security Council, for example opposing (with China) a draft press statement following the Council’s discussion of Myanmar on 27 May that would have expressed concern about the humanitarian situation and the junta’s “limited progress” in meeting its commitments to ASEAN to end the crisis.  Moscow also argues that the post-coup situation does not represent a threat to international peace and security, leaving no reason to discuss Myanmar at the Council besides the Rohingya refugee crisis (which Russia does acknowledge merits Council attention).

Occupied by the Ukraine war, Deputy Defence Minister Fomin turned down an invitation to attend Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw in March 2022, but Russia has nevertheless continued to cultivate the Myanmar military.  A month later, President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov led a delegation to Myanmar, following Min Aung Hlaing’s visit in 2021 (see above).  With him were several arms company executives, including the managing director of Tatarstan-based KAMAZ trucks, Sergey Kogogin.  KAMAZ is Russia’s largest manufacturer of trucks, including military vehicles, and Kogogin was negotiating an agreement to assemble vehicles in Myanmar.  An executive from another Tatarstan-headquartered manufacturer, Kazan Helicopters, was also on the delegation.  Kazan produces helicopters that the Myanmar military uses, including the MI-17. KAMAZ, Kazan and their executives, including Kogogin, have been sanctioned by the U.S., the European Union (EU), the UK and others for supplying equipment to the Russian military.

In addition to diplomatic protection and arms supplies, the Myanmar junta hopes Russia may also be able to help make up for the loss of foreign investment since the coup, and provide support with technology to boost import substitution, a key focus of the regime. For example, Min Aung Hlaing raised with President Minnikhanov possible support for Myanmar’s oil industry, particularly in refining, something the two sides agreed to explore further.  In addition to significant quantities of natural gas, Myanmar produces some crude oil, but it has no extensive refining capability, which means it is almost totally reliant on imported fuel.

With oil prices surging since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the regime is concerned about its foreign currency reserves, and its ability to maintain adequate refined fuel stocks; it has already introduced some rationing due to supply shortages.  In late April, regime spokesperson Zaw Min Tun announced that Myanmar was negotiating with Russia to import fuel “at a reasonable price”.  The two sides also discussed the possibility of Tatarstan providing fertiliser in exchange for Myanmar rice.  Given formal and informal boycotts of its energy products, Russia needs new export destinations, and could provide the products at below-market rates given that benchmark Russian crude (known as “Urals crude”) and refined fuel are trading at a significant discount relative to global prices.  A large Myanmar ministerial delegation further discussed these issues during its visit to the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.

In the aftermath of the coup, large oil and gas multinationals – including Total, Chevron, Petronas, Woodside and Eneos – have announced that they are pulling out of Myanmar, and the regime is keen to find replacements to develop and operate new and existing gas fields. Should Russian firms be interested, they would be able to acquire assets at distressed prices.  A regime spokesperson has claimed that Russia will enter the oil and gas sector “in the near future”.  Russia’s Rosneft, which has been conducting limited onshore oil and gas exploration in Myanmar for a decade, said in April 2021 that it was planning to drill a test well.

 [Myanmar’s and Russia’s] banks have also been working to create direct ruble-kyat exchange facility in order to promote bilateral trade. 

Following a visit of the Russia-Myanmar Friendship Cooperation Committee to Myanmar in October 2021, the two countries’ banks have also been working to create a direct ruble-kyat exchange facility in order to promote bilateral trade.  This facility would assist Russia, which is increasingly cut off from the global financial system, including payments infrastructure and access to foreign currency. For Myanmar, which is also concerned about its foreign currency reserves, such a mechanism would similarly reduce its dependence on dollars or other intermediate hard currencies. The arrangement would be a more sophisticated version of the rice-for-infrastructure barter of the 1950s (see Section II.A above) and the potential fertiliser-for-rice exchange that was discussed during the Tatarstan delegation’s recent visit.  Myanmar Airways International has also announced plans to start the first direct Yangon-Moscow cargo flights by the end of 2022.

The Myanmar regime’s support for Russia comes despite the fact that the invasion of Ukraine has hurt its finances. This impact has been mainly due to the global surge of oil and food prices, as Myanmar imports virtually all of its refined fuel products, large quantities of cooking oil, fertiliser and other agricultural inputs.  High oil prices globally have translated into higher domestic transport costs, triggering much higher market prices of most essentials and consumer products. This has had macro-economic consequences (surging inflation, strain on foreign currency reserves), and a devastating effect on the most vulnerable sections of the population, already hit by the economic consequences of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the coup.

V.A Warm Embrace

Russia undoubtedly sees closer relations with the Myanmar regime as serving its short-term geostrategic and economic interests. Consolidating links with a key partner in Asia is important at a time when Moscow’s foreign relations are under historic strain. Boosting exports is likewise valuable given the economic impact of sanctions and the reputational damage caused by the Ukraine invasion. By drawing closer to the Myanmar military, however, Russia is betting that it will remain in control of the country – or at least continue to be a powerful, autonomous institution – for the foreseeable future. It likely sees this risk as worth taking given the historical durability of the Myanmar military and its geographic distance from Myanmar, which would insulate it from the effects of state failure. But it is a risk nonetheless: while there is no sign yet of the junta losing or relinquishing power, under any future democratic or populist government, Moscow would likely suffer the consequences of having backed a regime despised by the vast majority of Myanmar’s people.

For the Myanmar regime, closer ties with Russia also offer obvious short-term benefits. Following the coup, it needs diplomatic protection, continued military relations with a key supplier in whose weapons systems it has invested heavily, and new trade and investment partners to replace those that have departed. Such support is even more beneficial if the regime can gain access to Russian energy products at a discount, at a time of surging global prices.

But there are also clear risks for the regime in aligning itself so closely with Moscow. First, Russia’s reliability as a defence partner could come into question in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The war has placed huge demands on Russian defence industries, which means it likely has less excess capacity to sell overseas. Secondly, Myanmar’s weapons purchases from Russia mostly consist of technologically advanced equipment such as aircraft, radar instruments and air defence systems for which the regime has few alternative sources other than China, on which it already feels overly dependent. But export controls and other sanctions from the U.S., the EU and several Asian countries have made it difficult for Russian manufacturers to obtain key technologies and critical components required to manufacture such equipment.  These constraints will also affect the Russian defence industries’ capacity to supply spare parts, munitions and upgrades for the Myanmar military’s existing systems, which the junta cannot quickly or cheaply replace.

 [Myanmar’s] regime has placed a big bet on a country that has run into bigger problems than it anticipated in Ukraine. 

There are also geopolitical implications for Myanmar in embracing an international pariah. The regime has placed a big bet on a country that has run into bigger problems than it anticipated in Ukraine, and that could well emerge from the war it launched diminished. Not only is it possible that Russia will be a less powerful friend, but close ties to Moscow could complicate Myanmar’s relations with other countries in the region that are distancing themselves from Russia, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Any close alliance with Moscow will also be a further source of concern for Western countries, which have imposed additional targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military and its businesses following the coup, but so far stopped short of broader financial and trade measures, such as those that were in place when the previous junta was in charge and were lifted in 2012. At least in theory, the West could contemplate these more punitive measures, particularly if it sees Myanmar as helping Moscow dodge the blow of sanctions, for example by purchasing its energy products.

It remains unlikely that the U.S. or EU will go this far, but it is not entirely impossible. While Western countries will stay focused on larger countries such as India over concerns they are creating markets for Russian fuel, the U.S. desire to cultivate New Delhi as a strategic partner will likely keep Washington from using coercive measures with it; sanctioning Myanmar would be a much more straightforward policy decision for many of them, given that it is neither an important trade partner nor a strategic ally.  As Crisis Group has previously argued, however, financial sanctions or trade measures (in particular, revoking Myanmar’s access to EU trade preferences) would likely have little impact on the junta, but could be ruinous for many ordinary people, particularly factory workers and their families.

VI.Possible Responses

Despite the risks for both sides, it appears very likely that Russia and Myanmar will discount those risks and seek to continue deepening bilateral ties. Outside actors looking to bring about positive change in Myanmar need to plan accordingly.

Because there is little that Western and regional powers can do that would successfully disrupt the mutually beneficial relationship Russia and Myanmar have developed, they will be best served by focusing on the strategy they are currently pursuing. First, countries should keep targeting the regime and military, and businesses linked to them, with targeted sanctions, even if such measures are unlikely to change the junta’s calculus. Sanctions are important both as a signal of principle and a constraint on the military’s income-generating opportunities. They should also redouble their efforts to secure the broadest possible bilateral arms embargoes on Myanmar, recognising that the regime’s two most important suppliers, Russia and China, will continue to stymie efforts to multilateralise the weapons ban at the UN Security Council. At the same time, foreign governments should continue to eschew blanket trade and financial sanctions that would disproportionately harm the livelihoods of ordinary Myanmar people, while scarcely affecting the regime, other than perhaps pushing it deeper into Chinese and Russian arms.

Secondly, Asian diplomats must factor the junta’s deepening relations with Russia into their attempts to address the Myanmar crisis – in the sense that these ties make efforts to stigmatise the junta regionally yet more important. It is therefore even more important for ASEAN’s key dialogue partners that have opposed the coup (such as the U.S., EU, UK and Japan) to continue to insist that the regional bloc extend its policy of excluding Myanmar regime representatives from summits and other key meetings. While the impact of such a boycott is limited, it deprives the regime of the international legitimacy that it seeks. It also maintains at least some regional diplomatic leverage by signalling that normalisation will not be possible until the regime makes meaningful progress in ending the violence and returning the country to a democratic path.

Thirdly, diplomats at the UN must also take a tactical approach to the Myanmar-Russia relationship. Despite Russia’s (and China’s) veto power, debates at the Security Council have so far been less polarised on the Myanmar crisis than on some other issues. Russia has deferred to China in allowing the Council to approve statements on Myanmar since the coup, including a presidential statement in March 2021 and press statements in February, November and December 2021, and February and July 2022. While such statements fall far short of the action required to address the crisis, they are an important signal of international concern at the highest level, including from Myanmar’s diplomatic allies.

Diplomats, however, say China is becoming more resistant to Council action on Myanmar, raising questions about how long the Council’s consensus-based approach can last. For example, Beijing took a hard line in negotiations on a draft press statement following the Council’s 27 May discussion on Myanmar, preventing any text from being issued, although it did allow a press statement on 27 July 2022 condemning the junta’s execution of dissidents.  A breakdown in consensus would likely mean that China would no longer constrain Russia’s position, allowing Moscow to provide Naypyitaw with more robust diplomatic backing.

 It is important to save space for diplomacy on Myanmar in the Council, so as not to undermine its ability to respond to future developments. 

It is thus important for Council members to preserve the consensus approach as long as possible, rather than hastening its demise by pressing the issue – for example, by forcing a vote on a draft resolution even if they know that China and Russia will veto it. A breakdown of the consensus approach would on balance be unhelpful, as it would likely prevent agreement on any further Council statements or even a less ambitious resolution in the future, which may still be possible. However unsatisfying such texts may be to countries urging stronger action, it is important to save space for diplomacy on Myanmar in the Council, so as not to undermine its ability to respond to future developments (as it was able to do in condemning the execution of dissidents in July), such as further serious regime violence in the lead-up to its planned 2023 elections.

Deeper divisions in the Security Council on Myanmar could undermine the chances of Kyaw Moe Tun remaining as Myanmar’s permanent representative. In 2021, the U.S. and China reached an understanding that he can stay in his position, albeit keeping a low profile, thus avoiding a divisive vote on the issue in the Credentials Committee and perhaps in the General Assembly plenary as well. But disagreements among Council members, coming on top of Kyaw Moe Tun’s voting record (see Section IV.C above), would make any such understanding much less likely when the General Assembly convenes again in September.

VII.Conclusion

After the Myanmar coup and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two countries have found common interest in deepening their military, political and economic ties. Western and regional powers that want to see a return to democracy in Myanmar and a weakened Russia have reason to be concerned about the two countries drawing closer together. But with little possibility that they could disrupt the relationship, they should focus their actions where they are likely to be most constructive: on maintaining targeted (not blanket) sanctions on the Myanmar military, imposing arms embargoes, reinforcing a firm ASEAN approach and ensuring that UN diplomacy preserves space for future consensus action in the Security Council.

Bangkok/Brussels, 4 August 2022

Appendix A: Visits by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to Russia

  1. June 2013 – Min Aung Hlaing’s first visit to Russia, meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow.
  2. (November 2014) – Min Aung Hlaing visits Belarus, with transit via Moscow, and meets at the airport with Lt. Gen. (now Col. Gen.) Alexander Fomin, Russia’s director of military-technical cooperation.
  3. June 2017 – Min Aung Hlaing meets with Defence Minister Shoigu, visits the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.
  4. August 2018 – Min Aung Hlaing travels to Russia for the “Army 2018 International Military Technical Forum” and National Security Week events, meets Defence Minister Shoigu; Min Aung Hlaing is accompanied by prominent nationalist monk, Sitagu Sayadaw.
  5. April 2019 – Min Aung Hlaing attends 8th Moscow Conference on International Security, meets Defence Minister Shoigu.
  6. June 2020 – Min Aung Hlaing attends Russia victory day parade, meets Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin who awards him honorary medals for strengthening military cooperation with Russia.
  7. June 2021 – Min Aung Hlaing attends 9th Moscow Conference on International Security; is awarded honorary professorship by Russian Military University; meets Defence Minister Shoigu; travels to Tatarstan.
  8. July 2022 – Min Aung Hlaing makes what Russian officials say is a “private” visit, including consecration of a replica pagoda with Sitagu Sayadaw at Etnomir ethnological park outside Moscow. Also meets with Deputy Defence Minister Fomin and travels to Tatarstan, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk.

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