Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with Foreign Minister of Myanmar Wunna Maung Lwin in Naypidaw, 3 August 2022. (Photo: MFA Russia / Twitter)

Myanmar’s Pivot to Russia: Friend in Need or Faulty Strategy?

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The relationship between Myanmar and Russia has become increasingly close. This is fueled by practical considerations as well as geopolitics.

Myanmar junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded the 75th anniversary of Russia-Myanmar relations when they met for the first time at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September.

However, Moscow and Naypyidaw interactions only started getting cosier about two decades ago. Min Aung Hlaing observed to Putin, “During this period [of 75 years of bilateral ties], there have been ups and downs. But, starting from the past two decades, the relations between Myanmar and Russia have noticeably improved.”

Burmese generals are widely thought to be close to Beijing. Why then did the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, attempt to forge closer relations with the Kremlin? The state of affairs can be summed up in two words: pragmatism and geopolitics.

A key motivation lies in the Tatmadaw’s continuous quest for arms, which it justifies as necessary for counter-insurgency operations and to defend the country from outside threats.

Russia’s continued supply of arms to Myanmar, and its recognition and support for the junta since the 2021 coup seems to confirm to the generals that Russia is indeed among the “few friends” remaining amid mounting international pressure from Western democracies and perceived friends such as China and ASEAN.

After the 1988 coup, the Tatmadaw turned to China when the West imposed arms embargoes and broad-based sanctions. Though necessity dictated this turn, Myanmar generals have for years been dissatisfied with China-made weapons, especially combat aircraft. “We felt China downgraded the quality of its arms exports, including fighter jets, to Myanmar,” shared a former major-general speaking on condition of anonymity.

This eventually compelled the generals to look further afield for new arms suppliers. Myanmar approached Russia, other East European countries and even North Korea. Myanmar generals purchased Russian MiG-29s after a border clash with Thailand in February 2001 showed up the inadequacy of Myanmar’s China-made aircraft, such as the F-7 IIK, against Thailand’s US-made F-16 fighters. Shortly after the border clash, the Tatmadaw purchased 12 MiG-29s in 2001. In 2009 it negotiated a further purchase of 20 MiG-29s. Then, the acquisition was reportedly Russia’s biggest fighter deal since Algeria scrapped an agreement to buy 34 MiG-29s.

The Tatmadaw also turned to Russia for military modernisation and training. This started before Min Aung Hlaing became Commander-in-Chief in 2011. Vice Senior-General Maung Aye, the second-in-command of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), made the overture with the consent of SPDC supremo Senior General Than Shwe, according to military and related sources.

The same retired major-general who divulged the Tatmadaw’s dissatisfaction with China also shared that both Tatmadaw generals — Than Shwe and Maung Aye — fought against the China-backed Communist Party of Burma. He added that they both understood “where the real external threat lay”.

There has also been an awkwardness in the junta’s relations with China after the 2021 coup, underscored by China’s concerns to safeguard its economic interests in Myanmar. This may have persuaded the current crop of generals to recall their mentor Maung Aye’s idea of seeking a new partner and arms supplier in Russia. Unlike other generals who had visited China since taking power, Min Aung Hlaing has not been to China since the coup. The junta has also rebuffed a Chinese request for Sun Guoxiang, its special envoy for Asian Affairs, to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Russia and the Burmese generals both seem pleased with their two-decade-old supplier-buyer relationship. In June 2020 Russia’s state-owned RT (Russia Today) TV interviewed Min Aung Hlaing who was in Moscow for Russia’s 75th Victory Day parade. When asked whether he was “satisfied with the Russian-made planes and helicopters” he replied in the affirmative, stating that “they are really good, and of high quality.”

The Tatmadaw also sought Russia’s assistance in modernising Myanmar’s air defence system. The Tatmadaw established the Office of the Chief of Air Defence in 1997, which became fully operational in 1999.  A key business crony of the Burmese generals takes credit for this. He shared with the author that he had recommended to Than Shwe and Maung Aye that Myanmar acquire Russian air defense systems to modernise the Tatmadaw’s air defense capabilities.

There is also a capacity-building dimension. Since the early 2000s, thousands of Myanmar military officers have received training in Russia. Min Aung Hlaing reportedly developed this training programme. Topics included military studies, information technology as well as missile and nuclear technology. Some of the returned trainees are now serving in the Office of Strategic Studies, a think-tank advising top generals at the War Office in Naypyidaw. In this capacity, they have some influence over Myanmar’s current Russia policy, including support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s continued supply of arms to Myanmar, and its recognition and support for the junta since the 2021 coup seems to confirm to the generals that Russia is indeed among the “few friends” remaining amid mounting international pressure from Western democracies and perceived friends such as China and ASEAN. Facing calls to free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and requests for dialogue with her, the generals view Russia, which wields veto power at the United Nations Security Council, as an important part of the junta’s power-balancing strategy.

Russia, which has weathered global opprobrium for its February invasion of Ukraine, is also keen to find friends. Cautious about making firm statements on Myanmar shortly after the coup, the Kremlin is now more willing to discuss closer ties with Naypyidaw. “After the Ukraine war, Russia and Myanmar became closer as the world treats both countries similarly,” said a senior officer familiar with the junta’s current Russia policy. He observed that Myanmar’s policy on Russia is now driven by geopolitics.

With the Tatmadaw continuing to embrace the Kremlin, Myanmar may become Russia’s strategic foothold to expand its geopolitical reach in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and could spark regional tensions. Whether the Tatmadaw’s turn to Russia may prove to be a wrong strategy seems to be contingent on diplomatic compromises on many fronts, which key actors are currently unwilling to cede.

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Wai Moe is a Visiting Fellow with the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a former Burmese political prisoner turned journalist.