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

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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.