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Myanmar’s Junta Woos Moscow to Balance Beijing 

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Myanmar's Min Aung Hlaing walk past the honor guard prior to their talks in Moscow, June 22, 2021. (Vadim Savitskiy/Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation/Handout via Reuters)
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Myanmar's Min Aung Hlaing walk past the honor guard prior to their talks in Moscow, June 22, 2021. (Vadim Savitskiy/Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation/Handout via Reuters)

The decision by Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to visit Russia before next-door neighbor China highlights his military’s easier relations with Moscow and hopes of drawing the Kremlin closer to avoid relying on Beijing alone, analysts say.

Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia last week for a three-day international security conference.

China and Russia have been the junta’s most powerful allies since the military, or Tatmadaw, toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government four months ago. Amid international rebuke of the military’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protests, Beijing and Moscow have blocked efforts in the United Nations Security Council to pressure the junta to back down. The two are also Myanmar’s main arms suppliers.

As a neighbor, China has the far older, deeper and intricate ties to Myanmar. It is the country’s top trade partner and a major investor. Myanmar also figures large in Beijing’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative, offering China a new route to the Indian Ocean and vital oil and gas supplies in the Middle East.

Instead of making Beijing his first stop outside of Southeast Asia since the coup, though, Min Aung Hlaing headed to Moscow on June 20 for the security conference. The visit included meetings with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.

Those who watch Myanmar closely were not surprised by the choice.

“Moscow’s support for the new regime has been unequivocal and the junta chief was assured of a warm welcome from a major international power and the opportunity to discuss expanding military and economic cooperation,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with Janes defense publications.

“The relationship with China has been far testier given Beijing’s dissatisfaction over the chaos triggered by the coup, and longstanding Tatmadaw suspicion over Chinese goals and support for certain ethnic insurgent groups,” he said.

Foul weather friend

Smuggling, gambling operations and weapons flows between southern China and northeast Myanmar have been helping prop up ethnic minority rebel armies fighting the Tatmadaw for autonomy along the border for decades, a major thorn in the military’s side. Last year Min Aung Hlaing openly complained about a “foreign country” backing some of the rebels.

“Though he did not mention the name of this country, it was automatically known that he referred to China,” said Ye Myo Hein, who heads the Tagaung Institute for Political Studies, a Myanmar think tank.

He noted too that Min Aung Hlaing was speaking to Russian state media on a trip to Russia.

As both a neighbor and big investor, China is also far more worried than Russia about the violence and economic nosedive the February 1 coup has sparked or inflamed, he added. Financial forecasters say Myanmar’s gross domestic product may plummet by as much as 20% this year. Assassinations and bomb attacks targeting government administrators and facilities are tearing through the country, while long-dormant standoffs between the Tatmadaw and some rebel armies have flared up.

Ye Myo Hein said Min Aung Hlaing traveled to Russia before China to avoid the added pressure that would come with a trip to Beijing to stick to a five-point plan for saving Myanmar from collapse drawn up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“He knows China will not give blank check support, which the coup leaders will not be happy about. China has a great deal of concern with instability and the spillover effects in neighboring countries. That's why it is pushing the five-point consensus from ASEAN, but the junta has not been ready to follow it,” he said.

Min Aung Hlaing reportedly agreed to the plan during a special meeting of the bloc in Jakarta in April, including an immediate end to violence and negotiations with “all parties concerned,” but has shown no sign of following though since then.

Balancing Beijing

Davis said Russia also offers Myanmar “a critical great-power counterbalance to the sort of over-reliance on Beijing seen in the 1990s.”

Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to attend the security conference in Moscow rather than send a representative may signal his interest to draw Russia even closer, said Moe Thuzar, a Myanmar analyst at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“So the decision to make Russia the destination of his first visit out of the region would be motivated by Min Aung Hlaing’s interest to seek more legitimacy and more strategic support, and present that balancing and diversification element to existing relations with China,” she said.

To date, Russia has filled that role largely as an arms supplier, and an ever more important one. The Tatmadaw has bought more military hardware from China over its history. In the past two decades, though, it has sourced nearly as much from Russia as from China, according to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The same data show the Tatmadaw lately turning to Russia mainly for airpower, from surface-to-air missiles to helicopters and fighter jets. Davis said Russian hardware’s superior quality and competitive prices make them a better deal than their Chinese alternatives, and that the Tatmadaw’s possible purchase of more planes and armored vehicles — and interest in Kilo-class submarines — could soon make Russia Myanmar’s top arms supplier. Whether that happens will depend in large part on how much the junta can afford as the economy tumbles, he added.

Those financial woes are also why Min Aung Hlaing wants to move relations with Russia beyond the military-to-military level they are mostly at now, said Ye Myo Hein.

With Western governments imposing targeted sanctions and foreign companies holding off on new deals, he said the junta “urgently needs more investment as the economy is tremendously going down. Currently there will be investment only from China, and I think the junta is trying to invite more investments from other countries,” Russia included.

Value systems

Ye Myo Hein said the junta will entice Russia with the promise of more weapons sales and may even offer up Myanmar’s ports for calls from Russia’s navy on any forays it makes into the Indian Ocean.

Ian Storey, another analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Russia would like to expand its presence in the ocean, having forged close security ties with India but has few friendly ports along the way from Vladivostok on Russia’s east coast. He said a reliable stop in Myanmar would help but added the limited number of warships in the Russian navy’s Western Pacific fleet would keep those trips modest “for the foreseeable future.”

The Russian navy may send the odd ship or two into the Indian Ocean using Myanmar as a stepping stone, but not in any numbers to shift the balance of power there, said Eugene Rumer, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

He said Russia’s naval ambitions will remain elsewhere, including the north Atlantic and northeast Pacific.

Rumer said Moscow will seek some business concessions for the diplomatic cover it gives Myanmar’s junta but, like others, he does not expect Russia to prove the economic lifeline the junta may be looking for.

Analysts say that role will continue to go mainly to China.

What the junta does also offer Russia is another chance to chip away at the West’s push for an international relations regime based on democratic values, said Rumer. By coming to the aid of pariah states from Venezuela to Zimbabwe, and now Myanmar, he said Moscow hopes to advance a regime void of those values, much in line with Beijing.

“It undercuts U.S. insistence on values as being a major aspect of our foreign policy,” he said. “The flip side of it is that it helps show that the United States is not omnipotent; it brings it down a peg or two. And it brings Russia and China closer together, something that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made part of his foreign policy priorities.”