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Moscow’s interests in Myanmar are fuelled by rivalry with the West

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Demonstrators protest in front of Russian embassy against the military coup and demand for the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, 12 February, 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Stringer).

In Brief

On 27 March, Myanmar’s junta held a military parade in Naypyidaw to celebrate Armed Forces Day amid nationwide anti-junta protests and killings of unarmed protesters. Representatives from several countries attended the parade, but it was the Russian delegation that drew international attention and criticism due to the high profile of its members.


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Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence Alexander Fomin headed the delegation which also included the Chairman of the Public Council at the Ministry of Defence, Pavel Gusev. This gesture did not go unnoticed by the junta and prompted an expression of ‘profound gratitude’ from its leader, General Min Aung Hlaing.

What explains the dispatch of such a high-profile delegation amid international criticism of the junta? Russia’s muted response to the coup should be understood in the context of Russia’s trade relations with Myanmar, the Kremlin’s ideology and the current state of Russia’s relations with the West.

Russia’s cordial relations with Myanmar go back to the Cold War years, but until the 2000s the relationship was largely without content. Bilateral trade started to gain momentum from 2014 and by 2019 Russian exports to Myanmar grew more than fivefold, from less than US$47 million in 2014 to over US$266 million in 2019.

But these figures should be put in perspective. For example, in 2019 Russia’s exports to Vietnam — its closest ally and most important trading partner in Southeast Asia — stood at a hefty US$1.4 billion and exports to Thailand at US$614 million. Myanmar ranks only 83rd among Russia’s trading partners and its exports to Myanmar account for a mere 0.07 per cent of Russia’s exports.

Still, the importance of Myanmar as an export destination lies in the nature of the exports rather than their overall scale. According to Russia’s trade data, ‘secret code’ exports (arms, military-related equipment and certain nuclear materials) to Myanmar grew from less than US$8 million in 2014 to over US$115 million in 2020 and came to account for 51 per cent of all exports.

So while Myanmar still does not rank very highly on the list of Russia’s arms export destinations, the relationship is gaining momentum with a new deal signed just a week before the coup. The deal included supply of military drones — the first of such deals for Russia — which is expected to boost interest in Russian drones in other countries as well.

Myanmar’s wariness of overreliance on China, its main trading partner and arms supplier — coupled with new international sanctions — may also increase Russia’s share of Myanmar’s arms imports if the junta maintains its hold on power. Russia saw its share in the highly competitive international arms market decline over the last five years, so building upon its relations with Naypyidaw is important to boost its arms trade.

Russia’s economic interests in Myanmar are not limited to arms exports. Russia’s exports to Myanmar include machinery and industrial equipment, while its imports mostly consist of textiles and agricultural products. Since 2013, Russia’s de facto state-owned enterprise Bashneft has been involved in oil exploration in Myanmar and the two countries recently boosted cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. This cooperation could potentially revive a decades old plan for the construction of a nuclear reactor in Myanmar by Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation.

Myanmar’s importance for Russia can also be traced back to the principle of non-interference and an emphasis on sovereignty. Strong opposition to the (perceived or real) attempts by the West to export democracy under the guise of ‘colour revolutions’ has become one of the main tenets of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ideology.

Russia has not condoned the coup and supported the UN Security Council statement that condemned violence against peaceful protesters. But in line with its policy of non-interference, Moscow also blocked a stronger condemnation of the coup and opposed sanctions against the junta.

Another ideological factor potentially motivating the Russian presence at the Armed Forces Day parade is the Soviet victory in the Second World War — a key domestic political tool for the Kremlin used to mobilise patriotism, criticise the West and justify Russia’s role as a major power in international affairs. In 2020, General Min Aung Hlaing, at that time the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s Armed Forces, was one of a handful of high-ranking foreign guests attending the Victory Day parade. Carefully orchestrated by the Kremlin, the parade plays an important part in this ideological construct.

So Russia’s high-profile delegation could be interpreted as a gesture aimed not only at emphasising the importance of bilateral relations, but also at expressing personal gratitude to the junta’s chief for his attendance in Moscow a year earlier. Putin’s loyalty to those he considers true friends is well-known.

A decade or so ago, the need for stable relations with the West may have outweighed all these factors in Moscow’s response to the coup. But today, Russia’s foreign policy is defined mostly by the state of its relations with the United States and the European Union, which are at their lowest point since the Cold War.

In the context of this broader rivalry between Russia and the West, Russia is seeking to establish closer ties with various authoritarian regimes around the world. While further deepening relations with the junta in Myanmar could potentially strain Russia’s relations with ASEAN and China, Moscow seems to see good relations with the junta as an asset, rather than a liability.

Alexander Bukh is Associate Professor (Reader) in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

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