Myanmar’s Russia reliance a dangerous double-edged sword

Myanmar’s Russia reliance a dangerous double-edged sword

CHIANG MAI – When Myanmar’s military regime drops bombs and launches air strikes on civilian populations, a rising component of its intensifying war against anti-coup and ethnic rebel groups, the aerial assaults owe largely to Russia.

In recent months, Myanmar’s Air Force has used Russia-made Yak-130 jets and Mi-35 helicopters to drop munitions in areas where resistance fighters are known to be active but that have also often hit civilian populations, indiscriminate attacks that rights groups say are tantamount to war crimes.

Myanmar is believed to have at least 20 Yak-130 jets, two-seaters designed to train pilots but commonly used for counterinsurgency operations, including six it received in December 2021.  

In October, Janes Information Group reported it had received imagery showing a Russian Kamov KA-29TB assault transport helicopter in operation in the northern Sagaing region, apparently one of five of the gunships Myanmar’s military agreed to buy earlier this year.

In a more recent November delivery, Myanmar received either four or six – reports vary – Russia-made Sukhoi Su-30 multi-role fighters replete with Russian trainers and technicians. Russian military instructors have also been spotted at airfields in Myanmar, presumably to help maintain their attack helicopters but also possibly for targeting advice.

But as Myanmar’s military regime, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), escalates its air war against rebel forces highly vulnerable to aerial attacks, its dependence on Moscow for its arms, supplies and assistance is both a source of strength and weakness that could have a significant bearing on the future course of the civil war.

Russia’s war against Ukraine, by any honest measure, has been a military disaster, with Moscow losing more men and materiel than in any armed conflict since World War II. As the losses mount and conflict intensifies, it is questionable whether Russia will have enough surplus military hardware and parts for export to far-flung customers like Myanmar.

Myanmar’s junta sought to enhance its alliance with Moscow last year, seen in its frequent expressions of support for its invasion of Ukraine. On February 25, SAC spokesman Major-General Zaw Min Tun said that Russia’s military had “carried out what is justified for the sustainability of their country’s sovereignty” and that the war proved Moscow’s “position as a world power.”

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia at least three times since seizing power in a February 1, 2021 coup. He reportedly told Russia’s defense minister in June of that year that “thanks to Russia, our army has become one of the strongest in the region.”

Myanmar’s Air Force is powered by Russian MiG-29s. Image: Twitter

During Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Moscow in September last year, the general met with President Vladimir Putin and toured a plant producing fighter jets. Moscow, meanwhile, has backed the democracy-suspending junta’s bid to be recognized as Myanmar’s legitimate government by officially referring to Min Aung Hlaing as “prime minister.”

Myanmar’s special relationship with Russia began nearly three decades ago when the ruling generals sought to mitigate their heavy dependence on China for military hardware. Then, Beijing filled the gap when the country was placed under Western sanctions following the bloody suppression of a nationwide uprising for democracy in 1988.

The first contacts were forged in the 1990s when Russian dignitaries began visiting the country. Moscow sold its first consignment of four MiG-29 jet fighters to Myanmar in 2001, which was followed by another ten MiGs the following year.

Russia has since sold Myanmar’s generals Hind Mi-35 helicopter gunships, Mi-17 transport helicopters, Yak-130 ground attack aircraft, light armored vehicles as well as heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.

As many as 5,000 Myanmar soldiers and scientists have studied at Russian military schools since the early 1990s, more than from any other Southeast Asian country including old Cold War ally Vietnam.

In 2007, Russia also signed an agreement to build a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar but construction was delayed due to costs and the controversial project was not apparently any longer on the drawing board before the February 2021 democracy-suspending coup.

However, Alexey Likhachev, director of the state-owned Russian firm Rosatom, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with junta science and technology minister Myo Thein Kyaw in July last year covering “cooperation in training and skills development in the field of nuclear energy and shaping positive public opinion on nuclear energy in Myanmar.”

In September, Likhachev met Min Aung Hlaing on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok where the two agreed to strengthen atomic energy cooperation including through the possible construction of a modular nuclear reactor in Myanmar.

Despite such big bang pronouncements, no doubt calculated to raise antenna in the West, betting on Russia rather than China as its closest security partner may not turn out as Min Aung Hlaing and his SAC members hope and expect.

If Moscow starts to falter in its military deliveries to Naypyidaw, as some analysts see as likely, Myanmar’s generals may soon be forced to swallow their pride and again go hat in hand to Beijing for military arms and related assistance in yet another hour of sanctions-induced need.

Russia, for its part, has vowed to honor arms deals signed before the coup in Myanmar, including for missile defense systems and fighter jets, but that was before the war in Ukraine took such a heavy toll on Russia’s weapons supplies.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing inspecting arms in Moscow in June 2021. Image: Cincds

It is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to restore the erstwhile Soviet Union’s old glory, a drive seen in his expansionist war in Ukraine and search for new strategic allies such as Myanmar.

While China has vital strategic interests in Myanmar as the only neighboring country that provides Beijing with direct access to the Indian Ocean, Russia has always been more interested in making money from its arms sales and other commercial engagements with Myanmar.

To be sure, Myanmar is not the only Southeast Asian country to buy military equipment from Russia – others include Vietnam, Indonesia and even Malaysia – but the relationship between Moscow and Myanmar’s generals goes way beyond lucrative arms deals.

Putin’s autocracy and Myanmar’s junta share a similar disdain for Western democracies, human rights and civil liberties. Russia is trying to bomb Ukraine to literal smithereens while junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and his cohorts are doing the same in their own country.

They are, as one Asian analyst who requested anonymity put it, “birds of a feather.” Xi’s China may be in the same autocratic league but China is perceived by the generals as too close for comfort and Russia never supported the once-powerful Communist Party of Burma, which waged a bloody civil war against the government then in Yangon.

The generals have not likely forgotten that the communist rulers in Beijing provided massive military aid and support to their then-ideological comrades in Myanmar during the decade spanning 1968-78.

Moscow has been able to leverage that lingering distrust, despite its comparative lack of commercial offerings. In August last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Myanmar to discuss what the official news agency Tass described as “security and economic issues.”

That was followed in November by a visit to Moscow by SAC minister for transport and communications, Admiral Tin Aung San, where several new cooperative agreements were concluded.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing walk past an honor guard prior to talks in Moscow on June 22, 2021. Photo: AFP / Vadim Savitsky

Among them, Russia vaguely pledged to help develop Myanmar’s railroads, an infrastructure area where Beijing is active through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Less strategically, the two sides announced that Myanmar International Airways will as of “early 2023” operate direct flights between Yangon and the three Far East Russian cities of Vladivostok, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk.

It is hard to imagine that there will anytime soon be an influx of tourists to Myanmar from Siberia, where those cities are located, or that Myanmar vacationers would want to spend their holidays in such frigid locales.

However, there are important military installations and training facilities in the far-flung Russian cities, meaning the flight agreement is likely more militarily than commercially motivated.