Russia and the Myanmar Coup: An Opportunity for Increased Arms Exports

Russia and the Myanmar Coup: An Opportunity for Increased Arms Exports

Whereas most countries have condemned the coup in Myanmar, Russia is openly advocating for enhancing military technological cooperation with the military regime. In doing so, Russia seems to see the new military rule as an opportunity to increase its influence in Myanmar whilst boosting its arms exports. This may be a classic example of Moscow’s limited bilateral engagement, seeking financial gain and increased influence whilst preserving their strategic autonomy.

On February 1st, the Tatmadaw (the armed forces of Myanmar) detained the recently re-elected Aung San Suu Kyi and several members of her party, the National League for Democracy. Under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw carried out a coup d’état, bringing the military back in power since 2011. According to a local monitoring group, the clashes between protesters and the Burmese military have led to 500 civilian deaths. The international response has been largely condemning in nature, with the US, UK and EU imposing sanctions and Japan suspending Myanmar’s financial aid. Moreover, the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have held an emergency meeting, which resulted in the appointment of a special envoy for Myanmar as a mediator between all parties involved. China and India have been more reserved. China fears that the political instability may hurt the Belt Road Initiative projects in Myanmar. India is similarly being strategically silent so as to not jeopardize their infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The exception, however, is Russia, who has openly supported the junta.

During Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day on the 27th of March, Russia sent Deputy Minister of Defense Colonel General Alexander Fomin to attend the event at Naypyidaw, contrasting with the ‘low profile’ delegations from other international participants. Fomin also stated that Russia and Myanmar will intensify their relations and enhance military-technical cooperation. In turn, Min Aung Hlaing voiced his appreciation for Russia’s vote of confidence in favor of the military regime.

It is notable that whereas both Moscow and Beijing’s policies towards abusive regimes usually coalesce, Russia now clearly deviates from China on Myanmar by advocating overt support for the Tatmadaw. Although both have blocked a joint UN Security Council statement to condemn the coup, China has stated the current political situation was absolutely not what China wanted to see and accordingly emphasised the need for ‘political stability’. Conversely, Russia continues to strengthen its relations with the Tatmadaw, venturing further into the diplomatic void caused by the coup. The differences in position between Russia and the world on Myanmar therefore begs the question: why has Russia positioned itself as an outlier?

Russian-Myanmar Arms Trade

This course of action is mainly driven by a pragmatic desire for increased arms exports to Myanmar. As the overall volume of domestic contracts for Russian defense companies has been decreasing steadily since the late 2010s, Russia has been eager to increase its arms exports as a way to help maintain normal production levels. Myanmar has long been a buyer of Russian military hardware. Being the country’s number three arms supplier (15%), virtually on par with India (16%), Russia has exported 30 MiG-29 jet fighters, 12 Yak-130 jet trainers, 10 Mi-24 and Mi-35P helicopters, and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems since the 2000s. Moreover, shortly before the coup, the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, signed a deal with Min Aung Hlaing for the delivery of an undisclosed number of Pantsir-S1 SHORAD systems, accompanied by Orlan-10E Multirole Unmanned Aerial Systems. This makes Myanmar the first country to which Russia exports drones. Additionally, the Tatmadaw was present during the Kavkaz-2020 exercise in Russia, just like in previous years.

As mutual trust and a good working relationship between Moscow and the Tatmadaw already existed prior to the coup, Russia likely interprets the military’s power surge as an opportunity to bring this military-technological cooperation to the next level. This would provide a necessary impulse for the already struggling Russian military industrial complex.  

Countering Myanmar’s Dependence on China

Myanmar seems to be quite receptive to Russia’s intentions to expand arms trade, as they seek to counterbalance their overdependence on China, who is responsible for 48% of all Myanmar’s arms imports. Russia thus presents an attractive alternative for Myanmar to diversify its mix of powers that it is dependent on. Given Russia’s relative distance from Myanmar, having little direct involvement in local issues, Russia could be welcomed as a reliable and stable power to diversify from Indian and Chinese arms exports, as the latter have not provided unconditional support for the Tatmadaw. 

Limited Bilateral Engagement

For now, Russia seems to be placing an early bet on the junta, counting on the Tatmadaw to last so Russia can profit off the new regime and cultivate a loyal customer in Southeast Asia. The risk for Moscow is  also relatively low. If the current unrest would deteriorate, or spill over into neighboring countries, Russia could easily detach itself from the negative consequences. This type of limited but profitable bilateral engagement is characteristic of Moscow’s cost effective and pragmatism-driven foreign policy. As long as it serves Russia’s interests, which are mainly financial in this case, it will show support for the Tatmadaw. However, Russia always seeks to preserve a certain degree of independence and freedom of movement. It is therefore quite unlikely that Russia will actually move beyond military-technological cooperation in the near future. By openly showing its support, Russia provides the regime with oxygen and at least some form of legitimacy, which could hamper efforts by the international community to exert pressure on Myanmar, such as a global arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council. 

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