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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar embraces Russian arms to offset China's influence

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing cultivates military ties and more with Moscow

Under Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar has bought Russian weaponry including MiG-29 jet fighters and the Pantsir-S1 missile system. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by Reuters)

BANGKOK -- The military convoys captured on television cameras in the early hours of Myanmar's latest coup reveal deepening ties between the country's military and "loyal friend" Moscow.

Many of the light armored vehicles on the streets were made in Russia. These imports are among a growing list of supplies that have deepened ties between Moscow's defense establishment and Myanmar's military, say researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

By 2019, the most recent year for which data has been published, Myanmar's bill for Russian military assets totaled an estimated $807 million for the decade, according to the institute.

The Russian vehicles used on the morning of the Feb. 1 putsch "could have only been delivered quite recently" -- within two to three years -- but "have not been documented" in official Myanmar sources, said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Swedish think tank, which tracks global trends in arms and military spending.

Asian diplomats posted until recently in Myanmar show little surprise at the Russian stamp on the Southeast Asian nation's third military coup. They told Nikkei Asia that Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army commander and junta chief, has cultivated defense ties with Moscow over the past decade to avoid dependence on China, Myanmar's giant neighbor and largest weapons supplier.

The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, has pursued the Russia strategy to broaden its defense and diplomatic options, a Southeast Asian diplomat said.

"In terms of military links, the Tatmadaw appears to have more well-rounded engagements with Russia," the diplomat said. "Diplomatically, it benefits from Russia holding a veto in the [United Nations] Security Council."

The Moscow link has been highlighted in the days surrounding the coup. Russia flexed its diplomatic muscle with China to insulate the Myanmar junta from international rebuke, blocking a condemnation of the coup by the U.N. Security Council.

Days before the putsch, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar to finalize a deal for a fresh supply of weapons: the Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile system, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radar equipment.

"Just like a loyal friend, Russia has always supported Myanmar in difficult moments, especially in the last four years," Russian media quoted Min Aung Hlaing as saying during the minister's visit.

Myanmar-based media noted the close ties between the two generals on the eve of the coup. Min Aung Hlaing reportedly has visited Russia six times, including last June to mark the country's 75th annual Victory Day, which commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

The coup prevented Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, Myanmar's most popular political party, from undertaking its second term in charge after winning a landslide victory in the November general election. The drubbing for a pro-military party at the polls prompted Min Aung Hlaing to question the results openly, giving early hints of military intervention to annul the NLD's thumping mandate.

Myanmar military analysts say Min Aung Hlaing's turn to Russia for assets followed the new direction he gave the Tatmadaw as the country, formerly called Burma, began its tentative transition toward democracy in 2011 after 50 years of oppressive military rule. He sought to transform the military into a "standard army" from its legacy as a counterinsurgency force that has battled separatist ethnic rebel groups.

"Tatmadaw leaders had long wanted to upgrade the armed forces, but the modernization process began to speed up significantly from 2011 onwards," Nay Yan Oo, a Yangon-based analyst, wrote in "A New Tatmadaw With Old Characteristics," a chapter in a recent book on the armies of Myanmar and Thailand. "A new leadership is driving the Tatmadaw back into the defense sphere ... [with] a Standard Army reform comprised of ... military modernization, capacity building and active military-to-military engagement."

China accounted for 50% of Myanmar's major arms imports from 2014 to 2019, including warships, combat aircraft, armed drones, armored vehicles and air defense systems, said Wezeman of the Stockholm peace institute. Russia supplied 17% of military imports, "mainly in the form of combat aircraft and combat helicopters."

The institute's database confirms that Myanmar's weapons bill for 2010-19 reached $2.4 billion, including $1.3 billion in Chinese-supplied arms and $807 million from Russia. The Russian combat aircraft among Myanmar's new military assets are the MiG-29, SDu-30MK and JF-17 and the training craft K-8, Yak-130 and G 120TP.

Myanmar Army armored vehicles in Mandalay on Feb. 1, a day after the coup.     © Reuters

The roots of the Myanmar-Russia weapons trade go back to the military-technical cooperation that began in 2001, when Myanmar was under the grip of its previous strongman, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. Then came the 2016 military cooperation agreement.

This paved the way for thousands of Myanmar military officers to be trained in advanced science and engineering degrees in Russia -- reaching over 6,000 by 2019. A recent documentary broadcast by the Russian Defense Ministry's television network with the blessings of the Tatmadaw "revealed that many Burmese military personnel spoke fluent Russian," notes Nay Yan Oo.

Min Aung Hlaing's deepening alliance with Russia -- to offset China's influence -- has not been lost on Myanmar academics specializing in military affairs. The academics, who requested anonymity, trace this turn to tense China-Myanmar military history until the late 1980s, Beijing's role in the ongoing ethnic conflicts along the Myanmar-China border and faulty Chinese-made military hardware.

"Unlike China, Russia does not play a role in [Myanmar's ethnic] peace process, nor does it have extensive investment in [the country]," an academic said. "Russia's lack of geostrategic interest makes it an appealing partner."

An Asian diplomat agrees. He reckons that Min Aung Hlaing is still smarting at reports of a Chinese weapons supply line into the strongholds of ethnic rebel armies that the Tatmadaw has targeted along Myanmar's eastern borders. They include Chinese-made 107-mm surface-to-surface rockets and surface-to-air missiles.

"Min Aung Hlaing is personally distrustful of the Chinese," the diplomat said. "Only China presents an existential threat to Myanmar -- not Russia."

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