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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar general's visit to Russia keeps arms flowing to junta

Moscow defies West by rolling out welcome mat to leaders of coup

Myanmar's military is assured of Russian support despite the much-maligned coup in February.

BANGKOK -- When Moscow rolled out the welcome mat for Myanmar's air force commander, Gen. Maung Maung Kyaw, it was a cue to the junta that Russian-made arms will flow to the Southeast Asian nation even as much of the international community views it as a pariah after the February coup.

The journey by the air force chief to Moscow last month included a visit to HeliRussia, the country's top helicopter exhibition, and discussions with Russian officials for planned procurement of military hardware, according to Myanmar and Russian media.

The gesture was also a show of defiance by Russia, which continues to snub the Western governments that have led the international outrage following the putsch and the subsequent repression by the junta of the tide of anti-coup anger that has erupted across Myanmar.

The death toll of protesters following the coup stood at more than 860 this week, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar human rights group.

Not lost on observers based in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and commercial capital, is the diplomatic lifeline that Russia has thrown the junta, offering it a veneer of international legitimacy that it has struggled to secure, even from fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations members.

Russia had also joined China to protect the military regime at the United Nations as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The junta "has jumped at the chance of having a big and militarily strong ally, especially in the West," said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based think tank.

The Myanmar military has also sought good relations with Vietnam, a longtime Russian arms buyer, and "there could be a clubby relationship with the three -- Vietnam hasn't said a single word about the coup," Khin Zaw Win said.

Other analysts say there could be a broader calculation behind Russia's open arms, since Moscow has seen a steady decline of weapons exports since 2010. Russia is still the dominant supplier of military hardware to Southeast Asia, ahead of the U.S., France and China. Myanmar, according to one observer, serves as a "gateway" for this lucrative market.

A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reveals that Russia's weapons trade in Southeast Asia, from 1999 to 2018, reached an estimated $10.7 billion, followed by the U.S. at $8.2 billion, France at $3.5 billion, Germany at $2.9 billion and China at $2.5 billion. The trade is driven by Vietnam, home to Southeast Asia's largest army, which accounts for 61% of Russian weapons supplies, according to SIPRI, which tracks global arms trading.

Myanmar ranks second after Vietnam, having bought an estimated $1.5 billion in military hardware from Russia over the 1999-2018 period, accounting for 39% of its total arms imports, according to SIPRI. Russian weapons exports to Vietnam amounted to $6.5 billion, with Malaysia purchasing $1.4 billion coming third and Indonesia was fourth with $1.1 billion.

Russia's strong ties with the generals of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, have been brought to relief since Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief, staged the Feb. 1 coup to overthrow the democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy, which was preparing for its second term in power.

Russian-made military assets were on display the morning of the coup as convoys of light-armored vehicles rolled through the streets of Myanmar's main cities to enforce the power grab.

Analysts say Russia thrives on weapons sales to Myanmar because the military had limited options for decades when the country was subject to multilateral weapons embargoes for years as it was under the harsh grip of its previous junta. These strictures were enforced by the U.S., European Union, Australia and Japan, among other weapons producers.

"China, Russia, Belarus and several other states do not have such restrictions and have supplied Myanmar and are likely to continue to do so even after the coup," said Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at SIPRI. "These states can fill all the equipment needs for Myanmar."

Besides boosting arms sales, which dominates Myanmar's imports from Russia, backing the junta provides Moscow with an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia.

"As the relationship develops we can expect to see more military exercises between the Russian and Myanmar armed forces, and increased Russian ship visits to the country which will allow Moscow to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean," said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank. "The Kremlin is keen to demonstrate that Russia's turn to the East is not just a turn to China, but that Russia is a great power in the Asia-Pacific as a whole."

The depth of such cozy ties was evident in Min Aung Hlaing's engagement with Moscow before the coup. He has visited Russia six times, making it his most popular diplomatic destination. And it was during an interview with Russian media in June last year that Min Aung Hlaing dropped a broad hint of his ambitions to enter politics following general elections held a few months later.

Just days ahead of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing hosted Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoygu. They signed a deal for new weapons that included the Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems and Orlan-10 E surveillance drones -- the first time Russia was exporting them.

Min Aung Hlaing's turn to Russia has been viewed by analysts and Myanmar-based diplomats as Tatmadaw's shift toward diversity of supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar's main weapons supplier. For the two decades spanning 1999 to 2018, China supplied $1.6 billion worth of military hardware to Myanmar, followed by Russia, with $1.5 billion. The bulk of Russian supplies were to boost Myanmar's air power, with the procurement of Russian combat aircraft such as the MiG-29s, SDU-30 MKs and JF-17s.

"The coup has provided Russia with another authoritarian friend," said Storey. Russian President Vladimir Putin "will be pleased that America's efforts to promote democracy in the country have been undermined, perhaps fatally."

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