This exclusive Q & A first appeared on Asia Times’ Southeast Asia Insider newsletter. If you are not already a subscriber please sign up here.
A recent visit to the Russian capital by Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has caught the attention of analysts and observers and raised questions over Moscow’s motives for forging ever-closer relations with the Tatmadaw, which has been shunned and sanctioned by the West following its seizure of power in a February coup.
The erstwhile Soviet Union had once been a major power in Southeast Asia, but lost influence in the region following its collapse in 1991. Under President Vladimir Putin’s watch, Moscow has slowly but surely rebuilt many of those frayed ties with regional autocracies and democracies alike, primarily through arms deals.
Asia Times’ correspondent and renowned Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner reported on the deepening ties between Moscow and Naypyidaw this week. In this week’s Q&A segment, Lintner weighs in on what he sees as a geopolitically resurgent Russia more clearly than ever telegraphing its presence in Southeast Asia.
Why is Russia openly embracing Myanmar’s coup government while the West and US penalize and condemn its suspension of democracy?
Firstly because Myanmar is a big buyer of Russian military hardware. But there are other important reasons why Moscow wants to maintain close relations with the country’s ruling military.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, old Asian allies drifted away and sought other economic as well as strategic partners. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has been able to restore some, though not all, of its former glory as a global superpower. It’s a work in progress.
Moscow’s friendship with Naypyitaw should be seen from that perspective. It is also important for Moscow to set an example here as it strives to disrupt Western efforts to promote democracy in Asia and elsewhere.
For the Myanmar military, which has been condemned by most of the democratic world for its coup and subsequent brutality against protesters, it is desperately looking for partners and recognition and Russia fits the bill.
Not even China, Myanmar’s old ally, is willing to offer as much open political and diplomatic support as Russia. Moscow is looking for a new, trustworthy ally in the region that can help reestablish the influence lost after the Soviet Union’s demise.
Both Russia and China have blocked the UN Security Council from imposing sanctions against Myanmar’s junta. Are the two powers working in concert or do they have divergent interests in Myanmar?
Naturally because both countries are opposed to Western ideas of democracy taking root in Asia and both resented the influence that the US and other Western countries managed to gain during the ten years of relative openness that Myanmar enjoyed from 2011 to 2021.
But there are also differences. The Russians have put all their eggs in one basket, the military, while China also maintains cordial relationships with ethnic armed organizations opposed to the Myanmar military and government, primarily the United Wa State Army. The ceasefire group is well-equipped with sophisticated Chinese weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, artillery and even armored personnel carriers.
China’s policy can be characterized as carrot and stick: the carrot is business, trade and support at the UN’s Security Council; the stick is the UWSA and its armed rebel allies. If China doesn’t get what it wants, the UWSA will get more weapons, not to fight the Myanmar military but as a show of force and to make sure that an offensive against the UWSA would be too costly.
But for that reason, Myanmar’s generals are also wary of the Chinese and suspicious of their motives, which go way beyond having cordial bilateral ties. Myanmar is the only neighbor that provides China direct access to the Bay of Bengal, bypassing contested waters in the South China Sea and the congested Malacca Strait.
Therefore, China is playing power games in Myanmar through its ties to the UWSA and its allies – and by cultivating individuals in the military and in politics and the media who could be used to enhance China’s strategic interests in Myanmar. Russia, on the other hand, is a relatively problem-free ally.
How will a Russia-influenced and armed Myanmar potentially shift the region’s strategic dynamics and balance of power?
The flow of Russian (and, of course, Chinese) weapons to Myanmar has turned its armed forces into one of the most numerous and best-equipped in the region. And even if its adversaries have been domestic ethnic and political rebels, the Myanmar military also has a long history of actually fighting.
Moreover, Myanmar is now ruled by a military junta with little or no civilian input. There is no other country in the region, not even Thailand, where the military has such a strong position in governance and policy-making. Anyone including businessmen, diplomats, UN personnel and other outsiders who want to deal with the country has to deal with the generals first. There are at present no other players.
A new, better-armed and more powerful Myanmar military has become a regional force to be reckoned with. The Myanmar-Russian alliance may not alter the overall balance of power in the region, but it will no doubt have an impact as it has given the Russians a new strategic foothold in Asia.
But there are also differences to keep in mind. Culturally and socially, Myanmar and Russia are light years apart and for those reasons interactions between the two sides are not going to be easy. Only time will tell how this unique relationship will develop.
For the time being, Myanmar has no other choice in terms of powerful outside allies and so far the Russians have played their cards quite skillfully.