Photographs of a tall and sturdy Russian officer standing next to a shorter and elderly Asian man dressed in a flowing gown went viral on Myanmar social media in late June.
The ceremonially garbed Asian was none other than Myanmar’s military chief and coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and despite the biting comments posted on social media, the Russians weren’t mocking him.
The eye-catching attire donned by Myanmar’s top soldier was a traditional graduation gown from the Military University of the Russian Armed Forces, which bestowed him an honorary professorship during his June 22-24 visit to Moscow.
Russia has emerged as the most outspoken global power to support the military junta installed after Min Aung Hlaing’s democracy-suspending February 1 coup and subsequent lethal suppression of anti-coup street protests.
“We are determined to continue our efforts to strengthen bilateral ties based on the mutual understanding, respect and trust that have been established between our countries,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on meeting the Myanmar general on June 22.
He added: “We pay special attention to this meeting as we see Myanmar as a time-tested strategic partner and a reliable ally in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.” Min Aung Hlaing, for his part, lauded Russia as a “friend forever”, according to local Russian reports.
While the West has imposed sanctions and arms embargoes to punish the coup, Russia is one of the Myanmar military’s main suppliers of arms and hardware.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Myanmar procured US$1.5 billion worth of military hardware from Russia between 1999 and 2018, accounting for 39% of its total arms imports over that period.
Russian-made military equipment including Hind Mi-35 helicopter gunships, transport helicopters, MiG-29 fighter jets and Yak-130 ground attack aircraft are all now being used to aerially bombard and otherwise assault ethnic rebels in frontier areas.
Many pro-democracy protesters have recently taken refuge in ethnic areas to escape lethal military crackdowns in cities and towns across the country. The assaults using Russian hardware are contributing to a new regional humanitarian crisis as refugees stream towards the Thai and Indian borders.
For Myanmar’s military, or the Tatmadaw, the Russian deals are part of a wider policy to reduce its long-time reliance on Chinese armaments. As early as 2006, the state-owned Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, now restructured as the United Aircraft Corporation, opened an office in Yangon to facilitate arms deals.
With those rising Myanmar procurements, Moscow has in recent years provided army training and university scholarships to thousands of Myanmar soldiers, according to a June 23 Reuters report.
But Moscow’s motives for forging ever-closer relations with the Tatmadaw go way beyond arms sales profits and military academy fees, analysts and experts say.
“I think it suits Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical objectives to show that Moscow can continue to disrupt Western efforts to bring about peaceful and democratic resolutions to political crises,” said Australia-based academic Hunter Marston in a regional media report.
It’s all part of Russia’s wider ambition to regain a strategic foothold in the region.
The erstwhile Soviet Union was once a major power in Southeast Asia, where it maintained close alliances with communist regimes in Vietnam, Laos, and after a Vietnamese intervention in 1978-9, Cambodia.
(The Soviet Union had a strong strategic partnership with non-communist India as well, one that endures today.)
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the country descended into eight years of chaos under then-president Boris Yeltsin, Moscow’s influence quickly evanesced in the region.
But Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime has slowly but surely rebuilt many of those frayed ties, mainly through arms deals. And his government clearly sees the polarizing February 1 coup as a cynical opportunity to supplant Western power and influence in Myanmar.
To be sure, Min Aung Hlaing’s June visit to Moscow was not his first. In June 2013, he traveled to Russia at Shoigu’s invitation to discuss arms deals and what was then referred to as “matters of mutual interest.”
During another visit in 2016, Russia and Myanmar signed a military cooperation agreement that paved the way for “multifaceted cooperation” that “will have enough instruments to do everything possible to strengthen combat readiness of the Armed Forces of Myanmar and Russia.”
In a meeting between Shoigu and Min Aung Hlaing that same year, the Russian commander emphasized the strategic importance of the agreement by saying “we pay special attention to visits of the Russian military ships to Myanmar’s ports, and we expect visits to Russia of warships from Myanmar.”
Those visits and agreements reversed a short period of downgraded ties beginning in 2010 when a quasi-civilian government led by ex-general Thein Sein announced that it would no longer send personnel to Russia for training.
The announcement was part of a then-policy to open up to the West and signal a more neutral foreign policy stance after decades of reliance on China and to a lesser extent Russia. That stance culminated in a historic visit by then-US president Barack Obama in November 2012.
The reality, however, was that Myanmar military personnel were still present at several Russian military schools and training facilities, including the Omsk Armor Engineering Institute, the Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, and the Nizhniy Novgorod Command Academy, among others.
Some were also reported to be serving as cadets with the Russian Air Force – likely to gain guided experience in flying MIGs procured by the Tatmadaw.
On the soft-power side, Russian language classes were introduced at Yangon University of Foreign Languages and in 2014 it was decided to open a Russian cultural center in the old capital Yangon.
To be sure, Russia isn’t arming up only Myanmar: Moscow has long fueled tit-for-tat rival procurements among Southeast Asian states.
Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ data shows that Vietnam buys much of its weaponry from Russia, with purchases amounting to $7.38 billion between 1995 and 2019, or 84% of its total arms imports.
Laos, despite having a limited defense budget, also buys the lion’s share of its weapons from Russia with sales of tanks and helicopters amounting to $102 million between 2000 and 2019.
Malaysia and Indonesia have also bought fighter jets and other military hardware from Russia. Thai-Russian strategic relations have improved under military and military-influenced rule as well.
But from a wider geostrategic point of view, Russian military official statements indicate that their new budding relationship with Myanmar goes well beyond mere arms sales.
Indeed, the presence of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin in full uniform at the Tatmadaw’s Armed Forces Day celebrations in the capital Naypyitaw on March 27 sent a strong signal for closer ties ahead.
On the day before the February 1 coup, a group of Russian and Myanmar military officers had a party in Yangon where the vodka reportedly flowed freely.
They were reputedly celebrating the opening of a new joint military high-tech multimedia complex in which Min Aung Hlaing’s children have a financial interest.
But they were also likely toasting the coup that was set to be launched the next day — and a new era in the strategic relationship between the two sides that is already recalibrating the region’s balance of power.
A new and stronger Russia is clearly back in the region and Myanmar is its strategic gateway.