Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing walk past an honor guard prior to talks in Moscow on June 22, 2021. Photo: AFP / Vadim Savitsky

The United States, as a participant in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), must boycott the July 20-21 meeting of the Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism in Moscow and implement further sanctions on both Russia and the Myanmar junta.

Russia and Myanmar, represented by the junta, are currently co-chairing the ASEAN defense working group on counterterrorism and will be hosting the event. This has led to increases in cooperation between the two regimes on the military front without much controversy in the international community until recently.

In 2021, before a previous ADMM-Plus meeting, the junta was invited to visit Russia to prepare and coordinate. The two are also planning to host counterterrorism military exercises in either Russia or Myanmar next year.

The relationship between Russia and the junta started before connections through ADMM-Plus. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, described a “close and important relationship” where “Russia has been a steady supplier of weapons” to the junta.

The two countries have not shied away from displaying their association publicly, going as far as to include Russian pilots in Armed Forces Day celebrations in Myanmar to demonstrate newly purchased jets.

Russia has joined its former Soviet allies in the Eurasian Economic Union in discussing “bilateral trade promotion and defense services” with the junta.

This close relationship provides a base for recent cooperation under ADMM-Plus. By allowing the junta and Russia to maintain prominent positions within ADMM-Plus without contention, the United States is allowing their previous military relationship to strengthen.

Elephant in the room

Considering its close relationship with Moscow, the Myanmar junta was quick to support, and justify, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On February 24, General Zaw Min Tun expressed reasons for military endorsement of the invasion in an interview with Voice of America, stating that it was justified because Russia “worked to consolidate its sovereignty” and showed “the world that Russia is a world power.”

The subtext is clear. The Russian invasion has parallels with the junta’s efforts to subdue Myanmar – both are attempting to impose their rule violently on those who do not recognize their legitimacy. The narrative of Russia attempting to “consolidate its sovereignty” in Ukraine is nothing more than junta propaganda.

The impact of the war in Ukraine on the Myanmar military is much more complicated. Experts are split on the long-term impact, but there is agreement that something is bound to change.

Russia is cut off from many of its former international markets, making it more profitable to export weapons to allies such as the Myanmar military. On the other hand, the war in Ukraine has caused supply-chain issues and weapons shortages that may make exporting those weapons less practical for Russia. The junta itself has witnessed the weakness of Russian weaponry on the battlefield but is also desperate not to rely too heavily on China. 

Beyond military supplies, Myanmar could also suffer from the waning of international attention and support as the war in Ukraine continues. Linn Thant, the Myanmar National Unity Government’s representative to the Czech Republic, stated his support for Ukraine but warned Europe not to “forget the people of Myanmar who are suffering and facing brutal violence every day.”

Fortunately, actions against the junta have so far not ceased. Recently the United Kingdom responded to both conflicts in one wave of sanctions, sanctioning Russians involved in promoting the war in Ukraine and Russian arms dealers who sell to the junta in Myanmar.

The war in Ukraine, however, has revealed how much multilateral pressure and severe sanctions can do; two things that have not been present in the international response to the coup in Myanmar. Support for the people of Myanmar should not diminish, but instead should rise to meet what has been done in response to the invasion of Ukraine. 

The United States could follow in the steps of the United Kingdom in implementing sanctions that tackle Russian support for the junta and the war in Ukraine simultaneously. It could also increase the severity of sanctions on the junta to match those seen against Russia. By tackling both the Russian regime and the junta simultaneously, the US could weaken both and limit their ability to cooperate effectively.

Such sanctions would make it less likely for Russian weapons manufacturers to make a profit off of selling to the junta and make it more difficult for the junta to purchase Russian weaponry.

ADMM-Plus in Moscow

The meeting of the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism is fast approaching and, fortunately, some countries have voiced concerns. Two members of ADMM-Plus, Australia and New Zealand, have already withdrawn, citing concerns about the participation of the Myanmar junta and the Russian regime.

Australia pulled out because of the junta’s conflation of resistance groups with terrorists and also cited Russia’s refusal to condemn the violence carried out by the junta. New Zealand followed suit soon after, citing similar concerns about Myanmar’s and Russia’s behavior. This is a welcome development, since ADMM-Plus members such as Australia have tended to use the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an excuse not to act on Myanmar.

However, the United States has not withdrawn from the ADMM-Plus meeting and defense officials have declined to comment on American involvement.

The war in Ukraine and the actions of the junta could lead to further splits in the ADMM-Plus than have already been seen. Russia could join Myanmar in labeling their democratic opponents as terrorists, considering it recently accused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of sending “terrorist fighters” into Ukraine.

Unless Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, can manage to negotiate between the parties, it is possible the ADMM-Plus groups could even discontinue joint exercises. Discontinuing cooperation with the junta would be the optimal outcome, with the United States and its ADMM-Plus allies standing up for the values of a “just, democratic and harmonious environment” that ASEAN wishes to ensure. A pullout by the United States would weaken the junta’s legitimacy and lessen support for Russia-Myanmar cooperation.

The big picture

Russia and the junta in Myanmar have shared interests and mutual support. Both gain from labeling their opponents who rightfully deny their legitimacy as terrorists and labeling their own abuses as a struggle for “sovereignty.” Russia gets to sell weapons to the junta, and the junta gets a powerful ally other than China. This relationship could either falter or strengthen with the war in Ukraine, but for now it remains helpful to both parties.

The United States is not helpless to act. As a member of ADMM-Plus the US could follow in the steps of Australia and New Zealand and boycott the Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism in Moscow. This would remove legitimacy from the junta and the propaganda it spreads with Russia.

Further, the US should hold these regimes accountable for the crimes they have been committing against the unarmed civilians, and ramp up sanctions on both the junta and the Russian regime, making it less profitable for them to cooperate militarily and economically.

With these actions the United States could prevent furthering the dangerous relationship between two violent actors willing to commit human-rights abuses, and foster a “just, democratic” environment.

Myra Dahgaypaw is the senior partnership officer for international justice and accountability at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a Karen human rights advocate, a former internally displaced person and refugee from Karen state, eastern Myanmar

Carson Montgomery is a research associate at the United States Campaign for Burma and a graduate student at Anglo-American University in Prague.