Pariahs in arms: Russia finds an ally in military-run Myanmar

A relationship forged in Soviet times has assumed new significance as the two nations face international isolation.
By Luna Pham for RFA
2023.12.07
Pariahs in arms: Russia finds an ally in military-run Myanmar Armored cars and tanks take part in a parade during a ceremony to mark the 67th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence, in Naypyidaw, Jan. 4, 2015.
Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

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A month after the February 2021 coup that plunged Myanmar into a bloody civil war, military leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing gave a rare interview with a Russian newspaper. In it, he declared his countrymen’s Buddhist appreciation for “tranquility and peace.” He also spoke of his love for “old and true friends” like Russia.

“Our friendship does not depend on various external factors,” he told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. “And I'm sure this friendship will last forever.”

Few would be persuaded by Min Aung Hlaing’s appeal to religion, but his description of Myanmar-Russia ties may be closer to the mark. A relationship forged during the Cold War after Myanmar’s independence from Britain has taken on new importance as their respective authoritarian regimes face international isolation. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, the two countries had little to do with each other. But today, their rulers are united by the global condemnation they face: Naypyidaw for the 2021 coup that toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government, and Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine a year later.

“Deepening their relations and showing it to the world is a way to lessen the isolation,” said Michal Lubina, a well-known Myanmar analyst from the Jagiellonian University in Poland.

“China is always the top priority for Myanmar in terms of foreign policy, but Russia is dangerously moving up the list, even if bilateral ties in reality may not be as strong as they are being presented,” he said. 

The two sides have sought to spur trade between their sanctions-hit economies, particularly with Russian military sales to Myanmar. There’s also been high-level official contacts. President Vladimir Putin met Min Aung Hlaing for the first time in the wake of the Ukraine invasion after the Myanmar junta defended Russia’s actions.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on the sidelines of the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Sept. 7, 2022. Credit: Valery Sharifulin/Sputnik/AFP

Khrushchev barefooted at Shwedagon

The origins of this relationship can be traced to the early years of Myanmar’s voyage as a nation after it won independence from Britain in 1948. Seven years after that, the leadership of the Soviet Union paid it a visit. Moscow was looking to forge ties with small nations in Asia and Africa and push them away from political, economic and military reliance on the West.

In 1955, First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev and his right-hand man, Premier Nikolai Bulganin, arrived in Rangoon (now known as Yangon) to a warm welcome by the Burmese leadership.

In a contemporary documentary film, a beaming Khrushchev can be seen trotting alongside Burmese Prime Minister U Nu and sitting comfortably on a sofa next to Gen. Ne Win, chief of staff of the Burmese Armed Forces.

Ne Win would, a few years later, seize power through a coup d’état and become Myanmar’s first dictator, isolating the country and keeping it in the firm grip of a military junta for decades.

The film, “In The Hospitable Land Of Burma,” produced by famous Soviet director Roman Karmen, followed the USSR leader as he strolled barefoot at the Shwedagon Pagoda – the nation’s most famous Buddhist place of worship in Rangoon.

At the end of the week-long stay that included visits to Mandalay and Shan State, the two sides signed a joint statement calling for Burmese-Soviet cooperation in economic, cultural, scientific and technical fields. 

A note from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union one month later said the Burmese leaders “expressed their opinions relating to the essential issues (disarmament, including the ban of the atomic weapon, attitudes towards the military blocs, assessment of the Geneva Conferences), which correspond with our positions or come close to them.”

“U Nu paid great attention to the question of selling Burmese rice to us,” the note said.

“Comrades Khrushchev and Bulganin … offered as a gift for the people of Burma to build and equip a technological institute in Rangoon.”

Khrushchev made a return trip to Burma in February 1960, during which he also met with Ne Win, by then the prime minister, and President U Win Maung.

During the ensuing decades, Myanmar-Russia ties have endured both sides’ turbulent histories, although the strategic importance of Myanmar to Russia waned when the Cold War ended.

But now the relationship has assumed fresh importance for both as they navigate their recent pariah status.

“Russia always has a big embassy in Yangon,” said Ludwig Weber-Lortsch, German ambassador to Myanmar between 2011 and 2017.

“Even during the years under General Ne Win, when Burma was cut off from contacts with the outside world, there was never a break-up in their relationship,” Weber-Lortsch said.

“Geographically, Russia is far away from Myanmar so it never got entangled in the country's internal issues such as ethnic violence or border tensions. China projects more power and influence over Myanmar, but as neighbors, the relationship between them is much, much more complicated,” he added. 

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Protesters hold a demonstration against the military coup outside the Russian Embassy in Yangon on Feb. 20, 2021. Credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

Soccer as soft power

Soccer became an unexpected tool of soft power that the USSR wielded in those early years in Burma.

During their 1955 visit, Khrushchev and Bulganin met with members of the visiting soccer team Lokomotiv Moscow in Rangoon. 

Lokomotiv was on a tour in Asia at that time, playing six matches in Indonesia, two in India and two in Burma. It won all the matches, including the two in Rangoon with scores 7-1 and 10-0.

Myanmar soccer fans still remember two Soviet coaches of their national team: Mikhail Bozenenkov and German Zonin.

Bozenenkov was the coach of the Burmese national soccer team from 1961 to 1965. Under him, the team won a silver medal at the 1961 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, not an easy feat at that time.

“He was a doctorate holder in sports in the Soviet Union and participated in the Russian national football team. So, he was perfect,” reminisced veteran Burmese footballer Maung Maung.

After Bozenenkov, German Zonin led the team from 1964 to 1968. During his time, Burma won top prizes in the 1965 and 1967 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, as well as a gold medal in the 1966 Asian Cup and joint gold medal in the Merdeka Cup, an international soccer competition held in Malaysia.

A 2022 research paper by the PeaceNexus Foundation in Switzerland found that “Russia’s successful deployment of soft power in Myanmar has been largely overlooked.”

“It has built upon a certain commonality in outlook and values, and has no previous history of support to the armed opponents of Myanmar’s military, no large-scale controversial investment projects, no involvement into Myanmar’s complex identity politics and no previous attempts at expansionism.”

Perhaps surprisingly, PeaceNexus says that soft power extends to bonds of religion. While Russia is predominantly Christian, it has an estimated 700,000 to 1.5 million Buddhists.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu comes from the Tuva region in southern Siberia where Buddhism is the main religion. 

Born in the year Khrushchev and Bulganin made their Burma trip, Shoigu is not known as a practicing Buddhist but reportedly “is aware of its customs and symbolisms,” according to PeaceNexus. 

This probably helped build a personal rapport between him and Myanmar’s military leaders. During a visit by Min Aung Hlaing to Moscow in June 2021, Shoigu referred to him as “dear friend” and emphasized the latter’s personal contribution to the Russia-Myanmar relationship.

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Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu [left] and Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing walk past an honor guard before their talks in Moscow, June 22, 2021. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry/AFP

Brotherhood of pariah states?

After Myanmar was slapped with Western sanctions over a deadly crackdown on democracy protesters in 1988, its military faced arms embargoes and international isolation. 

Russia remained one country where the officer class of the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known, could seek overseas schooling. A report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said Russia has provided postgraduate education to more than 7,000 Myanmar officers since 2001.

Min Aung Hlaing himself clearly has a soft spot for Russia. He has visited Moscow six times and even has an account on the Russian social media network V Kontakte.

Russia has reciprocated with diplomatic support. Moscow stayed silent when Myanmar was internationally condemned for forcing three-quarters of a million Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes in 2017. And it has been one of the few countries that have defended the junta after the 2021 coup.

For its part, Myanmar defended the Russian invasion of Ukraine, stating that it was "to ensure world peace."

Junta spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, said in an interview with RFA Burmese that he saw the invasion firstly “as an effort to consolidate Russian sovereignty.” 

“Secondly, it shows that Russia is a force to be reckoned with in the balance of power to ensure world peace,” the general said. 

In the opinion of Myanmar analyst Lubina, the war in Ukraine was a turning point in Russia-Myanmar relations.

“After the military coup, Min Aung Hlaing went to Moscow twice but was never received by Vladimir Putin.” 

“Only after its invasion of Ukraine and being condemned by the West as a pariah state, did Russia find itself in a more or less similar situation to Myanmar,” said Lubina, who has written six books on Myanmar. “Finally, in 2022, Putin met with Min Aung Hlaing on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok and the junta got Moscow’s full recognition.”

Since the meeting, the two countries have promoted bilateral trade and investment.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin walks to deliver a speech as Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing applauds during a plenary session at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Sept. 7, 2022. Credit: Sergei Bobylev/TASS News Agency/Pool via AP

Representatives from the Fund RC-Investments, an investment platform of the Roscongress Foundation under Putin’s direct control, have visited Myanmar twice since last November.

The two sides want to increase “cooperation on tourism, mining, energy, the agricultural and livestock sectors and the monetary and financial sectors,” the Irrawaddy newspaper reported.

As of July 2023, Russian citizens can get a “special'' 30-day tourist visa upon arrival at Myanmar’s three international airports without having to apply in advance. This measure, in effect on a trial basis until July 2024, is aimed at attracting visitors from Russia who, facing travel restrictions from many European countries, are on the lookout for new destinations.

Myanmar Airways International is also launching twice weekly direct flights between Yangon-Mandalay and Novosibirk.

Weapons with no strings attached

Official Myanmar-Russia bilateral trade remains modest. In 2021, Russia exported around US$70 million worth of goods to Myanmar, mainly navigation equipment, vehicles and machines. Myanmar exported $145 million of garments to Russia in the same year.

But the hidden lion’s share lies in the arms trade, which is not covered by the official trade data.

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Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing salutes Russian navy personnel ahead of a joint maritime exercise, at Thilawa Port in Yangon, Nov. 6, 2023. Credit: AFP/Myanmar Military Information Team

The U.N. Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews said in a report to the Human Rights Council that the bulk of weaponry and other arms-related equipment that have been sent to the junta since its coup two years ago came from Russia.

The report identified $406 million in arms sales from 28 Russian entities including state-owned companies; and $267 million from entities in China.

“Since the coup, Russian entities, including state-owned entities, have transferred fighter jets, advanced missile systems, reconnaissance and attack drones, and spare parts for fighter jets, attack helicopters, and other systems,” the report said.

During the 1990s, China, Myanmar’s influential northern neighbor, was the dominant source of arms, with an estimated $1.6 billion-worth of tanks, military vehicles, aircraft and ships sold to Myanmar, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

But in the following decade, the Myanmar military began buying more arms from Russia, which offers “better quality and less political implications,” said Lubina.

“With Chinese arms, there are always political strings attached, but Russian arms are relatively hassle-free.”

SIPRI data shows that from 2000 to 2009, Myanmar bought U.S.$1.7 billion worth of arms from China and U.S.$1.44 billion from Russia.

Russia’s own trade data, meanwhile, shows that “secret code” exports including arms, military-related equipment and nuclear materials to Myanmar grew from less than U.S.$8 million in 2014 to more than U.S.$115 million in 2020 and accounted for 51% of all exports.

“Our army has become one of the strongest in the region thanks to the Russian Federation,” Min Aung Hlaing himself once said in Moscow.

Media sources say since the early 2000s, Myanmar has bought from Russia 30 MiG-29 jet fighters, 12 Yak-130 combat trainers, 10 Mi-24 and Mi-35P helicopters, and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems. 

The junta has also signed a contract to procure six Su-30 fighters, and during a visit to Myanmar in 2021 by Defense Minister Shoigu, Russia pledged to supply Naypyidaw with Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radar equipment.

A joint service center was set up in Myanmar to provide maintenance to the Russian-made military equipment. And earlier this year the junta established a Nuclear Technology and Information Center in Yangon with help from Russia’s Rosatom State Corp., amid suspicions that the Myanmar military has ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.

Rights campaigners also say Russian-made aircraft have been used to attack ethnic rebel groups. 

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Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing [pointing] shows Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin items the junta says were confiscated after being used in protests against the security forces, in Naypyidaw, March 26, 2021. Credit: Handout/AFPTV/Myanmar Radio and Television

Two-way arms trade?

As the war continues in Ukraine, news emerged that Russia is now buying back some military supplies previously sold to Myanmar, as well as using ammunition produced by the Myanmar army.

Japan’s Nikkei Asia analyzed customs clearance data and found that Russia may be reimporting parts for tanks and missiles that had been exported to Myanmar and India in order to improve its old weapons.

The U.S., Japan and European countries have banned exports of goods with potential military use to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

UralVagonZavod, which manufactures tanks for the Russian military, on Dec. 9, 2022, imported military products from the Myanmar army for U.S.$24 million, according to Nikkei’s report. 

UralVagonZavod exported military products to the Myanmar army in 2019.

“Buybacks of exported equipment make it possible to upgrade older weapons in Russia's arsenal and send them into battle,” Nikkei Asia said.

The Ukraine Weapons Tracker, an independent research project, in July alleged that the Russian Military now uses ammunition made by the Myanmar army, including the 120ER 120mm HE mortar bombs.

The mortar bombs were identified by the characteristic features such as specific tail markings, fuses and propellant charges, it said, adding that most of the markings were deliberately removed or painted over.

Some news outlets in Myanmar, meanwhile, said that Russia’s plan to buy Myanmar-made ammunition was discussed during a visit by Russian Colonel-General Alexei Kim, first deputy commander of Russian Ground Forces, to Naypyidaw in December 2022.

Restrictions imposed on Russia’s and Myanmar’s banks make it harder for both countries’ militaries to pay for arms purchases, as well as other goods.

The state banks of the two countries have reportedly been working to set up a direct ruble-kyat exchange mechanism to dodge the global financial system, but it is still a work in progress.

During the visit by Nikita Khrushchev in 1955, the Soviet leader agreed to buy rice from Burma “on the condition that the rice consignment covers the value of the goods bought in the USSR.”

Nearly 70 years on, could a similar barter agreement be reached between the two brothers-in-arms?

Edited by Mat Pennington and Jim Snyder.

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