Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Myanmar's junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on August 3 (Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation MFA) - Photo: 2022

“Misery Acquaints a Man with Strange Bedfellows”

Russia’s Complex Myanmar Embrace

Viewpoint by Jan Servaes

BRUSSELS (IDN) — Think tanks conduct interdisciplinary research to develop positions and recommendations on a wide range of domestic and international topics encompassing defence, economic development and social policy. Therefore, many think tanks advocate and lobby for policy changes at the local, national and international level. The International Crisis Group, founded in 1995, is such an independent organisation that has gained recognition for its work to prevent wars and advocate policies to build a more peaceful world.

In one of its latest briefings, entitled “Coming to Terms with Myanmar’s Russia Embrace”, the Crisis Group (ICG) starts from an obvious observation: “Myanmar’s regime has positioned itself as Russia’s most uncritical post-invasion partner in Asia, while Russia has readily backed Myanmar’s junta, diplomatically and with arms. They are now gearing up for tighter economic and trade relations”.

But the ICG arrives at the rather ‘diplomatic’ warning that “Powers wishing to see Myanmar return to democracy should not try to break these ties but rather redouble their targeted sanctions and embargo efforts”.  In other words: “Countries trying to promote positive change in Myanmar, many of which have adversarial relations with Russia, are concerned that the growing bond undermines efforts to sanction both, but there is little they can do to change it”.

Strategic risks

The International Crisis Group (ICG) report sees clear risks for the Burmese regime if it aligns itself too closely to Moscow.

First, Russia’s reliability as a defense partner could be at stake if the invasion of Ukraine drags on. The war has placed huge demands on Russia’s defense industry, meaning it likely has less overcapacity to sell abroad. Myanmar has taken a big gamble with a country facing bigger problems in Ukraine than it expected. Not only is it possible that Russia will be a less powerful friend, but close ties to Moscow could complicate Myanmar’s relations with other countries in the region that are distancing themselves from Russia, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Second, Myanmar’s arms purchases from Russia mostly consist of technologically advanced equipment such as aircraft, radar instruments and air defence systems. But export controls and other sanctions from the US, the EU and several Asian countries have made it difficult for Russian manufacturers to obtain key technologies and critical components needed to manufacture such equipment.

These restrictions will also affect the capacity of the Russian defence industry to provide spare parts, ammunition and upgrades to the Myanmar military’s existing systems, which the junta cannot replace quickly or cheaply.

Any close alliance with Moscow will also be a further source of concern for Western countries, which have imposed additional targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military and its companies after the coup but have so far failed to adopt broader financial and trade measures as implemented during the previous junta and were abolished only in 2012. So, in theory, the West could consider more punitive measures, especially if it believes Myanmar is helping Moscow evade the blow of sanctions.

According to the ICG, it remains unlikely that the US or the EU will want to go that far, though it is not completely impossible. While Western nations remain focused on bigger countries like India over concerns they are creating markets for Russian fuel, the US desire to keep New Delhi as a strategic partner will deter Washington from taking extreme coercive measures. Imposing sanctions on Myanmar would be a much simpler policy decision for many of them, as it is neither a major trading partner nor a strategic ally.

The Crisis Group believes that financial sanctions or trade measures (notably the withdrawal of Myanmar’s access to EU trade preferences) are likely to have little impact on the junta but could be disastrous for the already deeply impoverished population.

The standoff’s human cost is devastating. Myanmar’s economy is freefalling, the national currency has crashed, health and education systems have crumbled, poverty rates are estimated to have doubled since 2019, and half of all households cannot afford enough food.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, and reports of atrocities mount, many are calling on the US to list the Kremlin as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, the costs of this risky step would greatly outweigh any benefits, fears the ICG.

The Shift from China to Russia

By the end of the 1990s, after a decade of relying on China as its principal arms supplier, Myanmar was looking to diversify. Troops were reportedly dissatisfied with Chinese equipment, which was mostly second-hand and which they found to be of poor quality, requiring constant repairs.

Chinese fighter jets were particularly unreliable.  Air force personnel referred to them as “flying coffins”. Military strategists were also uncomfortable with the operational and intelligence risks of using so much weaponry from a neighbouring power, especially one that is also arming several insurgent armed resistance organisations in northern Myanmar.

At the same time, Moscow was seeking to increase its engagement with Asia. Through a series of summits in 2000, Russia’s new President Vladimir Putin reinvigorated his country’s longstanding strategic relationship with India, negotiated a strategic partnership with China, and renewed friendly relations with North and South Korea as well as Japan.

Russia also actively participated in meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

In 2001, Myanmar and Russia signed a military-technical agreement, as part of which the Myanmar regime purchased ten MIG-29 fighter jets, its first major order of non-Chinese aircraft.

Thereafter, the two countries inaugurated an extensive training program.  Some 7,000 Myanmar military officers have so far reportedly obtained postgraduate degrees from Russian universities.

Bilateral talks on nuclear technology cooperation in Moscow in July 2022 led the two countries to sign a memorandum of understanding on skills development, but there are no indications of any concrete plans to move forward with the construction of a reactor in Myanmar.

From 2001 to 2021, the Myanmar military continued its pivot to Russian equipment. Data show that it procured $1.7 billion of arms from Russia, equal to the amount provided by China over the same period. Officers say they consider the Russian equipment of higher quality than Chinese or domestically produced weapons.

Possible reactions from the West?

All this brings complications for those nations who want to punish the two governments for their respective transgressions. The ICG briefing states that while these countries can do little to confront this pariah state solidarity, concerned countries “should continue to impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military regime, enforce bilateral arms embargos and urging [ASEAN] members to continue to exclude the regime from high-level meetings.”

Despite the risks to both sides, it seems highly likely that Russia and Myanmar will ignore these risks and seek to further deepen bilateral ties. External actors who want to bring about positive change in Myanmar should plan accordingly, the ICG argues

Because there is little Western and regional powers can do that could successfully disrupt the mutually beneficial relationship that Russia and Myanmar have developed, the International Crisis Group advocates for a ‘realistic’ or ‘diplomatic’ strategy. It argues that the US should not designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

First, countries should continue to target the regime and the military, and companies associated with them, with targeted sanctions, even if such measures are unlikely to change the junta’s stance. Sanctions are both important as a signal of principle and a limitation on the military’s revenue-generating capabilities.

They must also redouble their efforts to secure the broadest possible bilateral arms embargoes against Myanmar, recognising that the regime’s two main suppliers, Russia and China, will continue to thwart efforts to multilateralise the arms ban at the UN Security Council.

At the same time, foreign governments must continue to avoid general trade and financial sanctions that would disproportionately harm the livelihoods of Myanmar’s ordinary people while barely touching the regime, other than perhaps pushing it deeper into Chinese or Russian arms.

Second, Asian diplomats must consider the deepening of the junta’s relations with Russia in their efforts to address the crisis in Myanmar — in the sense that these ties are making efforts to further stigmatise the junta regionally. It is therefore fundamental that ASEAN’s main dialogue partners who have opposed the coup (such as the US, EU, UK and Japan) continue to insist that the regional bloc expands its policy to exclude representatives of the Myanmar regime at summits and other important meetings.

While the impact of such a boycott is limited, it deprives the regime of the international legitimacy it seeks. It also maintains at least some regional diplomatic influence by indicating that normalisation will not be possible until the regime makes meaningful progress in ending the violence and returning the country to a democratic trajectory.

Third, diplomats at the UN must also be tactical about the relationship between Myanmar and Russia. Despite Russia’s (and China’s) veto power, Security Council debates so far have been less polarised on the Myanmar crisis than on some other issues. While official statements fall far short of the measures needed to address the crisis, they are an important signal of international concern at the highest level, including to Myanmar’s diplomatic allies.

However, diplomats state that China is increasingly resisting Council actions against Myanmar, raising questions about how long the Council’s cooperation will last and can the consensus-based approach hold. Beijing, for example, took a hard line in negotiating a draft press statement after the Council’s discussion on Myanmar on 27 May and prevented any text from being released, although it allowed a press statement on 27 July 2022 condemning the executions of dissidents by the junta.

A collapse in consensus will likely mean China can no longer contain Russia’s position, allowing Moscow to provide Naypyitaw with more solid diplomatic support. It is therefore important that the members of the Council maintain the consensus approach for as long as possible, the ICG believes.

In sum

Western and regional powers that want to see a return to democracy in Myanmar and a weakened Russia have reason to worry that the two countries are moving closer together. But with the slim chance that they could disrupt the relationship, they should focus their actions where they are likely to be most constructive: on enforcing targeted (not blanket) sanctions against Myanmar’s military, imposing arms embargoes, strengthen a firm ASEAN approach and ensure that UN diplomacy keeps room for future consensus action in the Security Council.

Who could have thought that Shakespeare’s famous phrase in The Tempest (1610) remains relevant even today? [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 August 2022]

Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is the editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change

Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on August 3 (Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation MFA)

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, remix, tweak and build upon it non-commercially. Please give due credit.

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