How Russia’s War in Ukraine could intensify the geopolitical tussle in Myanmar
The Russia-Ukraine crisis has given a whole new context to global affairs. As one of the most polarising events of this century so far, it has widened latent geopolitical fissures and possibly created new ones. Its knockdown effects on foreign policy behaviour in both international and regional contexts should not be underestimated.
In Myanmar, the crisis seems to be intensifying pre-existing competitive tendencies between China and Russia – two major powers invested in the country for their own unique reasons. Greater competition between both for influence in junta-ruled Myanmar could have second-order effects on how India and Japan – two Indo-Pacific powers with longstanding interests in Myanmar – approach the junta.
In many ways, Myanmar’s case may be seen as a reflection of the Russia-Ukraine crisis’ repercussions on geopolitics in the broader Indo-Pacific region.
The China-Russia jostle
Two recent developments are indicative of what big power politics could look like as the Russia-Ukraine crisis drags on.
First, a little more than a month after Russia launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese foreign ministry announced that U Wunna Maung Lwin, the foreign minister of Myanmar’s junta, would be visiting China to meet his counterpart, Wang Yi. The in-person meeting took place on 1 April in Huangshan City, located in Anhui Province.
This was the first time Yi was meeting Lwin in an one-on-one official meeting since the 1 February 2021 coup in Myanmar. In no less than clear terms, it signalled Beijing’s intent to fully embrace the military regime next door. Until this meeting – during which China extended a 650 million RMB grant to Myanmar – Beijing had refrained from fully embracing the junta.
Second, on 28 April, the President of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Nurgaliyevich Minnikhanov, arrived on a working visit to Myanmar to meet the junta leadership, including Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing. He brought along a coterie of industrialists from the republic, which is one of the most developed regions in Russia.
Following the visit, media reports indicated high interest within the Tatarstan government and business lobbies to invest in Myanmar, including in the automobile and energy sectors. The Russian truck giant, Kamaz, which was part of the visiting delegation, is reportedly seeking to finalise an agreement with the junta to begin manufacturing in Myanmar soon.
Notably, Kamaz also builds trucks that are used to mount the Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile system, which the Myanmar military ordered one month before the February 2021 coup. Last June, Myanmar’s coup leader visited the Kazan Helicopter production facility in the Tatar capital in a show of growing intimacy between Russia and the junta.
The Russia-Myanmar affair
It is clear that Russia, even as it faces gruelling Western sanctions and unprecedented global isolation, is rushing in to plug the holes and protect its friendships (and customer base). The Myanmar junta is a natural target in this regard, and for good reasons. The junta has expressed unflinching support for the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, it had already positioned itself as an eager buyer of Russian arms – a conscious move by the Burmese Generals to offset their own dependencies on China.
Even before the coup, the Myanmar military seemed to have developed a growing appetite for Russian military hardware. For Moscow, the Burmese military became an important customer in the face of declining arms sales to the ASEAN region due to Western sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. That the Myanmar military placed big-ticket orders of Russian platforms – from radars and SAMs to Sukhoi-30MK fighter jets and air defence systems – after 2014 gave a boost to this relationship. In order to expand its sales, Moscow wanted to familiarise the Burmese to Russian military systems, which was one of the reasons why in 2020, it allowed India to transfer a retrofitted Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine to the Myanmar navy.
Just a week before the coup last year, Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, toured Myanmar to sign an agreement for the supply of various weapons to the military. After the coup, there was a dramatic uptick in mutual visits – including the participation of the Russian deputy defence minister in the 76th Armed Forces Day parade in March 2021 and a week-long visit by coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, to Russia three months later. A week before Hlaing’s Russia visit, a 20-member Russian delegation led by the deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy made a secret visit to Myanmar, showing how dearly Moscow valued the Burmese defence client base.
In comparison, there has been sparse bilateral activity between China and Myanmar on the military-to-military side in recent times, especially after the coup. The Chinese, who are still the biggest arms suppliers to the Myanmar military, have been less than comfortable with the junta’s spirited outreach to the Russians (who are now Myanmar’s second-largest arms supplier). But, it hasn’t given up on the Burmese generals yet. Exactly a year after the Soviet-era Indian submarine sale to Myanmar, China transferred its own Ming-class diesel electric submarine to Myanmar. In Beijing’s Indian Ocean blueprint, Myanmar is an indispensable element, and investing in the latter’s defence ecosystem is a time-tested way to maintain strategic influence.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing Western sanctions, as is clear by now, has thrown its Defence Industrial Sector (DIS) into an abyss of stalled deadlines and spare parts shortage. As a recent report by the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute notes, this problem very much extends to Southeast Asia, where Vietnam and Myanmar are the two largest buyers of Russian military hardware. It also notes that as the war drags on, China is likely to provide greater economic and military assistance to Russia. This would, in turn, boost its leverage over Moscow and the Chinese will be in a position to secure greater concessions from the Russians on a host of issues pertaining to its regional and global interests.
In Myanmar’s context, this would essentially mean greater legroom for Beijing to impose itself on the junta and in the process, offset any relative advantage that the Russians might have acquired over the last few years. In a situation where the Russian DIS fails to deliver on its promised timelines for both new weapons and upgrade packages, the Chinese will be able to step in and compensate.
The junta will have little choice but to acquiesce, given the multi-front war that it is currently fighting inside Myanmar and the constant supply of weapons that such a conflict demands. Secondarily, China will be in a stronger position to ensure that its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are expedited and its existing assets in Myanmar protected with greater vigour by the junta.
As China tightens its grip around the junta under the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, its regional competitors who had so far maintained a neutral posture on the Myanmar coup, such as India and Japan, could shift their own positions and start engaging closely with the coup regime. Both New Delhi and Tokyo remain highly concerned about growing Chinese influence in Myanmar, which is why they have refrained from sanctioning or isolating the junta. A closer China-junta relationship would make them more nervous than ever.
India, particularly, could ramp up its own defence sales to the Burmese military to offset the Chinese clout. In any case, Myanmar has emerged as one of New Delhi’s biggest arms buyers in recent times. According to some reports, India has transferred military platforms to Myanmar even after the coup. Hence, any uptick of Indian weapons sales in the months to come would not be surprising.
Over the next few months, there is little doubt that Russia will go out on its limbs to retain its goodwill with its existing clients, including the Myanmar military. There is little doubt that this will push the Chinese to expand their own pitch with the junta. If India and Japan, both partners in the IPR and the Quad, respond along an equivalent track by normalising ties with the authoritarian junta, that could further dilute the core of the Indo-Pacific narrative and split it along the middle. In that sense, Myanmar could become a litmus test for the Indo-Pacific alliance in the post-Ukraine context. More importantly, it would create a broader legitimise a brutal regime that is currently at war with its own citizens.
* Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research