Amid Russia’s new offensive in eastern Ukraine, Myanmar’s generals continue to face fierce opposition to the February 1, 2021, coup, recently vowing to “annihilate” resistance groups across the country. Despite the gaze of Western capitals shifting to Ukraine, the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have still proven unable to consolidate their control over war-torn Myanmar. With both Russia and the West distracted by the war in Ukraine, however, Myanmar’s isolated and paranoid generals may have little choice but to turn to Beijing to maintain their grip on power.
The Tatmadaw has long been wary of China’s influence over Myanmar. Once dubbed a Chinese “client state” in the aftermath of the 1988 coup, successive governments in Naypyidaw have since sought to diversify Myanmar’s external relations. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected National League for Democracy government had begun to forge closer ties with Beijing in the face of Western sanctions over the 2017 Rohingya crisis, the Tatmadaw prioritized its relations with Russia after last year’s coup.
Having isolated itself from the international community once again, the Tatmadaw was effectively left with two possible backers: Russia and China. While both countries helped stifle a unified statement from the United Nations Security Council condemning the coup, Russia emerged as one of the Tatmadaw’s first key supporters after China’s initially “quiet” response. What followed was a subtle affront to Beijing; Tatmadaw leader Min Aung Hlaing chose to visit Russia in July 2021 rather than China.
Arming the Junta
One of the most important aspects of the Myanmar military’s blossoming relationship with Moscow has been defense procurement. Even before the Tatmadaw seized power, Russia had already grown to become Myanmar’s second-largest arms supplier after China. Embracing Russian arms has allowed Myanmar to diversify its external relations and reduce its dependence on Chinese weapons.
Just one week before the coup, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar to ink an agreement on the supply of surface-to-air missile platforms, surveillance drones, and radar equipment to the Tatmadaw. Before Min Aung Hlaing made his July 2021 visit to Moscow, a 20-member Russian delegation that reportedly included representatives from the Russian Navy and Russia state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport made a secretive visit to Naypyidaw.
With its generally higher quality arms exports and competitive pricing, Russia has proven to be an important supplier of armored vehicles, helicopters, and fighter jets for Myanmar, with these being critical platforms in the Tatmadaw’s ongoing fight against Myanmar’s eclectic mix of resistance groups and ethnic armed groups. Six months after the coup, Russia reaffirmed its intent to deliver six Su-30 aircraft to the Tatmadaw. A recent report indicates that in January 2022, just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a possible delivery of Russian-made BDRM-2MS armored vehicles was made to Myanmar.
As Russian-made armored vehicles roll down the streets of Yangon against protestors and Russian-made jets bomb rebel-held areas in Myanmar’s border regions, it’s clear that Russian arms have become an indispensable part of the Tatmadaw’s hold on power. Importantly, Myanmar’s burgeoning defense engagement with Russia has allowed it to avoid becoming too over-reliant on Beijing.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, may just tip Naypyidaw’s balancing act back in Beijing’s favor.
An Unwelcome Distraction
While the Tatmadaw has unsurprisingly backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by calling it “justified,” Myanmar’s generals will have to deal with the unintended consequences of Moscow’s military adventurism in Eastern Europe. The most pressing concern for Naypyidaw will be the impact of an extended Russian military campaign on its international arms exports.
As Bertil Lintner has noted, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may see the supply of Russian arms to the Tatmadaw dry up. Critically, the the Myanmar military may be hard-pressed to procure the spare parts and munitions required to maintain its growing fleet of Russian-made platforms as they are battle-tested in Myanmar’s staunchly anti-junta ethnic regions.
While some analysts have argued that Russia’s renewed political and economic isolation will mean doubling-down on lucrative arms exports to like-minded pariah states such as Myanmar, the war in Ukraine raises significant challenges that may prevent a return to “business as usual” for Myanmar’s generals. Richard Bitzinger and Kenneth Boutin have pointed to Russia’s need to replenish its significant combat losses in Ukraine, the impact of ongoing sanctions on the Russian defense industry’s supply chain, and the lackluster performance of Russian military platforms in Ukraine as potentially stemming the supply and demand for Russian arms in the short term.
With a potential drawdown in Russian weapons, spare parts, and munitions to Myanmar on the horizon and no signs of the Tatmadaw’s multifront war abating any time soon, Beijing is welcoming the military junta with open arms.
Swinging to Beijing?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while certainly unnerving for Beijing, offers China a window of opportunity in neighboring Myanmar. It’s no secret that both China and Russia – the Tatmadaw’s first and second most important arms suppliers, respectively – have been racing to meet Myanmar’s demand for high-ticket items such as submarines and military aircraft. Although China still trails behind arms exporters such as Russia in terms of quality and technological advancement, Beijing is catching up. Between 2017 and 2021, China was the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter.
As Russia diverts its defense industry to replenish its losses in Ukraine, countries like China will undoubtedly seek to fill the gap in Myanmar’s market for arms. Furthermore, if Russia is unable to fulfill its existing contracts with the Tatmadaw due to supply chain disruptions, sanctions, and a reorientation of its defense industry for war in Ukraine, Moscow’s credibility as a reliable offset to Chinese arms may be damaged.
But the possible flow of more Chinese arms into Myanmar to compensate for delays and deficiencies in Russian arms exports is just one part of the picture. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China has gone all-in on support for the Tatmadaw. In a recent high-level visit between the two countries, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged to back the military junta “no matter how the situation changes” before announcing a 650 million renminbi ($99 million) grant to Myanmar.
Can the Tatmadaw Maintain Its Balancing Act?
Although Russia’s war in Ukraine may leave a vacuum for China to fill, it’s clear that Beijing needs the Tatmadaw as much as the Tatmadaw needs Beijing. In February, rebels reportedly attacked Myanmar soldiers guarding an oil and gas pipeline in Myanmar’s Mandalay region – a key component of the centerpiece China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Previously, the Tatmadaw had laid landmines along Chinese-backed oil and gas pipeline’s at Beijing’s behest.
To be sure, Beijing will seek to maximize any waning of Russian influence in Myanmar, especially in the competitive arms market. But it’s unlikely that Myanmar’s paranoid generals will be any less suspicious of China’s intentions. Irrespective of how the Ukraine war plays out, the Tatmadaw will likely continue to play up the strength of its relations with Moscow to offset China’s influence. So long as Beijing continues to supply weapons to ethnic armed groups such as the United Wa State Army along its border with Myanmar, Chinese arms and money will likely buy China short-term leverage in Naypyidaw, but not trust.