Myanmar and Russia: the Vladivostok meeting signals a rapprochement

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Russia and Myanmar have expanded bilateral cooperation in the face of global condemnation.

Since Myanmar’s armed forces (the Tatmadaw) overthrew the country’s democratically elected government in February 2021 and Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, Naypyidaw and Moscow have grown closer in the face of international condemnation and Western economic sanctions.

In the past month alone, high-level interactions between senior officials from both countries have demonstrated a strong commitment to deepening collaboration in three priority areas: political assistance, defense ties and energy cooperation.

By far the most important event was the visit of coup leader and Chairman of the State Administrative Council (SAC), General-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to Vladivostok last week.

Min Aung Hlaing participated in the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), an initiative launched by President Vladimir Putin in 2015 to promote foreign investment in Russia’s resource-rich but infrastructure-poor Far East.

Although this is his third trip to Russia since he took power (and his second in as many months and the ninth since becoming head of the armed forces in 2013), it was the first time he could meet Putin in person.

Much to Min Aung Hlaing’s delight, the Kremlin dubbed him the “Prime Minister” (albeit of the “caretaker government”) of Myanmar, a title that few other countries have granted him, including China, which does not. always appoints him as president of the SAC.

In return, the putschist praised Putin, praising him for raising Russia to a position of world leadership and, despite the outbreak of a major war in Europe by invading Ukraine, for helping to international stability.

Putin was less expansive, but called Myanmar “our long-standing and reliable partner in Southeast Asia”. He said he was satisfied that the relationship was “evolving in a positive way”.

According to a presidential aide, Russia and Myanmar were in agreement on international and regional issues, that the SAC understood the reasons for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and that it had rejected “the anti-sanctions -Western Russians”. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country to have openly endorsed the invasion.

A month earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had met with senior SAC leaders in Naypyidaw. Ironically, he was on his way to Phnom Penh to attend a series of ASEAN-led meetings that Myanmar generals had been banned from attending.

Contrary to growing ASEAN disapproval of the SAC’s draconian methods of consolidating power, Lavrov said Moscow supported the junta’s efforts to “stabilize” the country and hold elections next year.

According to a presidential aide, Russia and Myanmar were in agreement on international and regional issues, that the SAC understood the reasons for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and that it had rejected “the anti-sanctions -Western Russians”. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country to have openly endorsed the invasion.

To strengthen diplomatic relations, Min Aung Hlaing asked Lavrov to move the Russian embassy from Yangon to Naypyidaw and establish a consulate in Mandalay. He also suggested that Myanmar open consulates in St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk.

Myanmar may have been a convenient stopover for Lavrov en route to Cambodia. But his visit may also be a sign that the Russian Foreign Ministry will now play a more active role in promoting bilateral relations, hitherto almost exclusively framed by the armed forces of the two countries.

But the close ties between the armies of Myanmar and Russia remain essential to bilateral relations. To retain control of the skies, SAC wants to import more military hardware from Russia, including fighter jets and helicopters. Russia is eager to step up its arms trade with Myanmar to offset falling sales elsewhere in the region.

Although no big deals have been signed since the coup, the two sides have been actively discussing future arms sales, as well as how to circumvent sanctions and export controls imposed since the coup. invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

A major sourcing decision can’t be far away. Min Aung Hlaing’s suggestion to establish a consulate in Novosibirsk may be an indication of future plans: the Siberian city is home to a subsidiary of the aircraft company Sukhoi, the maker of the SU-34 fighter-bomber that Russia used to great effect devastating against lightly armed anti-government forces in Syria since 2015 (but less so in Ukraine where they faced a more formidable adversary).

Meanwhile, defense diplomacy activities between Myanmar and Russia have continued apace. In August, a Tatmadaw delegation led by SAC Vice President, Deputy Chief General Soe Win, took part in the International Military Games in Moscow. At the beginning of September, the Tatmadaw also took part in Vostok-22, the large-scale Russian military exercises in the Russian Far East.

The two countries have also made progress in resolving Myanmar’s energy crisis caused by the coup but exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. In August, the SAC established a committee to oversee imports of Russian crude oil, which Moscow presumably offered to Naypyidaw at reduced prices due to declining exports to Europe following the sanctions. First deliveries are expected later this month.

More intriguingly, Myanmar has signed an agreement with the Russian state atomic energy agency Rosatom on the sidelines of the EEF. This agreement follows a memorandum of understanding signed by Myanmar and Rosatom during Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Moscow in July. It proposes a roadmap for cooperation by 2022-23, and mentions in particular the development of small modular reactors (SMR). SMRs are smaller, cheaper and (supposedly) safer than traditional nuclear power plants, and are relatively easy to plug into existing power grids. Since 2019, Russia has been using a floating SMR to power a small Arctic town and hopes to sell the technology to other countries.

As Southeast Asian countries struggle to meet growing energy demand, Russian SMRs in Myanmar could provide some fission – literal and metaphorical – for the Russian nuclear industry and bilateral relations in general.

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