Myanmar’s military junta celebrated Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyidaw with a parade of tanks, missiles and a flyby of military planes, including Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets.
Seven Asian countries sent low-key delegations to the event hosted by coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing last week. But the highest official to assist came from further afield: Alexander Fomin, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense.
Russia is enter a diplomatic void left by the other great powers of the world, as they deliberate on whether – and to what extent – to engage with the junta that on February 1 seized power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Moscow’s attitude echoes its 2015 decision to provide military support to President Bashar al-Assad’s pariah regime in Syria, helping to turn the tide of the civil war in favor of the dictator.
“In terms of appearance, yes, it’s a big finger from the middle to the west: ‘We can do whatever we want,'” said Alexander Gabuev, president of the Russia program under the Asia-Pacific program. at the Carnegie Moscow Center, about the decision to send a senior official to Naypyidaw.
While Min Aung Hlaing investigated his troops last weekend, it is estimated 169 people were killed by the regime, including at least 14 children, a nurse and a Mandalay snack vendor who were shot and burned alive by troops, local media reported.
The conflict has shown signs of widening into international conflict in recent days, as refugees escaping airstrikes in an area of eastern Myanmar controlled by an ethnic Karen militia fled to Thailand. Three other minority armed groups have said they plan to join what they called the “spring revolution” carried out in Myanmar cities if the army does not stop his assassination, according to Reuters.
“Myanmar could easily become a failed state within months, with violent urban unrest, a rapidly escalating ethnic armed conflict and a generalized humanitarian emergency,” said Thant Myint-U, historian and author. “The economy is in free fall, jeopardizing the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people.”
Russia’s decision to openly deal with a government that most countries of the world shied away from was opportunistic, driven largely by the prospect of increased arms sales, analysts said. But Moscow also has less to lose from the deepening civil conflict than Myanmar’s Asian neighbors.
“Myanmar is not at Russia’s doorstep, so they don’t have to worry about the fallout and don’t have to deal with the refugee crisis,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of the Power and Program. Diplomacy at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.
Moscow’s ties with Myanmar date back to the country’s former military rule and continued into the decade of democracy. Russia has been courting closer political and economic ties with Asian countries since it came under Western sanctions following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Fomin has a long-standing relationship with Burmese officials due to his former post as head of the Department of Military-Technical Cooperation at the Ministry of Defense. He helped sell some of the Russian material on display in the armed forces parade.
Russia is Myanmar’s second-largest arms supplier after China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank. The Burmese military expects delivery of six Sukhoi Su-20 advanced fighter jets on order in 2019, and the two sides signed contracts for a Russian air defense system and a suite of tactical surveillance drones in January, according to the Center for Defense. Strategy and Technology Analysis, a Moscow-based defense think tank.
“They see an opening here to increase their market share at the expense of China and others,” Gabuev said. “Even if there is democratic government in the future, the more you sell now, the more you lock the armed forces into training programs and additional sales.”
Moscow’s bet in Myanmar also underlines the dismay and contradictory messages emanating from the international community at large after the coup.
The United States has most directly denounced the junta’s seizure of power, imposing sanctions on senior military officials and their companies. Washington also froze a trade deal with Myanmar this week. Japan, Myanmar’s largest aid donor, suspended new development aid in what his foreign minister called a “clear position”.
However, India and China, Myanmar’s big neighbors, were more reserved in their public remarks and sent representatives to the military parade.
Beijing, which enjoyed good relations with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, was particularly cautious in its public stance after widespread anti-Chinese sentiment erupted among anti-coup protesters.
Beijing’s most forceful remarks came last month, when the Foreign Ministry expressed concern over “the safety of Chinese institutions and personnel” after some garment factories burnt down in Yangon.
The junta will seek new trading partners in Russia and elsewhere as new sanctions are imposed, investors withdraw and lines of credit are drying up. “We are waiting for your businessmen,” Min Aung Hlaing told the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Moscow-based newspaper, which was part of the Russian delegation.
Moscow, analysts said, made an early bet on what it believes is the side most likely to win.
“Russia is betting the military will win,” Thant Myint-U said. “It’s a low risk bet because Russia has little to lose if Myanmar falls into civil war, but if the military stays in power, Moscow will have a new friend in the Indian Ocean.”