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Ambitions in Myanmar

Russia supports the regime established by Myanmar's Armed Forces to deepen bilateral ties

The Russian Deputy Minister of Defence Alexander Fomin's participation in the 76th Armed Forces Day, held in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on Saturday, March 27th, did not go unnoticed, opening a heated discussion within the international arena.

Whilst the entire international community was outraged at the brutality of the new military regime imposed in a coup by the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) in February 2021, Russia decided to participate in the military parade, earning the label of "true friend" from Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing. It was one of the eight international actors, along with China and six Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand) to take part in the commemoration. Nonetheless, while the other seven countries were represented by a low-profile delegation, the Russian Federation decided to send a high-ranking official: Alexander Fomin, Deputy Minister of Defence.

Behind Fomin's appearance at the 76th Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the 1945 resistance to the Japanese occupation, several analysts argue a precise strategy is hiding. Indeed, Russia is slowly re-establishing relations with Myanmar, taking advantage of its strategic significance. The process began even before the coup since Russia, after the Western sanctions imposed in 2014 due to the Ukraine Crisis and the reunification of Crimea, tried to attract in its sphere of influence several Asian countries. More specifically, Russian-Myanmar relations were and are currently based primarily on the arms trade for military purposes. The Russian Federation has been, indeed, the second-largest supplier of weaponry to Myanmar after China since 2008, supplying approximately 835 million dollars worth of goods. Such a commercial relationship was evident immediately before the coup when Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoygu, paid an official visit to Myanmar’s government to conclude agreements on air defence systems, drones, and radar equipment.

Moreover, it was visible even during the Armed Forces Day, which parade was composed of tanks, missiles, and a series of military aircraft, including the Russian MiG-29 combat jets.

Russia's intentions towards Myanmar were further confirmed by Sergey Shoygu in an interview with Interfax on 26th March, who stated: "The Russian Federation is committed to a strategy aimed at bolstering relations between the two countries [...] in order to deepen military and military-technical cooperation in the spirit of strategic partnership [...] Myanmar is a reliable ally and strategic partner to the Russian Federation in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region."

Myanmar's strategic geographical position is a key for connectivity routes and natural resources. Thanks to its privileged position, the enhancement of the relations with the country may also indirectly pave the way for future connections with other ASEAN countries, narrowing the distance to one of Russia's foreign policy objectives: the spread of its influence and the consolidation of its position as an essential player in Eurasia, which is becoming the focal point of global geopolitics and geoeconomics. As a result, Myanmar ties may reveal to be beneficial, given the Russian Federation's current weak position on the market of Southeast Asian countries (SEA). Aside from the arms trade, Russia does not conduct financial investments, unlike other major regional forces such as China, India, and Japan. Hence, Russia is the leading arms supplier in the South Asian market but not the leading partner or a balancer of major regional forces.

The 76th Armed Forces Day was, therefore, an advantageous opportunity that Russia could not miss.

It is worth noting that Myanmar's rapprochement with Russia has substantial benefits for Myanmar as well, but in order to understand the reasons behind it, we need to take a step back and start at the beginning.

It was February 2021 when the media broke the news of a coup in Myanmar by the Tatmadaw against the democratically elected government of NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar's military Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, explained the seizure of power as a reaction to the fraudulent nature of NLD's election victory. Under these premises, he imposed a one-year state of emergency and detained Suu Kyi as long as several members of her party.

From the very beginning, popular opposition was evident: people gathered in the streets and peacefully protested against the military and the illegal takeover. In turn, the response to the pro-democracy protests was extremely violent, as it included repression, attacks, and killings of civilians who opposed the new power holders in Myanmar. The violence against unarmed people quickly escalated in few days, prompting an immediate and coordinated response from the international community. In the second half of February, the European Union, as well as the United Nations, condemned international law and human rights infringement, calling for "de-escalation of the current crisis through an immediate end to the state of emergency, the restoration of the legitimate civilian government, and the opening of the newly elected parliament" to prevent a humanitarian crisis and spill over effects due to the increasing number of refugees. Besides, the Council of the European Union announced its readiness to adopt restrictive measures against Myanmar's Armed Forces if aggression against civilians persisted (Council of European Union, 6287/21). The sanctions were subsequently introduced on 22nd March, targeting 11 individuals responsible for overthrowing the government and the "indefensible" killings of unarmed casualties through travel bans and asset freeze, in addition to pre-existing measures, including an embargo on arms and equipment, export ban of dual-use goods, and export restrictions on equipment for monitoring communications. (Council of European Union, 2021)

The European sanctions were imposed shortly before what several newspapers and analysts have described as the bloodiest day since the military coup onset. On Saturday, March 27th, at least 114 civilians killed by military forces in 40 different locations (e.g., Yangon and Mandalay) during the 76th Armed Forces Day, including children, were reported by local media. It was the highest number of casualties registered since the beginning of the conflict in a single day, accounting for a total of 440 deaths. Unfortunately, the latest reports from Myanmar Now indicate that protests and repression do not intend to alleviate, making it difficult to keep track of casualties as the figures fluctuate from day to day. The most recent figure available on 14th April amounted to more than 700 people killed.

From these episodes, it is easy to frame the international community's harsh reaction towards the Russian Federation and the other seven countries that, despite the killings, have agreed to celebrate the Armed Forces Day. Relevant individuals commented on the occurrence with strong words: from the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who stated to be "horrified by the bloodshed perpetrated by the Burmese security forces, demonstrating that the junta will sacrifice the lives of the people to serve the few," to British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, who emphasized the gravity of the events of 27th March, declaring that Myanmar would "forever stay engraved as a day of terror and dishonour.”

On the other hand, the 76th Armed Forces Day proved to be particularly fruitful for Myanmar. The participation of two countries, more specifically Russia and China, was critical. Their support to the country in the current conflict is essential because, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, enjoying a veto power, they can overrule any UN Proposal aimed at intervening against the military regime. A power which has been exercised by both countries since the beginning, by blocking, for instance, the UN Human Rights Council's Resolution adopted on 24th March, which renewed the mandate of a Special Rapporteur in Myanmar to assess violations of international human rights and humanitarian law since the February seizure of power. This detail is, indeed, particularly worrying, as despite international actors such as Amnesty International, or relevant figures, including Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, incite the United Nations for a more decisive international response, without the approval of Russia and China, the Security Council's hands are tied.

Furthermore, in addition to Europe, some other countries have begun to impose sanctions against Tatmadaw, such as the United States, Britain, and Australia. Neighbouring China started to show signs of national security concern as well, despite its veto on the UN Security Council's Proposals against the regime and its participation in the Armed Forces Day. As sanctions and international discourse increase, Myanmar has to find alternative partner countries with which to continue economic, financial, and military relations. Provided that both Myanmar and the Russian Federation share anti-interference sentiments, being affected by Western sanctions, Russia reveals itself extremely attractive as a valid ally against Western interventionism. Additionally, Myanmar is attempting to diversify its partners' portfolio, not only because of Western sanctions but also to avoid overdependence on China due to its rapid economic expansion. Crucial to remember, in fact, is that until 2019 Beijing was the primary leading partner and largest investor in the country; investments that have further increased after Myanmar joined the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in 2016. According to the Directorate of Investment and Enterprise Management data under the supervision of the Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations (MIFER), in December 2020, Myanmar has agreed to $133,531 million in investment from China for the years 2020-2021 after Singapore with $161,144 million. Moreover, Myanmar has accepted 29 projects covering various economic, energy, and infrastructure areas, which China plans to implement along the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a corridor aimed at connecting the Indian Ocean oil trade to China's Yunnan Province. Hence, the Chinese concern about Myanmar's plan to diversify its relations is evident.

But there is a weakness in Russia’s plan to improve relations with Myanmar and which could hinder Russian ambitions in Eurasia. The Russian Federation has built close commercial ties with north Asian countries over the years, primarily through oil exports. In reality, Russia is the world's leading oil producer and exports a large quantity of oil to Japan, South Korea, and China. The point is that, as previously mentioned, SEA countries are gradually seeking to diversify their alliances in order to escape China's shadow. Russia, on the other hand, is increasingly moving closer to China, as shown by recent international developments, which may prove to be a barrier for both SEA countries in search of alienation and Russia in pursuit of its political objectives.

Author: Greta Bordin


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