On August 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made an official visit to Myanmar, underscoring Russia’s support for the country’s military government.
The visit came just over a week after Myanmar’s military junta announced it had executed four pro-democracy activists – the country’s first executions in decades – sparking international condemnation.
Myanmar has spiraled into chaos since February 2021, when the military seized power by force from the elected government.
As of August 5, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), run by Myanmar citizens in exile, said 2,158 “people, pro-democracy activists and other civilians” have been killed as a result of the post-coup military crackdown.
Lavrov said Russia stood in solidarity with “efforts to stabilize the situation in the country” and welcomed planned elections next year. Analysts say the elections will be used to install a pro-military government.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, weighed in on what she described as Lavrov’s “rich visit.” In reference to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan, Zakharova said Lavrov visited “to promote cooperation,” rather than provoke China.
“Russia brings cooperation, peace, [and] stability to the region. Russia operates on the basis of international law, mutual respect and the mutual consideration of interests," Russian state broadcaster Sputnik quoted Zakharova as saying.
That is false. Russia, as a major supplier of arms to Myanmar’s military government, is doing anything but bringing peace and stability to the region.
Russia, along with China, blocked the United Nations from condemning the February 2021 coup, a move that fit a long-standing pattern of shielding Myanmar’s military from international rebuke for rights abuses and waging war on its own people.
In the month following the coup, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin visited Myanmar to solicit arms sales. That visit overlapped with the bloodiest day of protests since the military takeover, with the military reportedly killing scores of people, including children, according to news reports.
During a speech on Armed Forces Day (March 27), when the crackdown occurred, Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing called Russia a “true friend.” Fomin received a metal from Min Aung Hlaing the previous day.
As summarized by the International Crisis Group, “Russia has thrown Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s capital) a lifeline as it struggles to quash domestic resistance and secure international legitimacy, thus further antagonizing countries pushing for Myanmar’s return to democracy.”
Myanmar’s military rulers, in turn, supported Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, claiming that Russia was working “to consolidate its sovereignty.”
During his Myanmar trip, Lavrov thanked the Myanmar junta for its “balanced and responsible stance” on the war in Ukraine. Lavrov stressed the role of military cooperation and security in Russia’s relationship with Myanmar, announcing the two sides would hold talks on military-technical cooperation in Russia later this month.
In July, Russia and Myanmar announced they would deepen defense collaboration after Min Aung Hlaing made an unannounced visit to Moscow. A July 21 report from the Hong-Kong based Asia Times said, “Russia has emerged as the most outspoken global power to support [Myanmar’s] military junta.”
That report noted that Russian-made military hardware, including Hind Mi-35 helicopter gunships, transport helicopters, MiG-29 fighter jets and Yak-130 ground attack aircraft are being used in assaults on ethnic rebels in border areas, where other pro-democracy protesters have taken refuge.
“The assaults using Russian hardware are contributing to a new regional humanitarian crisis as refugees stream toward the Thai and Indian borders,” Asia Times reported.
Radio Free Asia, a sister U.S.-funded news organization to Voice of America, has documented the use of Russian jets and attack helicopters to carry out airstrikes, at times firing into villages indiscriminately.
As noted in a February 2021 report from Japan’s Nikkei Asia, many of the light armored vehicles rolling through the streets at the onset of the coup were of Russian-design.
Nikkei Asia reported that just days before the military takeover, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Myanmar to finalize a weapons deal, which included the Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile system, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radar equipment.
In February, Myanmar’s independent Irrawaddy news reported a Russian military delegation including pilots visited the country as the regime ramped up air attacks on ethnic armed organizations and opposition People’s Defense Force groups.
In August 2021, a Myanmar military spokesman said: “Russia plays the central part in Myanmar’s air defense systems, followed by China.” He added that “cooperation between the air forces is expanding,” the Irrawaddy reported.
The anti-corruption group Justice for Myanmar said Russia is “a major supplier of arms and dual use goods for the Myanmar military.”
The group accused Moscow of “aiding and abetting the military’s genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The group has called for sanctions against 19 Russian companies, many of which have continued to ship arms to Myanmar since the coup.
Investigators at the rights group Myanmar Witness found Myanmar’s military had used Yak-130 aircraft acquired from Russia to unleash “unguided rockets and 23mm cannon fire in and around civilian-populated areas.”
On July 4, The Irrawaddy reported Russia had delivered two of six new Su-30 fighter jets to Myanmar in March, citing sources who formerly served with the Myanmar Air Force.
However, in their report, published July 28, Myanmar Witness said they were not aware of the Su-30 “being delivered to, nor employed by, the Myanmar military at this time.”
Russia, which for years was Southeast Asia's leading arms supplier, has seen sales plummet following sanctions over its 2014 seizure of Crimea and expanded invasion of Ukraine in February.