Guest Column

Will Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s Russia Visit Unlock More Military Cooperation?

By Ko Ye 24 June 2017

At the VI Moscow Conference on International Security organized in April 2017, the Russian deputy defense minister Lt-Gen Alexander Fomin held talks with Rear Admiral Myint Nwe, deputy defense minister of Myanmar. The meeting confirmed commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Russia this month.

Alexander Fomin remarked “we see good prospects of cooperation in military and military-technical fields between the two countries from the upcoming visit of the commander-in-chief of Myanmar”.

Alexander Fomin can be said to be a key player in Russia’s expansion of military ties with foreign countries in the past few years. He has taken a lead role in Russia’s military technical cooperation with international countries—in other words, finding new markets for Russia’s military technology.

From 2005 to 2015, he served in the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, and was promoted through the ranks from deputy director to director. In January this year, he was appointed deputy defense minister.

Alexander Fomin reportedly has cordial ties with Myanmar’s military. After visits were exchanged between Russian defense minister Sergey K. Shoygu and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in 2013, Lt-Gen Alexander Fomin visited Myanmar in November of the same year in his capacity as the joint-chairman of the Russia-Myanmar military technical cooperation.

When Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing went to Belarus in November 2014, he made a stopover in Russia for transit, and Alexander Fomin came and met him at the airport. In September 2015, he visited Myanmar again. Whenever he met Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the discussion focused on the promotion of military ties and military technical cooperation. It can be said that his discussions have achieved certain results.

Since 2011, Myanmar-Russia military relations have gone from strength to strength. After 1988, Myanmar relied on its neighbor China because of sanctions from western countries. Especially, the Tatmadaw came to rely heavily on China for the procurement of weapons. From 1988, when the military staged a coup, to 2000, the Tatmadaw purchased weapons mostly from China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

According SIPRI data, Tatmadaw spent US$1.63 billion on weapons over this period.

In his book “In the Name of Phauk-Phaw,” Maung Aung Myo wrote: “The Tatmadaw was not happy with Chinese weapons …. so the Tatmadaw began to procure more advanced Russia weapons and sent more trainees to Russia in the early of 2000s.”

In 2001, the Tatmadaw purchased 12 MiG29B fighter jets from Russia and continued to purchase more and more sophisticated weapons from the country.

From 2001 to 2016, the Tatmadaw mainly purchased weapons from Russia, with the total value of weapons it purchased from Russia during that period even higher than that of weapons bought from China. According to records, the procurement totaled $1.45 billion whereas the procurement from China was just $1.42 billion.

This indicates that Myanmar’s military cooperation with Russia increased after 2001. Recently, a Russian company handed over three Yak-130 trainer aircrafts purchased by the Tatmadaw. More aircraft will be transferred in 2018.

Myanmar, which mainly sent trainees to China after 1988, has now sent large numbers of trainees to Russia in recent years.

Author Ludmila Lutz-Auras, quoting the records of Russia’s Education Ministry, said there were a total of 4,705 Myanmar citizens learning in Russian universities in the 20 years between 1993 to 2013—the number is the second largest from South East Asia, following Vietnam.

In an interview with state-run Myanma Alinn newspaper published on June 5, Russian Ambassador to Myanmar Nikolay A. Listopadov said around 6,000 Tatmadaw students have graduated from prestigious universities in Russia and some have received post-graduate and doctoral degrees. There are currently around 600 male and female students learning in Russia. It is interesting that the ambassador linked the Tatmadaw’s efforts to establish a Standard Army with Russia’s scholarship programs.

In November 2013, three Russian naval ships arrived at Yangon to commemorate 65 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and Myanmar. This was the first time Russian naval ships had come to Myanmar in modern history. In May last year, three Russian naval ships visited Yangon again.

The bilateral relations have been further reinforced by agreements signed in the last few years. In November 2014, Myanmar’s Parliament approved the agreement between Russia and Myanmar on military intelligence cooperation. Shortly after the National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed office, the Parliament approved an agreement on military cooperation between Russia and Myanmar.

Defense ministers of the two countries signed the agreement in June last year. Though the agreement is mainly about technical transfers and military academic training, it is interesting to see that Myanmar, a country in transition, signed a military agreement with a superpower like Russia.

The Tatmadaw realized in the 2000s that it could not be completely dependent on China regarding international relations, military technology, and weapon procurement, and boosted its ties with Russia. Besides Russia, it also started to establish relations with a number of non-Western countries.  Following political transition, it was free to develop good ties with western countries.

Though the Tatmadaw is currently not able to procure weapons from western countries, it has re-established ties with them and dispatches trainees to the US and the UK on a regular basis. In addition, it has also started to purchase training aircraft from companies from Germany, a member of the EU. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing addressed the EU Military Committee Meeting held in Brussels last year.

The Tatmadaw’s ties with western countries have undeniably improved in the past few years. But it is not without restrictions. Especially, there are still a lot of restrictions in purchasing weapons and military technology. So, countries like Russia are a strategic partner country for Myanmar Tatmadaw to achieve its aim of establishing a “Standard Army.” While military relations with western countries depend largely on relations between civilian governments, Myanmar Tatmadaw can engage more independently with Russia without being influenced by the shadow of civilian government.

Meanwhile, with the rising of China in the international arena, Russia has started to acknowledge the importance of the Asia Pacific region. Soviet leader Lenin said: “Let us turn our faces towards Asia. The East will help us conquer the West.” And Vladimir Putin now also has growing interest in the East. In particular, South East Asia plays an important part in Russia’s Look East approach.

In recent years, Russia’s economy, along with the country’s arms exports, has declined. The country earned $7.78 billion in 2013 from arms exports, but that amount dropped to $5.10 billion in 2014 and $5.56 billion in 2015. It is mainly because its large customer China has paid greater attention to production of arms at home and its markets in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are slumping. The market in India, which depends on Russia for 75 percent of its weapons, is also in decline. Under such circumstances, Southeast Asian countries, which are competitively building armies, have become new target for Russia.

Military analysts have estimated that Southeast Asia will spend a total of $40 billion on arms and technologies by 2020. Taking a look at Southeast Asian countries’ procurement of arms from Russian from 2011 to 2016, Vietnam spent $5.74 billion, Myanmar $1.45 billion, Malaysia $1.30 billion, and Indonesia $1.15 billion. During that period, Myanmar was the second largest buyer of Russian weapons in Southeast Asia after Vietnam.

Renowned Russia military expert Vyacheslav Tseluyko commented that if Russia gains a foothold in Myanmar, it has the potential to penetrate more of the Southeast Asia market including Laos, Indonesia, and even Bangladesh. Therefore, Myanmar can be a strategic market point for Russia, which is eyeing the Southeast Asia market.

As the dynamics of Myanmar’s international relations changed along with its political transition, Russia will not easily give up its position in Myanmar after all those years of support for the country in its troubled times. While it is still unclear about the stance and policies of the new civilian government, Russia seemingly has thought of reinforcing its position in Myanmar by maintaining good ties with the Tatmadaw.

Alexander Fomin has said there is good potential for development in military relations and military technical cooperation between the two countries. Currently, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is on an official visit to Russia. We’ll have to wait and see how this visit will unlock new potential in military cooperation between two countries.

Ko Ye is the executive director of the Yangon-based Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, a civil society organization researching civil-military relations and security sector in Myanmar’s transition process.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.