When Myanmar’s Air Force took delivery of three Yak-130 advanced aircraft from Russia, with more deliveries of the fighter planes scheduled through 2018, the sale represented a significant break from the military’s past reliance on China for its armaments and weapons systems.
Myanmar’s various ethnic armed groups are equipped with weapons supplied mostly by China, while the government uses Chinese-made aircraft and other armaments to counterattack. China’s double game has sparked suspicions in Myanmar’s defense establishment about China’s intentions and is now a driving force behind the military’s move to procure more sophisticated Russian weaponry.
Myanmar’s military is searching for strategic answers as conflicts flare across the country. Since the army launched recent offensives against several ethnic armed groups in the country’s north and the northeast, casualties have been especially heavy.
A local intelligence source told Asia Times that 412 Myanmar army soldiers, including 32 officers, were killed and 582 wounded in the northeastern Kokang region from January 19 to March 26 this year. Casualties in Kokang were even heavier in 2015 when the 66th Light Infantry Division was decimated in fighting along the Chinese border.
In northern Kachin State, government losses in dead and wounded have also been at least in the hundreds, with some independent analysts putting the figure in the thousands. That’s prompted the military to launch unprecedented air assaults, including attacks by Russian helicopter gunships, rather than deploying badly trained and poorly motivated ground troops to capture rebel positions.
Bombardments from Russian-made helicopter gunships and Chinese Hongdu JL-8, also known as Karakorum-8, attack aircraft have become regular occurrences in the war in the north. But the attacks have also underscored Myanmar’s struggle to reduce its reliance on Chinese arms and diversify its traditional procurement sources.
Slowly but surely, though, Russia is becoming a major and important supplier to Myanmar’s armed forces.
According to German-Russian researcher Ludmila Lutz-Auras, Russia sold its first consignment of four MiG-29 jet fighters to Myanmar in 2001. That sale was followed by another ten MiGs in 2002. In 2006, the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG opened an office in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and current commercial hub.
The Myanmar Air Force has also acquired at least nine Russian-made Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunships, as well as twelve Mi-17 transport helicopters. In July last year, a delegation led by Myanmar Air Force chief General Khin Aung Myint visited Russia’s Kazan Helicopter Plant and expressed interest in buying new Mi-17V5 helicopters that would likely be used to attack ethnic armed groups in the north and northeast.
Russian military instructors have recently been spotted at Myanmar airfields, presumably to assist in the use and maintenance of the Russian-made attack helicopters. Such training is not new, however: many Myanmar soldiers and scientists have studied in Russia since the early 1990s.
Lutz-Auras estimates 4,705 Myanmar students studied in Russia between 1993 and 2013, more than from any other Southeast Asian country. Most of them studied aviation while possibly as many as 700 took coursework in nuclear-related technologies. In 2007, Russia signed an agreement to build a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar, but construction has not yet started.
The budding bilateral relationship has grown beyond arms and training. Last May, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a multinational summit held at the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss Russian investment in Myanmar’s oil and gas industry, non-military assistance and tourism.
From a soft power perspective, the Russian language is now being taught at the Yangon University of Foreign Languages and a Russian cultural center will soon be opened in Yangon. From a hard one, Russia has seized on United States and European Union imposed arms embargoes still in place against Myanmar at a time its military aims to rapidly reduce its reliance on Chinese armaments.
China-Myanmar relations have deteriorated sharply since the previous Thein Sein government decided in 2011 to suspend a US$3.6 billion joint Sino-Myanmar hydroelectric power project at Myitsone in Kachin State. As much as 90% of the electricity that would have been produced by the power facility was scheduled for transmission to China.
Writers for semi-official, military-related blogs in Myanmar have recently accused China of supporting ethnic armed groups in the country’s north and northeast conflicts, particularly the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is equipped with everything from Chinese armored fighting vehicles to surface-to-air missiles.
Although the UWSA is not currently fighting Myanmar’s army, light weaponry from its Chinese-made arsenal have been supplied to groups that are. They include the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the Kokang region, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in northern Shan State, the Shan State Army in central Shan State, and, to a lesser extent, the Kachin Independence Army in the north.
Geopolitical realties, however, still weigh in China’s favor. While Russia may have growing Asian ambitions, witnessed in rising arms sales and other engagement across the region, Myanmar shares a 2,200-kilometer border with China, much of it remote, rugged, insurgency-prone terrain.
Myanmar is no doubt keen to maintain its traditional neutral foreign policy, which entails balancing its relations between foreign powers. But China has proximal leverage to squeeze Myanmar on various fronts if its economic and strategic interests are jeopardized.
Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies have never been an entirely internal affair. With the China-backed UWSA now playing a crucial role in domestic “peace politics”, that is more evident than ever. While Russia may have inserted itself into Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts by supplying more arms to the military, China will still have greater influence over issues related to war and peace.