Reflecting on Russia’s relationship with the Myanmar junta at the beginning of 2023

By Ondrej Soukup
20 March 2023
Reflecting on Russia’s relationship with the Myanmar junta at the beginning of 2023
Ondrej Soukup

This interview, conducted by Igor Blazevic, is based on Ondrej Soukup’s talk about Russia’s relationship with Myanmar since the coup and in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine. In the talk Soukup responded to questions as to what extent Russia is really capable of providing military, diplomatic and economic support to the junta, how much Russian surveillance and propaganda know-how and technology can be useful for Myanmar military and whether Russia is really able to assist the junta with its nuclear ambitions.

Ondrej Soukup is a Czech journalist with Hospodarske Noviny, an economic newspaper, with 25 years of specialisation on Russia, Ukraine and East Europe.

Question: Since the Myanmar coup, Putin’s Russia has been ready to sell weapons to the junta and to support it diplomatically. However, Russia has already been fully absorbed for one year in the war of aggression in Ukraine. Is Russia still able and interested to provide support to the junta?

Soukup: In 2021 it looked like the mighty Russian army was able to supply modern weapons to Myanmar to help the junta suppress resistance. Russia looked like a protective, strong and confident older brother in that relationship. After one year of the war in Ukraine, the balance has shifted.

First, we see that the Russian army is definitely not as mighty as most people were thinking. We see that the Russian military equipment is not as good as they wanted to show. Now Russia needs Myanmar to help it with its war effort. Despite the huge military depots back from Soviet times, Russia is lacking ammunition especially artillery shells. During the summer offensive, they used an enormous amount of these shells. By some estimation, it was up to 20,000 artillery shells a day. One cannot sustain such a waste for a very long even if you have big stocks.

Russia is now searching all around the world to get artillery shells. The West is doing the same because the Ukrainian Army uses the same type of ammunition. There is a worldwide search for these shells and other ammunition. For example, both sides tried to get the ammunition from Laos. Russia is buying artillery shells from North Korea and probably Iran as well. I wouldn't be surprised if they asked the Myanmar generals if they have some spare artillery shells.

Actually, according to local independent Myanmar media, this is already happening. It has been recently reported that Russian military representatives visited Myanmar to discuss the purchase of ammunition produced by Defense Equipment Manufacturing Factories (DMFs) ( ).

Russia’s need for ammunition doesn't mean that Russia will not be able to supply some other weapons. Russia does have enough Sukhoi and Yak military training planes. They are able to continue to supply them to Myanmar and to continue training the Myanmar pilots and other military staff. It's not just about selling one or ten planes. One needs to supply spare parts and provide training. Standard training for military pilots is about six months somewhere in Russia to teach already experienced pilots to use these specific types of planes.

Russians is also sending instructors and technical personnel to Myanmar. After basic training in Russia, when new planes are delivered, specialist instructors are coming to Myanmar to check that everything works well, to make sure that technical staff are also working properly. Usually, they stay from two to six months.

It is a different story with tanks and armoured vehicles. Russians have enough planes and they are producing more. Tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed in Ukraine in enormous amounts. If the Myanmar regime would like to buy some tanks or other land vehicles, I don't believe that Russia will sell them. If Myanmar would like to have anything that can be used in Ukraine, Russia will not supply it.

Question: Can Russian engagement in Myanmar be of concern for China?

Soukup: There is a sort of coalition of authoritarian regimes nowadays. A sort of natural sympathy. They will not compete with each other and they will help each other, if they can, to squeeze out the influence of the United States or other Western countries. General Russian politics in the South East Asian region is not to anger China. Their perception is, Myanmar belongs to the Chinese sphere of influence and we are not going to do anything against the interests of Beijing. Russia has much more important problems in Ukraine. They will not get involved in some deep engagement with the Myanmar regime. They simply don't have the resources, time and interest.

Question: Can current-day Russia be a source of investment or technology for the Myanmar junta?

Soukup: In previous times and even sometimes today we hear about investments in Myanmar by some semi-state Russian companies. I don't believe it will ever go through. The thinking in the Kremlin is that the war in Ukraine is going to last. They are preparing everyone including ordinary Russians for a long war of attrition and they expect everybody in Russia to adjust to it.

Even before the war in Ukraine, the level of Russian investments in Myanmar was quite low. I am not aware of any big project actually being materialized. So, I don't think that investment from Russia can help the junta.

However, this doesn't mean that Russia will stop to work with the Myanmar junta. Probably it will be fewer state actors and more private groups with state backing. Typically, it could be some military instructors. The sector of private military contractors is booming in Russia even if that is technically illegal because there is no law about private contractors. I can imagine that Russian private military contractors will work in Myanmar as well.

The same is the case with the IT sector. the Kremlin has for the last eight to nine years been trying to put the internet under its control. Most of the big social networks like Facebook or Twitter are blocked in Russia. There are a lot of Russian IT companies with huge experience in helping the Russian state with its oppressive activities on the internet.

The same is true with tracking software. There is a law in Russia forbidding criticism of the Russian army. Russian IT companies have developed an efficient system of tracking posts on social networks and identifying people who wrote them.

The Russian IT specialists have also developed an efficient system of face recognition. In Moscow, there are more than 20,000 cameras and it is a reliable surveillance system. For example, there was an anti-Putin demonstration on Saturday. On Monday, a person who participated in this demonstration was arrested on his way to work in the metro because the system recognized him and called the police.

The software was developed by a private company and sold to the Russian state. There is no obstacle for that company to sell it to Myanmar as well. However, I wouldn't overestimate the Russian impact in this regard. China has developed even better software for surveillance, for the blocking of the internet, for face recognition and they are selling it to other countries as well. For example, in Central Asia, China sold such technology to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Both Russia and China can be suppliers for the Myanmar junta.

Question: What about Russian propaganda and disinformation know how?

Soukup: Yes, Putin’s Russia has significant know-how about how to influence people by using social media. They have the technology and experience to run hundreds and thousands of accounts on social media and coordinate them in pushing some message.

You have heard about the so-called Troll Factories and how they influenced the American presidential elections which finished with the victory of Donald Trump. That was seven years ago. In the meantime they developed a lot. Back then, it was hundreds of people sitting in one space and writing comments on social networks in a coordinated way. Basically, it was done by hand. Now it is semi-automatic. It is still a human who is writing the initial messages, but then robots are spreading that message via hundreds of accounts through different networks. Real people are now rather working on what the message should be, the mass chain delivery is almost automatic.

What are the messages they are delivering? Basically, the aim is to radicalise and polarise targeted society. They skillfully use already existing divisions in society and just fuel them further. For example, in the United States, this Troll Factory from St. Petersburg was at the same time running Far Right accounts and groups on Facebook as well as Far Left. Or for example, they were posting about the supremacy of the black population in Far Right white groups because they knew that such posts will fuel the anger among Far Right participants of the group. They do the same in the groups on the other side and keep on fueling mistrust, anger, polarization.

The owner of the company which runs this Troll Factory is the same one who owns a private military organization called Wagner Group, which was founded at the beginning of the war in Donbas, nine years ago. After involvement in Ukraine in 2014, the Wagner group fought in Syria and Libya. Now they are back in Ukraine. They have also been active in the Central African Republic, Sudan and some other African countries.

At least in Libya, Sudan and Central African Republic this mercenary force did not just train local security forces but they also brought some specialists for PR and propaganda to help the regimes that invited them.

The financing of this group is semi-autonomous. They are working with some support from the Russian Ministry of Defense. They are getting all ammunition and weapons from the state. But the rest is rather self-financing. For example, in Syria they got a license from the government to guard some oil fields. In the Central African Republic, they got involved in the diamond trade.

Key people involved in such private security companies are people from the Ministry of Defense and from intelligence agencies, retired officers, and through working for such companies they get financial rewards for serving the Kremlin for 20 years.

Question: Can Russia be reliable supplier of aviation fuel for Myanmar military if other companies are pushed out through sanctions?

Soukup: Yes, it can. There might be some logistic and production capacity obstacles, because this would need to be delivered through far eastern ports. But in principle, if there is a demand and capability to pay, Russia will be able to supply.

Question: Can Russian Gazprom take over Myanmar offshore gas fields in the Indian Ocean if oil and gas companies from other countries are pushed out by sanctions?

Soukup: No, it cannot. Gazprom has some capacities on its own but Gazprom is still over-dependent on Western equipment and they are now seriously hindered by the Western sanctions. Gazprom is trying to switch to Chinese equipment and technology. However, that will take years and they don't have a spare money at the moment for any big expansion like they were doing 10 -12 years ago. Expansion of Gazprom stopped in the last five to six years and the same is true for other Russian energy companies.

Question: Representatives of Rosatom have visited Myanmar at least twice and there are intensive talks between the Myanmar junta and Russia about nuclear technology. Can Russia help junta-controlled Myanmar become a nuclear power? It has been for long time an ambition of the Myanmar generals to have one “small nice bomb”.

Soukup: I do not think so. Russia is quite jealous about the nuclear ambitions of other states if it is about military programmes. The other question is can Russians build a nuclear reactor in Myanmar. I am skeptical about that as well. First, the cycle of production is really very long, ten years or longer from the beginning of building it to finishing it. The reactors are not somewhere in stock. Even if you would take some reactor’s equipment from another project that is already going on, you need to adapt it.

Rosatom is speaking about a Small Modular Reactor they can supply. But the reality is that Rosatom does not have such technology. They put in an exploitation floating nuclear station in Chukotka peninsula in Far East three years ago. But it is basically a ship with nuclear reactors from Russian nuclear icebreakers. To adapt it for use in land nuclear plants is extremely demanding task and realistically we cannot expect that to happen on the horizon of, let say, ten years.

This is also a heavily regulated market. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulates everything connected with anything radioactive. If one wants to start a new nuclear project, one has to comply with international regulations.

It is also an extremely expensive project. I do not see either Russia or Myanmar having at this moment the stability of the regime stability and resources to sustain such a long-term and demanding project. They might just want to project the illusion of stability and capacity. Making Potemkin villages does not cost a lot and Russians have always been good at that.

Question: The Myanmar junta would like to revive the tourist industry, but has had little success so far. Do Russians still have money to spend on holidays on exotic tropical beaches?

Soukup: Yes, they do. There is still a well-off middle class in Russia that used to travel to Europe and other places and they would like to continue travelling. They now face bans or visa restrictions to many Western countries so they can look for other destinations. They are probably not more than one percent of the overall population but because Russia has 140 million citizens, it is still significant amount of people. We are primarily talking about people living in the eastern part of Russia. The price of air tickets from Moscow to South East Asia is high. However, there are quite a lot of people from Siberia and the Far East that routinely travel to Thailand and Cambodia. They could go to Myanmar as well.

Question: Is India inclined to support Russia, or will India join the West in the war in Ukraine?

Soukup: I don't see any proof that India is colluding and supporting Russian aggression in Ukraine. India has a pragmatic relationship with Russia. They are buying Russian oil very cheaply, with a big discount. However, they are definitely not supporting the war. They are blaming Russia for starting the war and for the food crisis.

Last year, I spoke with the Indian foreign minister when he was in Europe. He told me, we are not sanctioning anyone, this is simply not India’s policy. But we are definitely not happy that Russia has started a war and how its army is performing. He also added that it is good for India that they are not buying as many Russian arms as they used, because it is obvious that Russian weapons are not good enough.

Question: Do you have any suggestion for those who are involved in the Spring Revolution, who are in the midst of struggle against a very brutal authoritarian regime?

Soukup: Let me say something optimistic. When the revolution happened in my country, Czechoslovakia, I was an 18-year-old student. I was convinced at that time that there ouldl be no change of the regime for at least four years. I could not imagine that the Communist regime would collapse. Even Václav Havel, the famous dissident who later become the president of a free country, was convinced that it would take two to three years. Regimes look strong when they are still in power and when they apply brutality, however, once they fall, their weaknesses become obvious.

I will also add that the current conflict in Ukraine will have consequences for a Myanmar. It will definitely change the balance of power. War in Ukraine is changing not only how Western states will behave, it is also changing how Western companies think. It is not going to be business as usual anymore.

Ondrej Soukup is Czech journalist with Hospodarske Noviny, an economic newspaper, with 25 years of specialization on Russia, Ukraine and East Europe.

Igor Blazevic is a senior adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer of the Educational Initiatives Program.