Many observers missed the grand strategic importance of Russia’s comprehensive support to Myanmar since the dramatic developments in February 2021 but they’d do well to study it much more closely if they want to better understand what that Eurasian Great Power wants to achieve across the Global South by the end of the decade.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov paid his first trip to Myanmar in nine years this week, during which time the two sides reaffirmed their strategic partnership and reminded everyone that it isn’t subject to political conjecture. Their ties are especially important in the context of the global systemic transition to multipolarity that was accelerated by the Ukrainian Conflict since Myanmar forms a key part of Moscow’s grand strategy towards the Global South that the Kremlin has been compelled to prioritize in the aftermath of the US-led West’s unprecedented sanctions.
Relations go back decades, but they truly achieved mutually beneficial strategic significance following the Myanmar military’s (Tatmadaw) employment of a constitutional clause to remove State Counsellor Suu Kyi in February 2021 after what the authorities claimed was her refusal to investigate election fraud from several months prior. The US-led West, however, regarded that development as a so-called “coup” and has since reportedly backed anti-government insurgents that the authorities regard as terrorists. Moscow, meanwhile, continued to comprehensively support its partners in Naypyidaw.
Russian-Myanmar relations help both countries balance their grand strategies. Moscow receives a reliable partner in an ASEAN country that has historically been part of South Asia while Naypyidaw receives an irreplaceable valve from Western pressure that preemptively averted its potentially disproportionate dependence on Beijing. In a sense, Russia did to Myanmar in the aftermath of February 2021’s developments what India did to Russia in the aftermath of its special military operation in Ukraine. Russia and India respectively served as Myanmar and Russia’s valves from foreign pressure.
That in turn enabled them to preemptively avert potentially disproportionate dependence on China in both cases, which speaks to those Great Powers’ overlapping grand strategies. In fact, Russia and India are jointly attempting to assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”) for enhancing their and their partners’ strategic autonomy in what Indian thinker Sanjaya Baru described a few years back as the present bi-multipolar intermediary phase of the global systemic transition to complex multipolarity (“multiplexity”). Myanmar can form an important part of this informal network across the Global South.
Russia’s relations with Myanmar are better than India’s, though Delhi’s can’t exactly be described as bad. That South Asian civilization-state has fine line to walk in dealing with its neighbor’s complicated domestic affairs as explained by Deutsche Welle in a recent article where they pointed to the need to balance between support for democratic norms and pragmatic geostrategic interests. In any case, the purpose in briefly touching upon Indian-Myanmar relations is to draw attention to the fact that they remain stable in spite of their current complexities and complement Russian-Myanmar relations.
Returning to the topic of this analysis, Moscow has comprehensively supported Naypyidaw in the energy, military, and political domains, which preemptively averted its partner’s potentially disproportionate dependence on Beijing. Concerns about that scenario are very sensitive in its society and also among its military leadership, which has always viewed China with some suspicion. Myanmar’s disproportionate dependence on that Asian superpower throughout the 1990s and most of the present century is thought to have influenced the Tatmadaw to repair ties with the US in the mid-2010s.
Although the Myanmar-American rapprochement carried out under the Obama Administration ultimately failed after Washington continued trying to subvert this fledging Asian democracy’s strategic stability, it was nevertheless an historic attempt at relieving that country’s disproportionate dependence on China. The reimposition of public American pressure on it following February 2021’s developments prompted a dilemma for the Tatmadaw wherein it realized that it had to do something novel in order to prevent falling under China’s disproportionate influence once again due to similar circumstances.
This explains the intensification of Russian-Myanmar relations from that point onward after Naypyidaw realized that Moscow could fulfill that role for it in a friendly way that doesn’t inadvertently provoke China. After all, the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership is perhaps the most powerful engine of the emerging Multipolar World Order so it therefore follows that Beijing wouldn’t look askance at Naypyidaw for averting its potentially disproportionate dependence on the People’s Republic via the Kremlin after having grown very concerned when it earlier attempted this in vain with Washington.
This observation suggests that Russia’s balancing act is achieving tangible dividends insofar as enhancing its partners’ strategic autonomy without unwittingly provoking regional tensions. The larger paradigm at play is that Russia is actively applying the principles of the Neo-NAM in helping others balance between the American and Chinese superpowers in the New Cold War according to the bi-multipolarity concept posited by Baru a few years back. The driving motivation is to strengthen everyone’s sovereignty in line with President Putin’s vision that he recently elaborated on in his global revolutionary manifesto.
Russia benefits in multiple ways through the success of this grand strategy as applied towards Myanmar that go far beyond shaping the global systemic transition to multipolarity as was just explained. First, it proves its reliability as a strategic partner for those countries that find themselves under major Western pressure. Second, it helps relieve such pressure upon them, which in turn leads to the third point connected to the enhancement of their strategic autonomy. Fourth, this preemptively averts disproportionate dependence on China, and finally, it’s an attractive model for others to follow too.
In fact, it can be argued that Russia’s actively attempting to replicate this model across Africa in order to help its partners there complete their decolonization process exactly like Lavrov recently pledged to assist them with ahead of his latest visit to the continent. Many observers missed the grand strategic importance of Russia’s comprehensive support to Myanmar since the dramatic developments in February 2021 but they’d do well to study it much more closely if they want to better understand what that Eurasian Great Power wants to achieve across the Global South by the end of the decade.