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Russia is looking to boost defence ties with Burma after losing its foothold in many traditional markets, including the conflict-torn Libya, Syria and Iraq, senior government officials have announced.
After meeting with Burma’s top brass this week, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed plans to up the sale of arms to its long-time Southeast Asian ally.
According to an announcement in The New Light of Myanmar, the Russian minister met Vice Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Vice President Nyan Tun on Monday, where the two sides agreed to boost bilateral ties in defence along with relations in economic, social and cultural sectors.
“The Vice-Senior General said that he was very pleased to see the significant visit of the Russian Defence Minister at the time of the 65th Anniversary of Myanmar-Russia diplomatic ties after the first-ever visit of Russian Defence Minister to Myanmar 50 years ago,” read the report in Tuesday’s English edition of the state paper.
The envoy’s trip comes as reports have surfaced in the Russian state press last month admitting that sales to former buyers of the country’s weapons have waned after losing clients in North Africa and the Middle East.
“This is connected to the conflicts and wars [there]. Cooperation with Libya has stopped temporarily, and there’s a slump in deliveries to Egypt and Iran; our work with Syria is being impeded. That’s a fact. We’ve lost Iraq and we’ve almost lost Afghanistan,” said Alexander Fomin, head of Russia’s Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, during an interview with the Russian International News Agency in February.
His remarks follow the signing of several arms deals between Western powers, including the US, and India, who has traditionally been Russia’s biggest weapons client.
“Russia has a significant, but certainly not new, defence relationship with Burma,” said Anthony Davis, a security analyst at IHS-Jane’s.
“And given some of the difficulties that the Russian defence industry has been encountering recently with other markets, it’s entirely logical that Moscow would be looking to a market such as Burma, which is clearly going to be expanding as the Tatmadaw upgrades a whole range of systems.”
Russia has enjoyed stable ties with the country, since 1963 when the Soviets provided Ne Win’s newly installed military government with three helicopters.
According to a Wikileaks cable from July 2009, Russia was one of the few countries with remarkable access to the sequestered generals in Naypyidaw.
“Russia has exceptional access in Naypyidaw, including to top military leaders; and [the Russian ambassador] has been the most outspoken dip-corps defender of the regime’s policies, including its human rights record, during dip-corps sessions with visiting UN officials such as Special Representative Gambari and Human Rights Rapporteur Ojea-Quintana,” read the cable.
Perhaps most notably, Russian helicopter gunships were used during the Burmese military’s massive dry season offensive against the Kachin Independence Army’s command centre in Laiza.
However, as Davis noted in an article for the Asia Times Online published in late January, the Burmese army was unable to effectively harness the military hardware to their advantage during the assault on the rebel stronghold.
“While incomplete, the evidence emerging over the past month from Laiza suggests strongly that the Tatmadaw is still an army coming to grips with modern war-fighting,” wrote Davis.
“A force that has rapidly acquired a wide array of new equipment including armour, artillery, helicopters and jets, it has yet to develop the doctrine, training, logistical support capabilities or operational experience required to use them.”
As of 2011, Russia has ten recorded arms transactions with Burma in the past 16 years, which has included the sale of helicopters, fighter jets, short-range air-to-air missiles and artillery.
On Tuesday, the Russian Defence Minister met Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh in Hanoi and managed to squeeze in a brief trip to Cam Ranh Port – the former home of the Soviet Union’s largest foreign naval base. According to a report in RFA, during the trip Sergei Shoigu unveiled plans to help launch a new submarine fleet in the country as the former soviet supporter continues to tangle with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia sold $13.2 billion worth of arms deals in 2011, making the former superpower the world’s second largest arms exporter after the United States.