Myanmar’s military usually marks Armed Forces Day with a grand parade in the country’s capital as commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – in full regalia – inspects his troops from an open-topped four-wheel drive.
Last year, as the generals celebrated the occasion with its usual pomp, security forces across the country launched lethal attacks against protesters opposed to the February coup, killing some 160 civilians in a single day.
This year, they are facing accusations from the United Nations and others of committing atrocities that amount to crimes against humanity. The United States, Britain and Canada all announced new sanctions on Saturday – targeting arms dealers and the air force.
But the military has not let its international isolation dampen the mood.
It has been preparing for Sunday’s parade for several weeks, and it appears Russia – a fellow outcast after its February invasion of Ukraine – will once again be an honoured guest.
“[Russia and Myanmar] have a close and very important relationship. Russia has been a steady supplier of weapons and the junta has travelled to Moscow to see the weapons firsthand and meet with Russian military officials and arms dealers,” said Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.
Along with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin, who attended the parade in 2021, several Russian pilots are set to provide a demonstration of the new fighter jets that the military recently purchased, underlining the regime’s increasingly close relationship with Moscow, its biggest source of arms.
Indeed, the Myanmar military was one of the few that came to the Kremlin’s defence after the invasion of Ukraine, describing the attack as an “appropriate action” to news network VOA Burmese.
In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in late February, Andrews identified Russia as one of three states – the others being China and Serbia – to have supplied weapons to Myanmar since the coup despite their use against civilians.
While Russian and Chinese arms exports have shown no signs of slowing, Serbia, which delivered rockets and ammunition shortly after the military seized power, has since said that it will halt all future sales.
Belarus, India, Pakistan, Ukraine, South Korea and Israel were also flagged in the report, having sold military equipment to Myanmar before the coup.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which provides data on the international arms trade, shows arms sales between Myanmar and these countries peaking around 2018-2019, but tapering off shortly before the generals seized power.
Other countries have also not ended ties, with Japan continuing to provide training to officers and cadets, according to Human Rights Watch.
Still, while the Myanmar military’s arsenal includes arms and equipment from numerous countries, Russia remains its top international defence partner.
Justice for Myanmar (JFM), a rights advocacy group that investigates military investments in the country, on Sunday revealed a list of 19 Russian arms suppliers that have provided the military with equipment, calling for them to be sanctioned.
While the relationships are longstanding, they have become especially important to the regime since the coup when the military toppled Myanmar’s elected government and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then, the military has cracked down on the Myanmar people in a series of violent attacks, killing at least 1,707 people as of March 25, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. It also faces civilian rebel groups and increasing resistance in border areas where it has been battling ethnic armed groups for decades.
At the top of Russia’s list of state-run defence conglomerates is Rostec, a complex web of 15 holding companies and 70 entities, many of which have supplied the Myanmar military with equipment such as parts for fighter jets, combat helicopters and surface-to-air missiles.
One of Rostec’s largest subsidiaries, Rosoboronexport, has sent multiple shipments of arms and equipment, including artillery, to the military since the coup and has previously touted the importance of its relationship with Myanmar.
The head of Rosoboronexport said in July 2021 that it enjoys “close cooperation” with Myanmar’s armed forces and earlier this month, a military delegation travelled to Russia to attend an arms exhibition where they met a senior executive from Rosoboronexport to discuss “enhancing cooperation,” according to Myanmar’s state-run media.
Military officials have also reportedly been meeting Russian representatives within Myanmar.
Members of the Eurasian Economic Union, which has five member states including Russia and Belarus, met with the military in the capital Naypyidaw last week to discuss “bilateral trade promotion and defence services”, according to Myanmar state-run media.
At least three officials from Rostec, including a chief expert from Rosoboronexport, are also currently in Myanmar, a source with knowledge of the situation who declined to be named told Al Jazeera. Rosoboronexport operates an office in Myanmar.
“Rostec is the most important Russian company for the Myanmar military, providing a wide array of arms and equipment, including the fighter jets and helicopter gunships that the Myanmar military are relying on in indiscriminate air strikes around the country,” JFM spokesperson Yadanar Maung told Al Jazeera.
Along with Rosoboronexport, JSC Tactiles Missiles Corporation is also a major supplier of air force technology to Myanmar’s military, shipping aircraft-guided weapons preparation systems directly to the office of the air force chief in 2019. Another company, JSC Concern VKO, also known as Almaz-Antey, has also provided the Myanmar military with parts for the maintenance and repair of surface-to-air missiles.
The last shipment was received nearly three weeks after the 2021 coup, according to the JFM report.
Suspicion of China
The military’s interest in strengthening its relations with Moscow is part of an effort to diversify its list of defence partners as well as distance itself from China, according to David Mathieson, a leading independent analyst on Myanmar.
“[The military] recognises that they need an ally that’s not China. It’s part of a longstanding view of international relationships that the military has, where they don’t like relying on just one major actor,” Mathieson told Al Jazeera.
Mathieson also notes that the gradual pivot away from Beijing could be due to the sale of “substandard” Chinese equipment that, while often cheaper than Russian arms, is lower in quality and more likely to need regular repairs.
Defence relations with Russia are also less complex than with China.
The two countries do not have a common land border and Moscow’s arms dealings are almost exclusively with the military, unlike China which has also sold weaponry to other groups within Myanmar, including those that are currently fighting against the military.
Russia also offers the Myanmar military more effective air combat systems – with aerial attacks a key part of the generals’ strategy against their opponents – whereas China’s capabilities are more concentrated on land and sea.
“Russia is probably their closest supplier to the kind of things that they need, which is helicopter gunships and small attack aircraft,” said Mathieson.
The military’s attacks, particularly air strikes and the use of helicopter gunships, have displaced more than 440,000 people, the UN said in March.
‘They need each other’
Analysts say that the strength and importance of Russia’s relationship with the Myanmar military mean that, even as Moscow’s attention and resources are diverted to its own war efforts in Ukraine, the arms flow between the two countries is likely to remain strong.
“If anything, as Russia continues to become more isolated, its relationship with Myanmar could become that much more robust as other partners pull away,” said Jon Grevatt, the head of Asia-Pacific news at Janes, a defence intelligence organisation.
“Also, because of COVID-19, countries like [Myanmar] are in a better place to deal with a restriction or disturbances in the supply chain from Russia because there is an emphasis on developing local capability to produce spare parts locally and even provide maintenance locally as well.”
Myanmar’s defence budget is approximately $2.5bn per year, of which only about $500m is allocated for defence procurement – a fraction of the actual cost of the Russian arms. For instance, Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets that have been used in attacks in northern Myanmar have an estimated list price of $47m each – nearly a 10th of its entire budget – although the actual price varies according to the year and model.
Given that the military cannot afford to buy all of its military equipment from Russia in dollars, there is a high chance its purchases are supported by the transfer of raw materials, including gemstones and timber, according to Grevatt. It is an approach that also makes it easier for both sides to circumvent international sanctions.
The measures so far seem to have had little serious effect, according to the Andrews’ February UN report, but that has not stopped calls for additional arms embargoes and sanctions on both countries.
Experts say it would be unlikely to hinder the flow of arms from Russia to Myanmar, however.
“[Russia or Myanmar] won’t pull out. This is something that will be through thick and thin. They need each other and they know that they’re stronger together. They help each other – [Myanmar] can get military equipment, and Russia can get raw materials,” said Grevatt.
“When your friends are dwindling by the wayside, the ones that you’ve got left automatically become more important.”