Jhe head of Myanmar’s military junta beamed with delight as he shook hands with Vladimir Putin this week. “We would call you not only the leader of Russia but a leader of the world because you control and organize stability around the world,” Min Aung Hlaing said.
His remarks came as Putin claimed in a defiant speech that European efforts to isolate Russia would fail: Instead, he would turn to Asia.
Myanmar’s military, which also faced a series of sanctions from Western countries following last year’s coup, has been particularly receptive to such offers of friendship.
Russian planes have given the military an “asymmetrical advantage” as it struggles to control resistance to its rule, says Hunter Marston, a researcher and analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. He says it’s “one of the only things that keeps them [back] PDFs [people’s defence forces, formed in opposition to the coup]. Otherwise, they would suffer more losses than they already are.
Airstrikes bombarded populated areas, according to the UN human rights office.
Myanmar plans to import Russian gas and fuel and has signed a roadmap for nuclear energy cooperation with Russian state nuclear company Rosatom.
Energy cooperation could go even deeper, says Marston. “Russia has lost some of its offshore drilling sites in Vietnam due to Chinese pressure,” he says, adding that Moscow may turn to Myanmar for exploration after companies such as Total withdrew from the country.
Across Southeast Asia, responses to Russia’s war in Ukraine vary, but it’s widely seen as a regional war in Europe, says Frederick Kliem, researcher and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International. Singapore Studies.
“Countries in Southeast Asia, and in fact many countries around the world, do not buy into the idea that this is a radical change in international relations and that Russia is the ‘enemy,” Kliem said. “They’re saying, look, if there’s cheap oil and cheap gas and good trade deals to be done with Russia at this point, then of course we’re going to do it, and who are you to tell us not to do it?”
Many point out that Russia does not have a monopoly on violating international law, he adds.
Only Singapore has imposed sanctions on Russia – a decision possibly motivated by its view that international law supports small states and that it should take a consistent stance on this, says Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. Singapore’s position as a financial hub and a belief that it needs to be especially careful about secondary sanctions may also have been a factor, he adds.
Arms sales have traditionally been Russia’s forte in Southeast Asia, Kliem says, but the focus is on energy as countries consider cheaper deals to protect consumers. Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina is in talks to buy crude oil from Russia at below market price.
Countries in the region are clearly worried about inflation, especially rising energy and food prices, Chong said. “These are areas where Russia may be able to provide some assistance, although these governments are also likely to be careful about secondary sanctions. The fact that Russian financial organizations are not allowed to use the Swift system, however, may complicate transactions with Russia. »
These barriers have affected trade. Tâm Sáng Huỳnh, a senior lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, says despite talk that Russia is seeking to strengthen its ties with Vietnam, there has been no significant developments. “Vietnam’s exports to Russia have been hampered by the ongoing war, impacting logistics and payments,” he says.
Meanwhile, US companies have shifted production to Vietnam, with Apple suppliers in talks to set up a production line in the country for the first time, he adds. Vietnam sought to avoid taking sides in the war, in an attempt to balance relations with the two powers.
It has relied heavily on Russia for crude oil and gas, as well as military equipment, but is seeking to diversify into the latter, Huỳnh says.
In a region dominated by competition between China and the United States, Russia is seen by some as a “useful balancer”, says Kliem, even if its influence is less. Trade deals with Russia may be welcomed by regional leaders who are aware that Moscow, unlike others, will not impose sanctions in response to concerns about authoritarianism or other rights issues .
Thailand announced in May that it would boost bilateral trade with Russia, aiming to hit $10 billion a year, as Moscow seeks to buy more Thai rice, fruit, cars and auto parts , as well as investing in technology. Thais were invited to invest in the Russian food industry, it was reported.
But those deals don’t compare at all to Russia’s losses elsewhere, Kliem says. He says Putin is likely to seek “diplomatic recognition”, rather than compensation for economic losses.