Russia is trying to buy “anything, anywhere”—including from Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar to get weapons for its invasion of Ukraine—according to the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence Kyrylo Budanov.

In a recent interview with VOA, the top Ukrainian intelligence official said, “There are certain efforts to buy through third countries. Large-scale withdrawal of weapons. Now they are trying with Myanmar.”

The Myanmar junta has denied the accusation. A spokesperson for the Myanmar junta, Major General Zaw Min Tun, told VOA Burmese by phone on Wednesday, “Russia is a country that sells weapons to the world. That kind of accusation is impossible and illogical.” He declined to offer any further comment on the subject.

Yadanar Maung, spokesperson for the human rights advocacy group Justice for Myanmar — also known as JFM — said in a statement to VOA, “The Myanmar junta and the Russian regime are key allies, complicit in each other’s atrocity crimes. The junta supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has openly offered Myanmar as a base for Russian business to access Asian markets, which bypasses sanctions.”

JFM says it has been monitoring what it says is a close relationship between Russia and the Myanmar junta since the coup in February 2021. The group identified 19 Russian businesses that should be sanctioned for supplying arms and equipment to the Myanmar military in its report of March 2022. 

During a visit by the Myanmar junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Russia last July, one of several trips he has made there since the 2021 coup in his country, Russia and Myanmar declared they were deepening their defense cooperation. A press statement by Russia’s Defense Ministry on July 12, 2022, read that “the meeting [between Myanmar’s military leader, Min Aung Hlaing and top Russian defense officials] … confirmed the mutual disposition to consistently build up multifaceted cooperation between the military departments of the two countries.”

VOA recently reported on the junta’s renewed nuclear energy ties with Russia raising concerns in the region and globally.

Russian munitions

In an assessment on Russia, the Pentagon stated that after more than a year of fighting in Ukraine and facing strong sanctions from the West, Russia would run out of serviceable ammunition sometime in 2023.

Testifying on Wednesday in Washington before the Senate Intelligence Committee, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines argued that Russia lacks the troops and ammunition to make major advances this year. “If Russia does not initiate a mandatory mobilization and identify substantial third-party ammunition supplies, it will be increasingly challenging for them to sustain the current level of offensive operations in the coming months.”

Haines also said at the Reagan National Defense Forum last December, “Russia doesn’t have enough ability to replace those weapons on its own.”

According to reporting this month by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a co-founder and owner of the mercenary group Wagner, also indicated problems with the ammunition supply. “I am worried about ammunition and the ammunition hunger not only as far as Wagner goes, but all the units of the Russian Army.”

As of last September, the Russian military was still capable of producing “a lot of ammunition,” said a top NATO military adviser, despite being hampered by Western sanctions. However, “some of the components they need for their weapon systems come from the Western industry,” said Rob Bauer, chair of NATO Military Committee.

There are reports that Russia continues to buy weapons and ammunition from countries such as Iran and North Korea; however, the Iranian government, a close ally of Russia, denied this, stating that Iran “has not and will not” provide weapons to be used in the invasion of Ukraine.

“For Russia, almost the only country that actually supplies more or less serious weapons is Iran,” Budanov told VOA. “There was information that something was coming from North Korea, but we have no confirmation of that.”

“Russia is just trying to buy anything, anywhere,” he said. “Because their problems are significant. Serbia, which everyone in Russia hoped for, refused to supply weapons. There are certain efforts to buy through third countries. Large-scale withdrawal of weapons. Now they are trying with Myanmar, we will see what will come of it in time.”

Myanmar opposition concerns

Myanmar’s shadow civilian government, the National Unity Government, also known as NUG, has expressed concern about a “possible collaboration between Russia and [the] Myanmar army on the war in Ukraine,” Kyaw Zaw, a spokesperson for the NUG president’s office, told VOA via zoom.

“We think that Russia might use the Myanmar army and its cronies as middlemen to buy weapons from other countries because the Myanmar military does not have [the] ability to support arms for the Russian army,” he said.

“Despite the Western countries targeting sanctions against the Burmese military regime,” Kyaw Zaw said, “they are weak and ineffective due to loopholes, which Russia and the Myanmar military might be trying to exploit through cooperation.”

Responding to a question about whether China or India may be working through Myanmar to send arms and ammunition to Russia, he said, “There is no good reason for our government, the NUG, to accept a situation where Myanmar is being used to compete with powerful countries.”

Regarding the potential for Myanmar to be implicated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kyaw Zaw told VOA, “We are concerned about the news. We [are] worried the move may affect our country, as well as regional stability and global peace and security.”

Western countries, including the U.S., have raised concerns over the potential arming of Russia through its geostrategic partnership with China. However, “China had declared it won’t supply Russia with weapons for its war against Ukraine,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said during his news conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in Berlin earlier this month. He suggested that Berlin has received bilateral assurances from Beijing on the issue.

JFM recently published a report about India’s exports of weapons to the Myanmar army.

The report states that the Indian state-owned arms company, “Yantra’s exports of 122mm barrels to Myanmar follows several other known exports of weapons and weapons components from Indian companies after the Myanmar military’s attempted coup, including exports of fuses and a remote-controlled weapon station.”

“Russia remains a major supplier of arms to the junta,” JFM’s Maung told VOA. “If Russia is exploring using the junta to help it resupply arms for its war in Ukraine, it shows yet again how the junta is a threat to the world that requires a global response.”

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