On Ukraine war anniversary, signs that Russia retains some support in region

This week’s one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was marked by another U.N. General Assembly resolution that overwhelmingly condemned Moscow.

But in Southeast Asia, there are signs that Moscow retains some influence and support, particularly in Vietnam and Myanmar, the latter of which has faced its own international isolation two years after a coup d’etat that brought a military junta into power.

Junta chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing recently celebrated the regime’s relationship with Russia, saying at a Feb. 16 forum that Myanmar will continue to cooperate with Russia as a friend and ally.

Since the military coup, Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia three times, purchasing modern Russian-made jet fighters, helicopters and military equipment. The two countries have also signed an agreement to build a small-scale nuclear reactor in Myanmar, and research for building it has already begun.

“This is the story of the two villains' alliance,” said Than Soe Naing, a political analyst. “Russia has almost no allies around the world and the Myanmar military is not recognized by any country as well.”

Staying neutral at the U.N.

At the U.N., both Laos and Vietnam abstained from Thursday’s vote – something that Vietnam has done in four previous votes over the last year on the issue. They were among 32 countries that didn’t vote on the resolution calling for Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine, while 141 countries voted in favor and seven against.

Myanmar, which is represented at the U.N. by the National Unity Government, the shadow government-in-exile made up of opponents of the ruling junta, voted in support of the resolution.

Ahead of the vote, Ambassador Dang Hoang Giang, the head of Vietnam’s delegation to the U.N., made an appeal for negotiations to end the war to resume.

"Ambassador Giang said all the right things, and a middle power such as Vietnam should be very concerned about the violations of international law and the precedent set by changing international borders through force,” said Prof. Zachary Abuzsa of the National War College, an expert on Vietnam and Southeast Asia affairs.

However, he pointed to Hanoi’s role in hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last July when he was en route to the G20 summit in Bali. And he said that Vietnam's state-controlled media has parroted Russian President Vladimir Putin's justifications for the war.

Wary support

In Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing wrote to Putin last week, saying he appreciates Russia’s support for Myanmar. The message was sent on Feb. 18 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

However, in December, Russia did not veto a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the immediate stop of the junta’s violence against its own people and the release of all political prisoners, including deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Russia will check on the situation. As it’s shunned by the international community, it will treat Myanmar junta leaders with caution,” said Dr. Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based Myanmar political analyst. “I don’t think it will support whatever Myanmar military does. Just check the recent U.N. Security Council meeting. Russia stayed neutral.”

One reason Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly mentioned Russia as an ally is because he’s unsure of the relationship, Hla Kyaw Zaw added.

“But a superpower like Russia has its political calculations,” he said. “I don’t think Russia will blindly support him if he is acting too violent and chaotic.”

Morality and national interest

In Hanoi, municipal authorities have prevented political dissidents from participating in activities showing support to Ukraine. They also interfered to cancel a charity event organized by the Ukrainian community. However, the Vietnamese government has donated US$500,000 in humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Russia's attack on Ukraine violated international law and Ukraine's territorial integrity, Radio Free Asia blogger Nguyen Vu Binh said.

"Vietnam needs to be on the side of the international community and international law to condemn Russia's war in Ukraine and support Ukraine,” he said from Hanoi.

Vu Khang, a PhD candidate at Boston College's Faculty of Political Sciences, said it was not difficult to understand why Vietnam often had a neutral stance on international conflicts.

"Having a neutral view is a reasonable policy as Vietnam does not get any benefits from criticizing one side or another,” he told RFA in an email exchange.

“Being neutral would help Hanoi maintain its good relationship with Russia while the U.S. still gives priority to its relations with Vietnam to counterbalance China regardless of whether Hanoi does not support Ukraine."

He also said that many political dissidents would think this policy was morally wrong, but any nation makes its self-interest the top priority in international relations.

"We should remember that the U.S. and its allies once condemned Vietnam when it attacked Cambodia to wipe out the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “In fact, nations don't consider morality as a key factor. Morality is just an excuse for nations to protect their interests.”

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.