Mar 29, 2021 - World

A pariah to the West is a friend to Putin

Illustration of a life preserver with the colors of the Russian flag being thrown.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When an authoritarian regime is being buffeted by Western sanctions, it can typically expect a helping hand from a powerful friend: Vladimir Putin.

Driving the news: As Myanmar's military was firing on protesters and bystanders on Saturday and the U.S. was preparing its toughest response yet to the Feb. 1 military coup, Russia's deputy defense minister was in Myanmar to show Moscow's steadfast support and desire to deepen its "strategic partnership."

The big picture: Almost across the board — from Aleksandr Lukashenko next door in Belarus to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and, most dramatically of all, to Bashar al-Assad in Syria — when the West shuns a regime, Putin steps in.

  • Angela Stent, author of "Putin's World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest," says Putin's message to his fellow authoritarians is, "'We'll support any of you and sell you arms, and we'll never criticize what you're doing domestically.'"
  • "It's an equal opportunity policy," Stent adds. And it wins Russia both money and influence.
  • It also makes it more difficult for the U.S. to isolate countries or force them to change their behavior, particularly when Russia's stance is aligned with China's.

The state of play: Russia has sold Myanmar arms for years, including vehicles used in the coup, per The Moscow Times. Russia and China are also likely to block any strong action against the junta this week at the UN Security Council.

  • The U.S. announced today that a trade agreement with Myanmar would be suspended until democracy was restored.
  • That came after a reported 114 people were killed by the military on Saturday, the bloodiest day to date. Even the Kremlin expressed concern over the rising death toll.
  • But that same day, Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin attended a military parade in Naypyidaw. A day earlier, he received a medal from junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, who called Russia a "true friend."

The bottom line: Having witnessed Putin's critical interventions just when things were at their most precarious in Belarus, Venezuela, Syria and elsewhere, authoritarians around the world will know that Russia is a good friend to have.

Worth noting: Russia is increasing its presence in countries and regions where China is very active, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, Stent notes. That makes the two authoritarian powers both collaborators and competitors.

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