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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.

Go deeper

Mar 28, 2021 - World

U.S. defense chiefs sign international statement condemning Myanmar military violence

Photo: Stringer/Getty Images

The defense chiefs of 12 countries, including the U.S., issued a joint statement on Saturday condemning Myanmar's military and security forces for its crackdown on anti-coup demonstrators.

Why it matters: The statement comes after the U.N. called Saturday the deadliest day of protests since the military last month overthrew the country's democratically elected government. Protesters have rallied to restore democracy in the country for nearly two months.

U.S. government to suspend trade engagement with Myanmar

People mourn during a funeral ceremony for a civilian who was killed by security forces of Myanmar in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. government will cut off all trade engagement with Myanmar as bloodshed continues in the Southeast Asian country, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Monday.

Why it matters: Police have led an increasingly violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters since the military overthrew Myanmar's democratically elected government in February. Myanmar security forces killed over 100 people Saturday in the bloodiest day since the coup.

Updated 21 mins ago - World

Ukraine crisis: Blinken to visit Kyiv, then meet Russian foreign minister

Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, following a trip to Kyiv to reinforce U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of a possible Russian invasion, according to a senior U.S. official.

Why it matters: The meeting with Lavrov suggests a diplomatic resolution to the crisis may still be on the table, despite the collapse of security talks between Russia and the West last week.

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