Photo by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash


As the COVID-19 Pandemic swept across the globe, there was a significant decline in democratic governance.[1] Military coups, coup attempts, and takeovers ravaged Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Myanmar, and Sao Tome well as escalating conflict between the Sudanese Government and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. These changes in the geopolitical landscape [2] have led to more fragility and a heightened vulnerability to foreign intervention in affected countries. While juntas from sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia crack down on free speech and stifle opposition, they are weakened at home and abroad.  As reflected in the 2023 Fragile States Index (FSI), Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Burkina Faso were among the most worsened in annual fragility increase.

In this context, many of these countries have also been undergoing a project of cutting ties with their colonial past and seeking to build new bilateral relationships, tilting the balance of power away from the “West” and toward the “East.” This presents a dilemma for the “West.” Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as multilateral intergovernmental organizations such as ECOWAS and NATO have formed an implicit consensus regarding military juntas, preferring disengagement so as not to legitimize or enable antidemocratic movements and autocracy. And after the extensive military engagements  1990s which included interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Haiti, the appetite for interventions has dwindled. The cause for this is likely twofold. First, failed interventions in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan caution “Western” leaders from directly engaging in post-conflict states.  There is little support for enforcing the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine or forming “coalitions of the willing” aimed at restoring toppled democratic regimes. Second, military regimes and their powerful backers, such as Russia and China, resist liberal interventions. The future of France’s counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, for example, remains uncertain after Mali and Burkina Faso demanded that France withdraw[3] in favor of partnerships with Russia and the Wagner Group.[4] Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has been a stalwart defender of Myanmar’s military regime, vetoing several UN Security Council resolutions in 2022 aimed at stopping the violence.[5]  Juntas are both exercising degrees of agency to sever colonial ties and being pulled into Russian and Chinese spheres of influence. Mali, Eritrea, The Central African Republic, and Guinea voted against or abstained on successive UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[6] Additionally, Mali and The Central African Republic have reportedly contracted over 2,000 mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group to conduct counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations.[7] Mali’s pivot to Russia, Burkina Faso’s engagement with North Korea, and Myanmar’s security relationship with China and Russia signal an incremental but important shift in the balance of power between “West” and “East”, as many other countries are also rethinking their relationships with their colonial past.  Being anti-West, specifically anti-France in the Sahel and anti-American in Southeast Asia, and pro-Russia or China overall is an increasingly prominent element of populist movements in Africa. [8] Moreover, anti-western juntas provide Russia with opportunities to evade international sanctions and expand exports, in addition to tarnishing French soft power.

There is a dilemma facing the rules-based order as confronted by the rise of military governments in the Global South. While interventionism certainly does not have a good track record of increasing stability around the world, a broad-brushed ‘complacent’ consensus toward humanitarian and stabilization missions in authoritarian countries can also risk exacerbating state and region-wide fragility and ethnic violence. What’s more, disengagement leaves post-coup countries susceptible to manipulation by “Eastern” powers such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China who now possess an invaluable opportunity to tilt the global balance of power in their favor.

Instigators for Fragility in South Asia

South Asia is particularly prone to both military coups and foreign intervention.  The region’s fragility to internal and exogenous shocks is twofold. First, the precedent for military coups is firmly established from the region’s protracted history of authoritarianism. Great power intervention during the Cold War, specifically the American engagements in Vietnam and Cambodia, established a precedent for externally driven regime change. There have been over twenty coups and attempted coups in Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Laos over the last half-century.[9] As a result of external intervention and domestic upheaval, most of the region’s democracies do not possess the domestic safeguards necessary to prevent coups. Democracies, such as Thailand and Cambodia, are structurally vulnerable to illiberal takeover. Rampant corruption, political polarization, and self-serving power-sharing agreements along stark ethnic divisions heighten fragility.[10] While the recent Thai elections signal a step forward for democracy, concerns over military intervention and corruption remain a not-so-distant threat.[11] Second, great powers freely shape the region with minimal resistance. The People’s Republic of China wields considerable influence on regional political, economic, and security dynamics. As a dialogue partner in the Association of Southeast Asian States and the founder of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing has influenced the region’s political alignment to favor autocratic regimes.[12] For example, Beijing vetoed two resolutions at the UN Security Council condemning the Tatmadaw (military government of Myanmar) and calling for a cessation of hostilities.  The crisis in Myanmar has allowed Russia, the second largest armament exporter, to increase its economic and security influence in the region.[13] Since 2021, Russian state-owned enterprises have provided $406 million in arms sales, most recently Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jets, to Myanmar and Thailand.[14] According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, Russia sold nearly 30% of all weapons to Southeast Asian states last decade, making it the largest arms supplier and benefactor of coups.[15]

Fragility in Myanmar

As of 2023, Myanmar has the fifth-largest population in Southeast Asia and the seventh largest nominal Gross Domestic Product. It also has the highest military expenditure (3.3%) and is the 12th most fragile state in the FSI.[16] Through armament sales, economic aid, and diplomatic support at the United Nations, Russia and China, at the behest of Tatmadaw, have prolonged the ongoing civil war.  The civil war has exacerbated ethnic violence and set the conditions for widespread human rights abuses such as the Rohingya Genocide and massive displacement – both as internally displaced people and as refugees. As of 2023, there are 1.5 million people displaced internally and 1.27 million refugees. [17]  The Tatmadaw’s inability to defeat the National Unity Government’s ethnic armed organizations (specifically the Chin and Karenni Armies) has led to a bloody stalemate causing the junta’s benefactors (China, Russia, and Serbia) to increase their armament and materiel sales in addition to their staunch defenses of the junta at multinational fora.[18] Beijing and Moscow’s involvement in Myanmar’s conflict is not a departure from the country’s history as it has suffered under seven decades of military rule with only intermittent democratic spells. [19]

Through the lens of the Fragile State Index, Myanmar’s future looks bleak. Its security apparatus (9.1), group grievance (9.3), and fractioned elites (9.0) are remarkably high. Most concerning is the external intervention indicator (7.3) as China and Russia perpetuate the civil war to favor the Tatmadaw. As a result, Myanmar’s 2023 indicator average is 8.4, the highest of the Southeast Asian region.  The spiraling humanitarian crisis bottlenecks the country’s agency.  The humanitarian crisis, characterized by high rates of human rights fragility (9.0) and refugees/ IDPs (9.0), weakens the beleaguered country’s ability to self-determine its foreign policy and delays the prospect of inclusive peace negotiations.    Vicious cycles of internal conflict and displacement exacerbated or extended by external manipulation and domestic weaknesses are likely to perpetuate if foreign powers continue to play a decisive role.

Fragility: An opportunity for great power cooperation

In the immediate future, barring a sudden collapse of anti-junta factions or the Tatmadaw, a negotiated peace settlement is not attainable. Neither side has made overtures towards negotiation and fighting has expanded.[20] The Tatmadaw’s purchase of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 and Su-30[21] fighter aircraft deepens the conflict and likely prevents the prospect of an immediate settlement. Given its myriad crises as well as its geopolitical relevance, Myanmar’s downward spiral toward a failed state has serious implications for all involved countries. To avoid this predicament, leaders should consider the war as an opportunity for great power cooperation rather than competition. Fragility creates opportunities for international cooperation between relevant stakeholders rather than a new battlefield. Containing the massive flow of refugees, armament sales, and the expansion of ethnic violence are all invaluable opportunities for collective peacebuilding and great power cooperation. Prescient leaders may consider the Myanmar crisis an opportunity to build an island of stability in a tumultuous sea by boosting the state’s capacity to handle internal refugee displacement, prevent human rights violations, and actively combat international criminal organizations. Doing such may stop the country’s decline into a failed state, prevent regional spillover, and perhaps nullify Myanmar’s debated status as a ‘front line’ in a “new cold war.” As was proven in Thailand and Bangladesh, democracy can flourish in the region and the military can be a stakeholder rather than an autarch. Aligned geopolitical interests between bitter rivals can serve as the impetus for resolving the current crisis and charting a new course for the people of Myanmar.

Conclusion: Earn partners and allies – do not assume them

Great power competition and considerations over a new balance of power between the United States, China, and Russia, create circumstances that make coup d’états in low-to-middle-income countries relevant to global politics. Efforts undertaken by Russia and China to mold the political alignment of military regimes have been successful. Juntas, in turn, have undermined a broad range of interests held by NATO countries, primarily the United States, and strengthened their commitments to their powerful backers by joining alliance systems and voting in favor of their benefactors at multinational fora. This paradigm is not restricted to Russian and Chinese interests, though. The United States and allies rushed billions of dollars worth of aid and military equipment into Ukraine in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion and hastened Finland’s entrance to NATO. While the United States and NATO allies’ support for Ukraine and NATO expansion is significant, the affinity between military juntas and their powerful backers in Moscow and Beijing indicates a substantial shift in the global balance of power. The geopolitics are changing fast.  But rather than being baited into a mad scramble for influence, the “West” needs to work more than ever to manage old relationships and cultivate new ones, with an eye toward institution building and good governance around the world, a long-term project that is more easily said than done.

[1] Abouzzohour, Y. (n.d.) “The Amplification of Authoritarianism in the Age of COVID-19” The Project on Middle East Political Science at the Elliott School of International Affairs of the George Washington University. Retrieved on 23 May 2023.

[2] Editorial Board of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) (2023) “Press freedom under siege after military coup in Sudan” Reports Without Borders. Retrieved on 24 May 2023.

[3] Doxee, C. et al. (2022) “The end of Operation Barkhane and the future of counterterrorism in Mali” The Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). Retrieved on 22 May 2023.

[4] Thurston, A. (2022) “France Out of West Africa, supposedly ending 8-years of muddled mission” Responsible Statecraft. Retrieved on 23 May 2023.

[5] Stangio, S. (2022) “China, Russia again veto UN Statement on Myanmar” The Diplomat. Retrieved on 23 May 2023.

[6] Mahsi, N. (2022) “U.N. Resolution to End Ukraine War: How countries voted and who abstained” The Washington Post. Retrieved on 23 May 2023.

[7] Ehl, D. (2023) “Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa: More than Mercenaries” Deutsche Welle (DW). Retrieved on 23 May 2023.

[8] Shurkin, M. (2023) “Don’t Abandon Burkina Faso” War on the Rocks. Retrieved on 22 June 2023.

[9] Kurlantzik, J. (2022) “The Revival of Military Rule in South and Southeast Asia” The Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved on 24 May 2023.

[10] Ford, L. et al. (2021) “Democracy in South Asia” The Brookings Institute. Retrieved on 24 May 2023.

[11] Nachemson, A. (2023) “Thailand’s military has no good options” Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 30 May 2023.

[12] Pal, D. (2021) “China’s Influence in South Asia: Vulnerabilities and Resilience in Four Countries” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved on 24 May 2023.

[13] Kurlantzik, J. (2022) “Russia’s Continuing Ties to Southeast Asia and How the Affect the Ukraine War: Part 2” The Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved on 24 May 2023.

[14] Chen, H. (2023) “UN expert says Myanmar imported $1 billion in arms since coup, much of it from China and Russia” Cable News Network (CNN). Retrieved on 24 May 2023.

[15] Ibid (Kurlantzik, 2022).

[16] Editorial Board of The Fund for Peace (2023) “Fragile State Index Country Dashboard, Myanmar” The Fund for Peace. Retrieved on 22 May 2023.

[17] Editorial Board for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Global Focus Program (2023) “Myanmar Situation”  UNHCR Press. Retrieved on 5/24/2023.

[18] Dragojilo, S. (2022) “Serbia, Russia, China Condemned for Selling Arms to Myanmar, Junta” Balkan Insight. Retrieved on 6/1/2023.

[19] Ronkin, N. (2022) “Shining a Light on Myanmar’s Multidimensional Crisis” Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Retrieved on 5/24/2023

[20] Hein, Y.M. and Myers, L. (2023) “Is Myanmar the Frontline in a New Cold War?” Foreign Affairs. Retrieved on 19 June 2023.

[21] Editorial Board (2022) “Myanmar Regime takes delivery of two SU-30 fighter jets from Russia”. Irrawaddy News. Retrieved on 19 June 2023.