Fifty Years Of Russia-Bangladesh Ties: Sky’s The Limit?

By Jubeda Chowdhury

January 25, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with Russia (then Soviet Union). Russia is a close friend of Bangladesh. Russia played a strong role for Bangladesh in the great liberation war of Bangladesh. For this Bangladesh is forever grateful to Russia. Russia has been a true friend of Bangladesh since its inception. Bangladesh’s independence would have been difficult in 1971 without the support of the then Soviet Union in the international arena.

At present, Bangladesh-Russia relations refers mainly to the bilateral relations between the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Russian Federation. On 24 January 1972, the Soviet Union recognized Bangladesh and on 25 January, the two countries formally established diplomatic relations. After the collapse of the then Soviet Union, Bangladesh maintained bilateral relations with its successor, the Russian Federation. The friendly relations between Bangladesh and Russia are contributing to the development of politics, economy, trade, defense system, education and culture of the two countries.

Although India directly cooperated in the liberation war of Bangladesh at the international level, the then Soviet Union played an indirect role. Together with the Allies, the state took strong action in the UN Security Council in favor of Bangladesh’s independence. Due to the inflexibility of this state, the United States was forced to send back the 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal on behalf of Pakistan in December 1971. Apart from cooperating with arms in the war of liberation, the country has also played an exemplary role in removing mines and debris from Chittagong port in the post-independence period.

As many of us know, at that time the world was mainly divided into two camps. One camp was led by the United States, and the other was controlled by the Socialist Soviet Union. The Soviet Union at that time was directly and indirectly supporting the liberation struggle of different countries for policy reasons. Bangladesh is no exception. In a message sent to Pakistani President Yahya Khan in the aftermath of the March 25 genocide, Soviet President Nikolai Padgorni expressed concern over the mass killings, persecution and arrest of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other political leaders in East Pakistan. He called on Yahya to find a way to a peaceful political solution by ending repression. Such a message from one of the top two countries breathed life into the liberation war.

The Soviet Union played a significant role when the all-out war between the Indo-Bangladesh joint forces and the Pakistan Army broke out on 3 December 1971. The next day, on 4 December, the United States proposed a ceasefire to the UN Security Council in anticipation of Pakistan’s defeat. The Soviet Union vetoed the proposal, calling it “unilateral.”

The next day, eight other Security Council members submitted similar proposals to the United States, and for the second time, the Soviet Union vetoed them. Pakistan and the United States have repeatedly called for a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops to the UN General Assembly, following a two-time Soviet veto in the Security Council. The resolution was passed by the General Assembly, despite opposition from several countries, including the Soviet Union. Ignoring the offer, the Indo-Bangladesh joint forces continued fighting. The unwavering support of the Soviet Union was instrumental in this.

During the war, the Soviet Union provided extensive military and financial support and overall moral support to the Bengali freedom fighters. Towards the end of the War of Independence, the United States sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to assist Pakistan, which was almost defeated by the Liberation Army and the Indian Allies. In response, the Soviet Union flew two squadron cruisers and destroyers of the Soviet Pacific Fleet and a nuclear-armed nuclear submarine from Vladivostok on December 6 and 13, 1981, to counter potential U.S. threats to the Liberation Army and Indian forces.

The Soviet fleet was led by Admiral Vadimir Krugliakov. The US navy failed to assist Pakistan with the arrival of the Soviet navy. The Soviet navy chased the US navy in the Indian Ocean from December 16, 1971 to January 7, 1972. The Soviet navy also secretly assisted the Indian navy and conducted covert operations against the Pakistani navy.

Within a week, when Pakistan’s defeat was confirmed, China abruptly declared that it would not engage in a direct battle on Pakistan’s side, even before the two navies clashed head-on in the Bay of Bengal. Stunned by China’s announcement, the United States froze the Seventh Fleet. Then, on 13 December, the Soviet Union vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. Then there was no choice but to surrender the Pakistan army and an independent state called Bangladesh was born.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bangladesh recognized the Russian Federation as its successor and continued diplomatic relations. Russia is one of the major suppliers of arms and military equipment to the Bangladesh Defense Forces. To this end, Bangladesh has signed a 1 billion arms purchase agreement with Russia, under which it is procuring various weapons for the army, including anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles, training fighter jets for the air force, and cargo helicopters.

In 2013, Bangladesh procured Metis-M anti-tank missiles from Russia. In 2015 and 2016, Bangladesh purchased 16 Yak-130 training aircraft from Russia and in 2016, Bangladesh purchased six Mi-171SH helicopters from Russia. Besides, Bangladesh is using BTR-80 armored vehicles purchased from Russia for peacekeeping under the UN.

Bangladesh has a lot of opportunities to increase trade with Russia. Trade with Russia has not been able to grow at the desired level due to transactions in banking channels and some tariff complications. There is a huge demand in the Russian market for various products including garments made in Bangladesh. Due to various complications, Bangladesh is forced to export readymade garments and other products to the Russian market through other countries. In the business interests of both countries, it is important to resolve these issues through bilateral talks and diplomacy. In the fiscal year 2020-2021, Bangladesh exported goods worth US 665.31 million to Russia and imported goods worth US 466.70 million at the same time.

In 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Russia and Bangladesh to assist in the development of nuclear power in Bangladesh. In 2013, Russia pledged to build a 2,400-megawatt nuclear power plant at Rooppur in Bangladesh’s Pabna district. The total cost of the project is estimated at 12.85 billion, 90 percent of which will be provided by the Russian government. Construction of the power plant started in 2016 and two units are expected to be completed by 2024, each with a capacity of 1,200 MW. The first unit is scheduled to go into production in 2022 and the second unit in 2023.

Since independence in 1971, the mainstay of Bangladesh’s foreign policy in the international arena has been ‘friendship with all, not enmity with anyone’. Following this policy, Bangladesh has maintained its foreign relations. As a non-communal state, Bangladesh has always refrained from favoring influential countries in the Cold War of the twentieth century. Being a Muslim-majority country, Bangladesh has strong diplomatic and trade relations with other Muslim countries.

January 25, marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the Russian Federation and will be a historic moment. It is hoped that the friendly and strong relations between the two friendly countries will continue in the future for historical and practical reasons.

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