50 Years After Russian Navy ‘Blocked’ US Aircraft Carrier, Washington, Moscow Again ‘Wrestle’ In India’s Backyard

In 1971, the Russian Pacific Fleet’s warship blocked a US aircraft carrier from entering the Bay of Bengal to aid Pakistan, and so Bangladesh was born. Fifty years later, Russian warships have docked in Chittagong port while Bangladesh accuses the US of interfering in its national election.

Russian state news agency TASS reported that the Russian Pacific Fleet’s naval group of sizeable anti-submarine warfare ships, Admiral Tributs and Admiral Panteleyev, and the oceanic tanker Pechenga called on the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh for the first time in almost half a century. Chittagong is the principal seaport of Bangladesh.

The Russian ambassador to Bangladesh, Alexander Mantytskiy, told TASS that the last time Russian combat ships called on Bangladesh was 50 years ago to carry out an operation to clear the Chittagong port of mines immediately after the Liberation War in 1971. This was a unique and little-known Russian operation after the 1971 war.

“At that time, the Russian naval ships came here to save the young country that gained its independence in 1971 from a humanitarian catastrophe. After the war of independence, the port’s waters were mined, and also tens of vessels were sunk there,” the ambassador was quoted as saying.

The Bangladeshi authorities turned to various countries with a request to help resolve the problem. Some agreed but for a large sum of money, which the republic lacked. It was only the Soviet Union that decided to provide support for humanitarian reasons, the envoy said.

The mine-clearing operation lasted from April 1972 to June 1974. Over 800 Soviet Navy sailors toiled for 26 months, and a Russian naval diver died in the mine-clearing effort. However, the Soviet naval sailors completed the objective, and Chittagong was opened for commercial vessels from across the globe.

The Joe Biden administration has announced a series of punitive measures to check Bangladesh’s “democratic backsliding” and ensure the parliamentary election slated in 2024 is free and fair.

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In addition to the sword of visa sanctions dangling against anyone who engages in election rigging, the US State Department has imposed sanctions on several serving and retired officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force that has been accused of helping Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League, win past elections.

US Sanctions On Bangladesh’s Political Elite

In September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a policy that reserves the right to deny visas to individuals in Bangladesh who will hinder free and fair elections in the country and undermine the democratic process. Bangladesh’s national elections are scheduled for January 2024.

In December 2021, Washington sanctioned Bangladesh’s elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), over alleged extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations. The Biden administration denied Bangladesh an invitation to its 2021 and 2023 global democracy summits. In May 2023, the United States announced it would refuse visas to any Bangladeshi implicated in “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”

The US-Bangladesh tensions have been spiraling for quite some time now. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister since 2009, has been accused of manipulating elections and intimidating political opponents to pave the way for her unchallenged authority and successive victories that have made her the longest-serving leader in the country.

Biden has kept Bangladesh out of the summit of democracies he organized in past years, although he invited Pakistan, India, and other countries. His administration also ignored Hasina when she visited Washington for a World Bank meeting in May.

The US-imposed political crisis is not in the interests of India as the shrinking political space available for Prime Minister Hasina amidst mounting pressure from the US is strengthening the Islamist fundamentalist outfits opposed to her. The Sheikh Hasina government is perhaps India’s closest and only reliable partner in a neighborhood fraught with anti-Indian feelings.

The US has made Bangladesh the focal point of its promoting democracy agenda, and Dhaka hasn’t responded kindly to Washington’s implied criticism. The chasm between the US leadership and Hasina’s ruling Awami League party is increasing, and the US would prefer that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party win in January. In a parliamentary speech in April, Hasina indirectly accused Washington of trying to oust her government.

While Bangladesh is not a strategic partner of the US in its Indo-Pacific strategy, its geo-strategic location is no less critical. Bangladesh is located at the apex of the Bay of Bengal, part of the Indian Ocean—a vital transit zone through which an estimated 80 percent of the global maritime trade passes.

The Bay of Bengal is a significant part of the Indian Ocean Region, straddling from Africa to Indonesia. The Bay of Bengal, nestled between India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, sits on one of the world’s most important strategic chokepoints, the Strait of Malacca that connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea.

Russia-Bangladesh Ties Anchored In Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant

The US insistence on making an example out of Bangladesh has been straining the ties between the two countries and pushing the country closer to Russia and China.

In March, Sheikh Hasina inaugurated Bangladesh’s first submarine base, Pekua, near the Kutubdia channel in the Bay of Bengal, built at US$1.21 billion. It will be home to two refurbished Chinese submarines that Bangladesh purchased in 2016. Although Chinese experts will train Bangladeshi personnel to operate the base and the submarines, Dhaka has carefully clarified that it was not for the Chinese navy’s use. Since 2010, Dhaka has bought arms worth US$2.37 billion from China but only US$123 million worth of weapons from the US.

The mainstay of China’s bilateral relations with Bangladesh is the defense partnership. It began in the 1980s and has grown substantially in subsequent years. Presently, China accounts for 72 percent of Bangladesh’s defense supplies. Dhaka is also the second biggest export destination for Chinese arms after Pakistan.

File Image: Indian Foreign Minister with PM of Bangladesh

Earlier on October 5, Russia, overcoming the US sanctions, transferred uranium fuel for Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur. This brought the South Asian nation one step closer to becoming the 33rd nuclear power-producing country in the world.

Washington levied sanctions on vital Russian firms, including the state nuclear agency Rosatom, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This threw a spanner in Bangladesh’s nuclear power ambition as Dhaka could not make loan repayments in US dollars, which delayed the construction work.

In April 2023, Bangladesh agreed to make more than US$300 million in payments to Russia in Chinese currency to circumvent the sanctions. The money is yet to be paid; however, this has not spoilt the Russia-Bangladesh relations.

In his first visit to Bangladesh early last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed US sanctions on Moscow for disrupting the payment and supply chain for the Rooppur plant project.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology. Article Republished
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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