The Tiger goes hunting
Bangladesh is buying all kinds of military equipment from Russia, a development that is causing concern in several capitals around the world.
Bangladesh is heavily investing to procure military arsenal from Russia.
When Bangladesh came into existence in 1971 with Indian help, it found another ready patron in the USSR who had provided moral support to Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League during the difficult period of struggle for secession. It was also one of the first countries that had recognized the youngest state of South Asia. The need for this friendship was obvious: the Soviet Union needed to expand its influence in the region to counter the threat of the US and China and also seek a way to reach the Indian ocean through Bangladesh for its strategic strength. The Soviet Union made a substantial contribution in development and reconstruction of the newest member of the community of South Asian countries during its post-independence period. The India–USSR alliance could not afford to sit back and watch the ascendancy of US-Pakistan-China alliance in the region and had to contain it by supporting Bangladesh strongly and stabilizing it on its feet as soon as possible. The Bangladesh Air Force was given sophisticated Mug 21 aircraft and the Soviet navy rendered help in restoring the navigability of Chittagong port by clearing the explosives and sunken ships etc., from the channels. Assistance was also provided in developing its power infrastructure by providing power plants to Bangladesh.
Historically, the Soviet Union had been a very staunch ally of In- dia and had always stood by it. Indian intervention in the eastern wing of Pakistan could not have been possible without the backing of the Soviet Union or President Brezhnev who saw good prospects of finding a strategic foothold in the region if the Indian designs of creation of Bangladesh could succeed. The development suited the USSR. Soviet Union’s friendship was beneficial for Bangladesh too for enhancing its security and consolidating its geopolitical position in the region. However, the Bangladesh-USSR romance could not maintain a constant high level in subsequent years due to inconsistent foreign policy of Bangladesh that kept changing its hues from time to time with the change of people at the helm of affairs. When Awami League’s influence diminished after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination and the opposition parties - not too friendly towards India - gained strength, the Soviets’ serenading also stopped.
The dissolution of the USSR into independent republics in December 1991 had a negative effect on its growing relations with Bangladesh. The state of Russia, however, after emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union, restored the policy of friendship with Bangladesh. The Russia-Bangladesh alliance blossomed when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power in the late 1990s. In view of the arms race involving India, Pakistan and China, the South Asian region presented a good market for arms supply to Russia. The second biggest world power was keen to exploit this market and did not want to let the opportunity go by. Russia is now the second biggest manufacturer and exporter of arms after the United States. Its armament supplies to Bangladesh are now more than China’s – the previous major supplier and Russia’s rival. During the last few years, Russia has exported MiG 29 fighters, BTR-80 amphibious armored personnel carriers and helicopters to Bangladesh.
Sheikh Hasina visited Moscow in January this year on an invitation of President Vladimir Putin to explore opportunities for further cooperation. This was only the second visit by a Bangladesh prime minister to Moscow since its independence. Sheikh Mujib – Sheikh Hasina’s father – was the other one to have visited the former Soviet Union in March, 1972. The visit has been very fruitful as the two countries have signed a $1 billion deal under which Bangladesh would receive military equipment from Russia under a credit on soft terms. Two agreements and six Memoranda of Understanding were signed for cooperation in various fields between the two countries. The list of purchases includes armored vehicles, infantry weapons, air defense systems and transport helicopters, etc. Bangladesh is reportedly building a new air base close to the Myanmar border and also adding frigates to its naval fleet. To boost the energy
sector, Russia will also be providing $500 million to finance construction of Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur.
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government has been striving to gain strength economically and militarily to improve it stature and be in a bargaining position in its disputes with the neighbors. Bangladesh has been buying military equipment from the US, Britain, China as well as Russia in the past but this time it got a very favourable deal of US$ 1 billion from Rus- sia to purchase military equipment and modernize its military (The money amounts to approximately eight thousand crore BD Takas) It is also to provide better training expertise to the Bangladesh armed forces. Analysts ask: does Bangladesh really need to have such an arsenal for its defence? There is no denying the fact that Bangladesh has a long border and a long list of unsettled disputes with India and Myanmar for which it needs a well-equipped and well-trained Border Security Force. Despite good friendly relations with India, Bangladesh continues to have issues on borders and distribution of water from rivers passing through its areas. It also has a clash of maritime claims in the Bay of Bengal. In addition, the threat of terrorism is looming large and Russia could be of great help in countering the threat effectively. The US efforts to check terrorism in Afghanistan or other countries of allies have not been impressive and not considered completely reliable. Bangladesh preferred Russia’s friendship over the US whose “blow hot; blow cold” type of relationship with its allies had always been a subject of concern among its ‘friends’. Preference of the Bangladesh government for Russian assistance is, therefore, quite understandable.
Whatever the justification for such a bulk purchase of armaments coming from the Bangladesh officials, it has drawn mixed reaction at home and from abroad. Neighbouring Myanmar’s concern was quite expected in view of its hot border situation with Bangladesh, but even in the friendly Indian press and diplomatic circles, the deal has come under scrutiny and eyebrows have been raised at the size of the list of purchases. The need for such a large acquisition of military equipment by Bangladesh has been questioned and has caused concern in India - its long-term friend. China was a major exporter of arms and equipment to the Bangladesh military and is justifiably feeling jilted by this deal. The likely reverberations of this in the US can be understood whose worry is the growing influence of Russia in the region and its accessibility to the Bay of Bengal. By equipping Bangladesh militarily, Russia would be disturbing the strategic balance in the South Asian region which may not be to the liking of the world’s only super-power. It is a major political event that may have far-reaching ramifications in the post-Cold War era. Munir Ishrat Rahmani is a retired Colonel of the Pakistan Army. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta and has fought during the 1965 and 1971 IndoPakistan wars. He was stationed in East Pakistan during the 1971 conflict and is the author of a forthcoming book on Indo-Pak military history.