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.

Southasia - - Contents - By Munir Ishrat Rah­mani

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.

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