January 25, 2022, marked the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with Russia. Since the Soviet era, Russia has been a close friend of Bangladesh. The USSR played a strong role supporting Bangladesh during its struggle for independence, and Russian friendship has continued during the post-Soviet period.
Russia has thus been a true friend of Bangladesh since its very inception. It would have been difficult for Bangladesh to win independence in 1971 without the support of the Soviet Union in the international arena.
On January 24, 1972, the Soviet Union recognized Bangladesh and on January 25, the two countries formally established diplomatic relations.
Although India directly cooperated in the liberation war of Bangladesh at the international level, the Soviet Union played an indirect role. It took strong action in the UN Security Council in favor of Bangladesh’s independence. Largely as a result of Soviet actions, the United States was forced to withdraw its naval support for Pakistan from the Bay of Bengal in December 1971.
Apart from cooperating militarily in the War of Liberation, the USSR played an exemplary role in removing mines and debris from Chittagong Port in the post-independence period.
War of Liberation
As is well known, at that time the world was mainly divided into two camps. One camp was led by the United States, and the other by the Soviet Union. The USSR was directly or indirectly supporting the liberation struggles of different countries for policy reasons. Bangladesh was among them.
In a message sent to the Pakistani president at the time, Yahya Khan, in the aftermath of the March 25 genocide in 1971, Soviet president Nikolai Podgorny expressed concern over the mass killings, the persecution and arrest of 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 such an important country breathed life into the liberation war.
The Soviet Union played a significant role when all-out war between the Indo-Bangladeshi joint forces and the Pakistan Army broke out on December 3, 1971. The next day, on December 4, 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, and for the second time, the Soviet Union vetoed them. Pakistan and the United States repeatedly called for a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops to the UN General Assembly, after the two Soviet vetos in the Security Council. The resolution was passed by the General Assembly, despite opposition from several countries, including the Soviet Union.
Ignoring the ceasefire offer, the Indo-Bangladeshi joint forces continued fighting. The unwavering support of the Soviet Union was instrumental in this.
Ties with Russian Federation
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bangladesh recognized the Russian Federation as its successor and continued diplomatic relations. Russia now is one of the major suppliers of arms and military equipment to the Bangladesh Defense Forces, including anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles, training fighter jets, and cargo helicopters.
Bangladesh has many opportunities to increase trade with Russia, though this has not been able to grow at the desired level because of obstacles in banking channels and some tariff complications.
There is a huge demand in the Russian market for various products made in Bangladesh, including garments. Because of various complications, Bangladesh is forced to export ready-made 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 2020-21, Bangladesh exported goods worth US$665.31 million to Russia and imported goods worth $466.70 million.
In 2012, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Moscow and Dhaka 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% 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 megawatts. The first unit is scheduled to go into production this year 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.” As a non-aligned state, Bangladesh refrained from favoring influential countries during the Cold War. Being a Muslim-majority country, it has strong diplomatic and trade relations with other Muslim countries.
After half a century of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Russia, it is hoped that their friendly and strong ties will continue in the future.
*Jubeda Chowdhury holds a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Dhaka. This article was published at Asia Times.