Purchase of weapons from Russia: A shift in foreign and defence policy?

Purchase of weapons from Russia: A shift in foreign and defence policy?

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit from 14 to 16th January to Russia is important because her government wants to restore its friendly relations with Russia After 1975 the relations with Russia received a jolt and Russia felt betrayed and annoyed with Bangladesh for a long period of time.

This is because during the 1971 Liberation War, the leaders of the former Soviet Union supported the cause of the Liberation War of Bangladesh people while China and the US supported Pakistan due to their different strategic reasons.

People of Bangladesh will never forget the supportive role played by the Soviet Union at the time, particularly at the UN Security Council. Had there be no vetoes at the Security Council by the Soviet Union, Bangladesh would not have independence so soon.

After the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib in August 1975, there was a period of low key relations with Moscow and by 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared and the Russian Federation came in its place.

Under the changed situation, both Bangladesh and Russia have renewed their engagement to strengthen their partnership in various sectors. Gradually a new horizon of cooperation has started between the two nations.

During the visit of the Prime Minister, Bangladesh inked its biggest arms contract worth $1 billion with Russia, which also announced a $500 million reportedly soft loan to Dhaka for the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant.

The two major deals were announced after Russian President Vladmir Putin met on January 15 with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for talks.

Media reports in Bangladesh, said fighter jets, helicopters, armoured vehicles, anti-tank missiles, automatic grenade launchers and radar equipment would be included in the package of the procurement deal.
Two questions are being hotly debated in the media on the impact of the visit:
• First whether the visit will have any adverse impact on relations with the US and
• Second whether the $1 billion weapons purchase with loan reportedly 4.5% interest was a priority for the country.
With regard to the first question, it is wrong to suggest Bangladesh has to choose between the US and Russia. Bangladesh can do both but the trick lies in how Bangladesh manages that.
Bangladesh is now 42 years old and has enough foreign policy experience and maturity to deal with both US and Russia. . Bangladesh‘s relations with Russia are not at the expense of its relations with the US. Bangladesh needs partnership with both countries.
Russia is an Asia Pacific country as its territory extends from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The holding of the APEC Summit at Vladivostok (not Moscow) last September was deliberate and demonstrated its keen interest to engage with Asia Pacific nations including Bangladesh…

Bangladesh also needs the US because its pivot is about developing cooperation with all Asian nations. The US wields influence at the global multilateral institutions and Bangladesh needs their assistance and cooperation. The US offers generous assistance in various socio-economic sectors in the country.

The visit of the US Secretary of State in May 2012 led the signing of the Joint Declaration on “Bangladesh-US Partnership Dialogue “ reflected a new chapter in their bilateral relations, aiming to establish regular dialogue on strategic cooperation with the US.

Enhancing relationship with Russia arguably gives Bangladesh many advantages. It can be argued that greater engagement with Russia would augment Bangladesh’s profile with countries in South Asia and beyond.

The acceleration in the economic and military presence in the area poses a challenge for Bangladesh which has to pursue its pro-active foreign policy to embark on a mission how the country can play an important role both in economic and strategic sectors in the changing geopolitical environment by taking advantage of its geographical location. Given the context, the deepening relations with Russia seem to be appropriate.

With regard to the second issue, everyone agrees that Bangladesh needs well-equipped armed forces. If the weapons were purchased with Bangladesh’s own fund, one can see some merit in it.

The real issues is not the purchase of weapons but purchase weapons taking hard loan from Russia with 4.5% interest, payable by fifteen years.

Civil society and retired military officers have raised questions about its transparency. Some have raised the question whether weapon-purchase is a condition to Russia’s assistance in constructing a nuclear power plant at Rooppur.

The question raised is about national priority? Is it necessary at this point of time to buy weapons by taking a massive loan of $ 1 billion with high interest? People including civil society are puzzled at the sudden decision of biggest arms purchase from Russia.. It was not even discussed in the cabinet as revealed by one cabinet minister.

Furthermore the purchase of weapons with loan with 4.5% interest is questionable at a time when Bangladesh government had to raise its diesel price hitting the farmers who produce boro rice (55% of rice produced in the country) for getting a loan of $1 billion from IMF.

Bangladesh needs to spend money for developing a minimum standard of living for about 30% of people who live below poverty line in the country. Furthermore, there is a huge deficit of energy and infrastructure to attract foreign investors in the country and observers say that monetary resources should be directed towards these sectors which will lead to increased employment for people.

Many analysts say that the priority in acquiring weapons with the hard loan appears to be misconceived. The glaring contradiction between the deprivations of basic necessities of life of vast number of poor people and the arms purchase is obvious.

As regards purchase from Russia, Russia is not a traditional source of weapons for Bangladesh. In recent years, most of the weapons have been procured from China.

However it is noted that the previous 1996-2001 tenure of Hasina’s ruling Awami League witnessed the procurement of 10 MiG 21s from Russia while Moscow initially helped Bangladesh to build its defence structure with helicopters and one squadron of MiG after 1971 independence.

In the light of the background it does not seem unusual to acquire weapons from Russia.

However, it is necessary for the government to explain the reasons for according priority to a massive arms purchase with hard loan of $1billion from one country at the ensuing session of the parliament to reassure people that the government’s action is on the right track and is for benefit of the people of the country.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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