Between the hammer and the anvil

Understanding Bangladesh’s position in the spat between the US and Russia 

After World War II, the United States ascended to a position of dominance in the international order. The former Soviet Union later contested its monopoly. The conflict between these two countries is known as the Cold War in terms of diplomacy or international relations. The tensions virtually ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union but have slowly resurfaced since Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. 

When Russia attacked Ukraine at the beginning of this year, the cold war between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, became more obvious. Many analysts think Ukraine's conflict is really a conflict between Russia and the US. 

The so-called Western nations, including the European Union, are giving proxy support alongside the US in this conflict while powerful China and a few countries are doing the same for Russia. That's why the struggle between the two power blocs to expand the sphere of influence is getting more intense.   

In the meantime, the US and Russian embassies have engaged in a Twitter spat, commenting and counter-commenting on each other's viewpoints towards Bangladesh, particularly with regard to the topic of non-interference in domestic matters like the upcoming national election and human rights issues. 

Doubts and worries in Bangladesh

The issue is centered on the visit of Peter Haas, the US ambassador in Dhaka to the house of BNP leader Sajedul Islam Sumon, who went missing in 2012, and Afroza Islam Ankhi, the coordinator of Mayer Daak, the organization of the relatives of the “missing” persons to attend a meeting. 

Peter Haas left the intended meeting suddenly due to “security concerns” when members of another group named “Mayer Kanna” attempted to submit a memorandum, seeking the US's cooperation in an international investigation into the killings of the army and air force personnel hanged during the former President Ziaur Rahman's tenure. 

The Bangladesh ambassador to the United States was called on the next day by the State Department to express concerns for Peter Haas's safety. This is how the incident started. 

Many referred to the US ambassador's visit to Shaheenbagh to meet with the family of a supporter of an opposition political party as meddling in Bangladesh's domestic affairs, saying it is against both the Vienna Convention and Article 2(7) of the UN Charter.

In statements and tweets, the Russian embassy in Dhaka and the spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said that such actions “violated” the fundamental rules of not interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states and were therefore “unacceptable.” Within 24 hours of this statement, the US Embassy in Dhaka replied in a tweet, enquiring as to whether Ukraine was covered by Russia's non-interference policy.

Regarding Peter Haas's visit to Shaheen Bagh and his comments on elections, and human rights, it appears that Russia's stance is almost identical to the Bangladesh government's statement. 

So, it might create a narrative that Bangladesh has forged a connection with Russia and teamed up with the country to oppose US interference in Dhaka's internal issue. 

But this is not justified for a number of practical reasons. 

Russia hasn't before expressed any clear support for such illegitimate actions and excessive American meddling in Dhaka's domestic politics, not even the merest public remark. But this time, we took notice of Russia's abrupt, spontaneous reaction in this matter.

Playing their games

All of this appears to be an ongoing proxy conflict between the two world leaders, with Ukraine serving as a prominent example. 

Utilizing the uncertain political landscape ahead of the 12th national polls in Bangladesh, the United States and Russia played their games. 

It is not a vague idea that the US has been weaponizing democracy and human rights as tools to advance its foreign policy objectives. Russia is now using Bangladesh as a strategic weapon in its diplomatic standoff. 

As a result of the ongoing hostility between Russia and the US on the Ukraine issue, the former is acting so vocally against the latter on Bangladesh's internal issue at the moment. 

It is in no way logical that Russia is acting in Dhaka's best interests. If that were the case, Russia would have played a prominent role in American involvement in Dhaka's internal affairs from the very beginning. 

Most importantly, Russia would have supported Bangladesh in the UNSC and other international platforms on the recent Rohingya issue. 

But the unfortunate reality is that Russia has been providing indirect and direct support to Myanmar on the issue and this could be the reason why the Rohingya issue is not yielding the expected consequences.

Bangladesh adopts stances and makes choices that are in line with its own interests. It actually has a distinct perspective on various international and regional issues, some of which may be in favour of Russia and others which may be against it, going back to the Ukraine War. 

This also applies to the US and Western countries. Bangladesh's prohibition of a Russian ship carrying goods for a nuclear power project from entering its borders is the most recent example. 

It is not right for Bangladesh to engage in any power struggle. When the two giants, the US and Russia, adopt conflicting stances on any internal topic of Bangladesh, it is not beneficial to the country in any way. 

Just a pawn?

The Russia-US dispute on Bangladesh soil could transform Dhaka into a pawn in an international conflict. So, regarding the two countries' head-to-head position, Bangladesh should exercise more caution. 

In order to avoid getting involved in their argument, the country should adhere to the guiding principle of foreign policy: Friendship to all, and malice towards none. In any other case, things can get out of hand.

In light of the shifting global environment, a closer relationship with the United States is in both countries' best interests. Washington and Dhaka have extensive cooperation in regional and global security, counter-terrorism, and climate change. 

Bangladesh is the largest recipient of US assistance in Asia outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With regard to trade, education, travel, investments, and other areas, it goes without saying that Bangladesh has closer ties to and more communication with the United States and other Western nations. 

Bangladesh's key development partners, investors, and business partners include the US, the UK, the European Union, and Japan. 

Bangladesh is looking into the "pros and cons" of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to determine if Bangladesh will benefit from joining it. If it is in Bangladesh's best interests, it will join the US-led Indo-Pacific Business Forum. 

The United States should extend its hand of friendship to Bangladesh as a major partner in this undertaking. And in carrying out that duty, its ambassador to Dhaka should play a constructive role.

Russia is also one of its friends, that much is undeniable. Russia's friendly cooperation in Bangladesh's great Liberation War forced America to scale back its hostile posture. Russia offered Bangabandhu's administration its complete backing following the independence struggle. Even now, Russian finance is being used to carry out its biggest megaproject, the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

Bangladesh needs both the US and Russia for ensuring the pace of rapid economic growth. The US or Russia shouldn't be worried about Bangladesh as the country strongly believes in friendship with all. 

Similarly, Bangladesh should not take any stance on the current power struggle which may cause misunderstanding and distrust in order to avoid bitterness and maintain friendly relations.

It is worth recognizing, Bangladesh expertly handled the recent diplomatic spat between the US and Russia. The government does not want any country (US or Russia) interfering in Bangladesh's domestic issues. Frankly speaking, there is no better strategy available to Dhaka at this time.

Prithwi Raj Chaturvedi is a Researcher and Political analyst from New Delhi, India.