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Dhaka Tribune

The Russian connection: Are South Asian countries in a bind?

Neutrality appears to not be a matter of choice, but of necessity

Update : 30 Mar 2022, 11:00 AM

The invasion in Ukraine waged by Russia is now in its fifth week, and no one knows when and how it will end. As news of death and destruction in major cities of Ukraine where the Russian army has moved keeps on pouring, and Ukrainians flee from their homes in millions, the prospect of a truce seems illusive. 

It appears economic sanctions by the West on Russia, at least so far, have not put a brake on Russia or its resolve to bring Ukraine to capitulation. While Russia is holding the pretense of a discussion to end the war, some 190,000 of its soldiers are surrounding Ukraine, with nearly half that number already inside. It does not seem to be bothered that it is losing hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks and other military equipment daily. 

The focus of Russia is on the fall of Kyiv and capitulation of the current government to its demands, including surrendering of Ukrainian territories to Russia that it has already occupied, that Ukraine should not only not join NATO, but vouch in its constitution that it will never aspire to be a part of that organization. 

But even with these agreements, there is no guarantee that Russia will pull out its forces from Ukraine.

No sign of peace

On the face of it, these stark terms for a halt on the hostilities seem to be a non-starter, and peace in Ukraine is uncertain. The powers that are providing resources to Ukraine for its defense and helping it with sanctions on Russia may also not be willing to let Ukraine agree to those terms. At the same time, the Russian onslaught also appears to have come to a stalemate, either because of fast depletion of its arsenal or simply because of surprisingly strong resistance from a Ukrainian military that was underestimated by President Putin. 

The pace with which the Russians moved in Ukraine about a month ago may have slowed down, but the havoc they are still causing with bombardments and shelling in cities remains unabated. The fear is that the more resistance they receive from the Ukrainian forces and population, President Putin may take recourse to more drastic measures such as the use of chemical weapons or worse to hasten Ukraine’s capitulation. 

Meanwhile, the world seems to be divided on how to stop this war. While almost all countries denounce the war and would like to see an end to the hostilities, including China, there is a difference in approach they take. 

The Western powers (NATO, and the US in particular) believe in stopping Russian aggression by punishing it with sanctions and helping Ukraine with resources to defend itself (short of direct military support). Others are reluctant to cease economic or trade relationships with Russia, or even openly condemn this aggression. 

Strangely, even public opinion in some parts of the world, particularly in our South Asian countries, is divided on this war. Some are even falling for the Russian misinformation that makes the Ukrainian president as the one whose unyielding position provoked Russia to the aggression. 

Taking sides

There are always two sides in a war, one is an aggressor and the other victim. In a war between countries, others either try to mediate or take sides. The countries take sides depending on their own interests, either strategic or purely material such as trade dependence or economic dependence. 

The poorer a country is, greater is its dependence on bigger powers who are engaged in this fight. In the case of this war, Russia is the heavyweight, given its historical significance during the Cold War as one of the two big powers at that time. Even though Russia is no longer the mighty Soviet Union, it still retains that aura for many countries in the developing world in Asia and Africa. 

In the post-Cold War period when the Soviet Union disintegrated, political influence of the succeeding Russian Federation over the countries that it once held somewhat diminished because the new Russia was busy reordering its floundering economy. But once the economy bounced back with its bounty of oil and gas, Russia was back to wooing countries once in the USSR orbit. 

Among these friends were India, and Bangladesh -- a country that benefited from the support of the former Soviet Union during and after its struggle for independence. Pakistan was not historically an ally or close friend of the Soviet Union, but later it cozied up to Russia for balancing its relationship with the US (cynics say to counter the relationship).  

India and Pakistan

Among three major countries in the subcontinent, India is foremost among close friends of Russia for historical reasons, beginning from the day India became independent. Besides trade and cultural relationships, India’s leaders had formed close ties with former leaders of the Soviet Union, and supported the Soviet Union in most international forums, most importantly the United Nations. 

India is dependent on Russia for nearly 70% of its defense purchases, and it has several nuclear power plants built with Russian help. India had a total of $8.1 billion trade with Russia in 2021, with India importing more from Russia than exporting to Russia. It is understandable why India would keep its mouth shut when Russia enters a war with its neighbour, because it has its own eggs to fry in regions that must be kept in control.  

With Pakistan, it’s a completely different story. Since its birth, Pakistan had willingly joined an alliance that was antithetical to communism, a prime champion of which that period was the former Soviet Union. Pakistan’s reliance on the US for defense had irked the USSR. Pakistan got military and economic support from the US and its allies because of its inimical relationship with India. 

So, Pakistan went along with the US until USSR dissipated, and its relationship with the US soured after the Afghan war. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif started to woo the Russians during his term. He was the first Pakistani head of government to visit Russia, to be followed later by President Zardari. 

This was a strategic shift on Pakistan’s part, mainly arising from a concern over shifting relations between India and the US.  Of late, Russia signed an agreement with Pakistan for setting up a gas pipeline between Karachi and Lahore with Russian loan. Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Russia and met with Putin even when Russia was preparing for its invasion of Ukraine.

Bangladesh

Last but not least is Bangladesh, which had remained silent along with the other two on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unlike India which has a historical and strategic alliance with Russia and its former incarnation, Bangladesh’s relationship with Russia primarily is one of gratitude -- thankfulness for the support given to the country’s Liberation War and subsequent help in relief and rehabilitation. 

Besides being one of the first few countries to give Bangladesh recognition in 1971, the Soviet Union also helped Bangladesh in restoring its ports, and ensuring that relief materials reached the nooks and crannies of the country through a fleet of helicopters. Now, Russia is also helping Bangladesh in setting up the first nuclear power plant in the country. 

But should these considerations drive our government to turn a blind eye to Russian aggression? Or our policies guided by our neighbours?

President Putin’s Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1971. Putin’s Russia is made by money-making oligarchs who divvied up the left-over national assets of the USSR that were denationalized by Putin and his immediate predecessors. 

Putin put down all opposition with an iron hand with the help of certain “friends” (he himself was an important official in the former KGB) and is spiriting away his political opponents in nefarious ways. He is the undisputed ruler in Russia now who reminisces about the past and dreams of a return of the territories that once formed the Soviet empire. Is this a power that we should cheer for? 

Bangladesh has a lot to thank the former Soviet Union for its support to us in 1971. But that should not weaken our moral duty to condemn invasion of other countries, just as we would not like our independence to be toyed with. Perhaps our neutrality is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. 

But even in a world where countries like Bangladesh have a dependent relationship with superpowers, a country needs to show courage to stand up against acts that openly transgress morality and affect innocent human lives. 

Humanity above all

The current crisis in Ukraine has affected not only that country but also several of the adjoining countries -- including Russia -- by destroying lives and property. Millions have been displaced from their homes. This is not a time to point fingers. This is not a time to find excuses for the aggressor by citing previous instances of superpower aggression and destruction of life and property in other places of the world. 

This is a time to stop another insane and mindless war that started because a megalomaniac wants to be appeased. This is a time to stand up to such wanton aggression and stop another human tragedy from happening. 

We do not know how India and Pakistan will act in this war. But we do want and hope that Bangladesh, which is still giving protection to over a million refugees fleeing from another genocide in Myanmar, will do the right thing in standing up against the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine when the issue is raised in the world forum. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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