Saturday, 1 April, 2023

American Embargo, Russian Ship and Multilateral Relationship

Chinmay Prasun Biswas

American Embargo, Russian Ship and Multilateral Relationship
Chinmay Prasun Biswas

Recently Russia and the United States are face to face through statement and action on politics, human right and upcoming election of Bangladesh. Referring to the recent controversy over the US ambassador to Bangladesh, the Russian Embassy in Dhaka issued a statement, indirectly accusing the US of blackmail and attempts to dominate. Such a statement from the embassy of a powerful country like Russia, referring to the diplomat of an influential country like the US in Bangladesh, is unprecedented. Dhaka, however, is discouraging both of them from these actions. Bangladesh wants to solve its own problems without any interference from the East or the West. In addition to it a diplomatic conflict has arisen between Bangladesh and Russia. Another tussle has begun afresh between the United States and Russia on Russia-Ukraine war. Bangladesh has been maintaining balanced relation with India, Russia and the United States for a long time. But now rivalry between Moscow and Washington placed Bangladesh in a complex situation in maintaining neutral foreign policy.

Amid such a conflicting situation another unpleasant incident has occurred. It is known to us that Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant Project is being implemented under overall supervision and technical assistance of Russia. A Russian ship was carrying machineries for this power plant started journey to Bangladesh on 14th November, 2022 from Russian port St. Petersburg.

The vessel was scheduled to arrive at Mongla port on 24th December, 2022. According to diplomatic sources, the ship Ursa Major, carrying machineries for the Rooppur nuclear power project, unloaded some goods at Cochin port in the Indian state of Kerala. Then it started its journey towards Mongla port. In a diplomatic letter the US Embassy in Dhaka informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 20th December that the ship named Ursa Major is actually Sparta 3 which is under the US sanctions list. Although the ship's colour and name have been changed, its IMO (International Maritime Organisation) registration number is 9538892 which is actually the IMO registration number of Sparta 3. It was also mentioned in that letter that providing any assistance such as loading-unloading of goods, fuel supply or any cooperation with the sailors of ships black-listed by the US will create the risk of facing American sanction or huge financial penalty.

Receiving such information Ministry of Shipping refused to allow the ship to dock at any port in Bangladesh. Russia expressed its anger through a diplomatic letter and pressured Bangladesh to allow the ship to enter the port and unload the goods. On 20th and 22nd December the Russian Embassy in Dhaka sent two letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting entry of that ship to Bangladesh. Russia also threatened that if the ship is not allowed to enter Bangladesh in compliance with the US sanctions, it would affect Russia's relationship with Bangladesh'. However, Foreign Ministry officials say that language of the letter of 22nd December was offensive. In the letter, Russia noted that not allowing the ship to enter might have a negative impact on bilateral relations. But Dhaka did not consider Russia’s request and despite Russia’s dissatisfaction forced the ship to return.

In this connection the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has handed over a list of about 90 countries which have been banned by the United Nations and the United States to the Ministry of Shipping. The authorities concerned have been requested to check the list before approving the arrival of ships from abroad.

However, the problem was theoretically solved in another way. On 4th January it was reported that the Russian ship will be unloaded at Haldia port in West Bengal, India. From there those machineries will be carried to Bangladesh under commercial agreement between Bangladesh and India. Samay TV, referring to senior journalist and international relations analyst Subir Bhowmik, mentioned on 7th January that such a role of Delhi is unprecedented. Indian analysts think that through India has given three messages to the United States - Delhi will never accept US grandstanding, Delhi does not want India's friendship with Russia to be damaged and Delhi also wants to continue the historical India-Bangladesh relationship.

That decision was favourable for Bangladesh but situation turned reverse soon. After waiting for 14 days at Haldia port the Russian ship left Indian maritime boundary for Russia on 16th January without unloading the goods as the Indian government finally did not accord permission. According to diplomacy analysts, this decision is linked to recent visit of Donald Lu, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. Experts think that due to complex geopolitical realities India has not allowed the banned ship to enter their port.

During Donald Lu’s recent 2-day visit to Bangladesh (he visited India also) the point of Rooppur's goods transportation by Ursa Major came up in discussion. On 15th January, in a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Donald Lu was informed by Bangladesh that the Rooppur project would be delayed due to complications in unloading the goods carried by the ship. In reply Donald Lu said that India has also been informed of the US ban on Ursa Major. The ship will not be able to discharge the goods in India either.

This incident has intricate effects, i.e. relation of Bangladesh with three important countries – India, Russia and the United States. Regarding this decision of India our State Minister for Foreign Affairs informed that it will not affect Bangladesh-Russia relationship. We have honoured the messages given to us by friendly countries. (Kaler Kantho, 01-01-2023). Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said that Russia knowingly changed the name of the embargoed ship and sent the Rooppur nuclear power project goods (The Bangladsh Pratidin, 23-01-2023). Meanwhile, in a statement, the Russian state-owned company Rosatom, in charge of constructing the plant, said, “We have full responsibility to complete the construction work of Rooppur nuclear power plant as scheduled. This also includes finding the best logistics route.” (Dainik Bangla, 19th January)

Some experts think that getting the machineries is the prime concern of Bangladesh, not how it comes. But maintaining balance in foreign policy or international diplomacy can’t be genaralised so easily. It is more complex than apparent. However, we have to wait to see whether the matter ends here or takes any other turn. 


The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes