Russian presence in the Indian sub-continent notably in the Bay of Bengal region is not new. From the former Soviet era and particularly from the Soviet response to the Liberation War of 1971 to present days’ regional geopolitical landscape, the interests of Russia have been marked by the economic, geostrategic as well as geo-economic aspects.
Later, the economic booming and shift of global political power game to Asia has made it viable of Russian tilt towards the region. Russia then pursued the “Pivot to the East” policy after being alienated from the West following the Ukraine crisis.
The policy shift has revamped Russian strategic and geopolitical thinking which includes the Bay of Bengal as a fulcrum in reaching geopolitical power game and at balancing U.S. dominance in the region at the same time.
Apart from that, Russia has been cold on the enunciation of “QUAD” and “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. These also have made Russia
pursuing a constructive engagement policy in the region. The case of Afghanistan and geopolitical pivot of Myanmar along with the huge arms market there are the chokepoints of increased engagement along the shores of the Bay of Bengal.
The Bay of Bengal is fast becoming a key area of economic and strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. The region’s strategic centrality, just as much as its good economic prospects, drives the unprecedented jostle for influence by the major powers, including China, India, Japan, the United States and even Russia.
Moreover, the geopolitical race aligning the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Indian Eastern Economic Corridor, Japanese Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and Quadrilateral security postulation all have made the BoB as the geostrategic and geopolitical power center.
Against this backdrop, Russian advancement of deeper engagement in the region under the flagship policy of “Pivot to the East”
has been visible in recent years. Russia supplies military gear to more than 70% of India’s armed forces, though it has been reduced to a considerable manner.
It opposes India’s support for Washington’s concept of the Indo-Pacific and its membership of the Quad. Notably, Russia’s
silence on China’s hawkishness in the Indo-Pacific works against India’s interests. Significantly post-Soviet Russia, like its partner China, is also a global power.
Defining interests Russia is interested to maintain its global geopolitical and geo-economics preeminence. Commercial and geopolitical interests explain Russia’s interest in the Bay of Bengal through thumping its entente with Pakistan, alignment with India and Myanmar, cooperation in energy sectors in the countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Notably, the increasing demand of energy detonated with the marine economy and natural resources is one of the causes of
deepening Russian engagement in the Bay of Bengal. The thriving trade routes of BoB connecting ports, cities, bays, seas and ocean have been a chokepoint to further economic imperatives.
The routes and connectivity of the Bay of Bengal could have a transformative impact on the region and quite possibly on the entire Indo-Pacific. Russia has calculated these amenities and thus made her policy choices in the region.
Traditionally, bilateral trade relations between Russia and Asian states have been dominated by energy and defense sector. Predominantly, Russian exports of energy and defence equipment to the Bay of Bengal region has been prominent. India imports about 12% of its petroleum from Russian and Myanmar and Pakistan are also the important partners of the energy trade.
Moreover, as the littoral states of the region are thriving in pursuing industrialization and economic growth, the growing needs of energy consumption may be a blessing for Russian energy sector. Bangladesh, for instance, has developed its LNG terminal and Thailand and India also import a considerable volume of LNG.
Russian presence in the defence market of the littoral states of the BoB region is remarkable. Theregion has been characterized by rivalries, competition centering mainly on Indo-Pakistan arms race, Russia traditionally has been one of the top suppliers of arms of the regional countries.
India itself imports about 56% of her arms from Russia, accounts for 9.2% of the global share.Pakistan imports 5.7% arms from Russia and Russia scores 2nd position in Myanmar arms marketonly after China. Moreover, the military spending in the littoral countries of the BoB has increased remarkably accounting about 6.4% of the global spending.
Russian attempt to contain the Pax Americana’s advancements, hinges on the following pillars:
a)making alliance with China and like-minded countries,
b) conforming with anti-American initiatives like Chinese-led BRI,
c) mainstreaming Russian energy superiority as a route todiminish the dependency of the countries of the region on US security umbrella,
d) capitalizing the institutional arrangement against US influence .i.e. granting membership of India and
Pakistan in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and
e) maintaining active presence in the region securing arms market.
Russian presence in Myanmar, interests in China-Pakistan economic corridor, intention of cooperation in energy sectors in the blue economic resources in the Bay of Bengal has been motivated, to a considerable manner, by balancing American
Implications First, the growing presence of Russia in the BoB may enrage the strategic rivalry which has already been sour in the region. Amid the great power competition over the strategic resources in the BoB littoral states the Russian balancing strategy may push strain on geo-strategic resources resulting in formation and reformation of alliance configuration in South Asia.
For instance, Russian navy carried out a range of complex maritime operations with Indian navy on September 2020 as part of a mega military exercise in the Bay of Bengal to further enhance their operational convergence in reaching the deepening strategic relations in new height.
The military exercise, in this backdrop bears a significant weight as Russia itself intends a stronghold in the region
making a counterweight against the US influence. Russian strategic outlines in the Bay of Bengal littoral regions clearly stipulate her core geo-strategic balancing plan of actions against US’s strategic blueprint.
To be noted, the naval exercises between Russia and India came only after the joint military exercise of India and USA in July of that year. It signals the possibility contentious strategic competition in the BoB waters.
The Bay of Bengal has been marked by the strenuous competition among the regional and global powers. The Russian moves along its shore may turn into violent contention as India, China, Japan and USA are trying to exert their influences here vying through their respective policy maneuvers.
On the other hand, some claim that the Russian engagement in the BoB may provide alternative scope of balancing and hedging
with traditional powers and thus may create geopolitical stability amid the competition. From economic point of view, the littoral countries of the BoB are experiencing rapid growth with the development of their socio-economic conditions. Any aberration in the pace may create a havoc to their transition when there are rivalries over the geo-economic resources.
Moreover, economic competition brings out political race. The Russian moves in the BoB, as we have seenin the last decade, may have impacts on the current pace of accelerated regional and sub-regional cooperation boosted by connectivity and communication.
Moreover, the rising economies in the region may face strategic dilemma in deciding their position, though the multiple powers may
produce multiple options there, which in turn may affect the economic autonomy including the implications for FDI inflows and trade relations. On the other hand, Russian presence in the BoB may also strengthen bargaining strengths of BoB littoral states vis-à-vis major competing economic powers such as China, India, Japan, USA and EU.
Bangladesh The implications for Bangladesh seem to be the more strenuous than others. Moscow is set to be a strong competitor to Washington in its aspiration of getting a foothold on Bangladesh’s energy +reserves, when US-Bangladesh bilateral defense relationship is currently one of the most robust in South Asia which results in cooperation in counterterrorism, naval exercise and bilateral ties in areas of climate vulnerability.
The focus of the last visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Moscow in 2013 (which was the first visit by a Bangladeshi Prime Minister in 40 years) was on energy and arms purchase. Russia is investing heavily to finance its arms exports, as well as to build the first nuclear reactor in Bangladesh. It can be noted that the recent US emphasis on getting Bangladesh into the Indo-Pacific Strategy is the stipulation of American concern of Russian growing foot in Bangladesh.
Apart from these, the rising powers in the BoB waters may have significant consequences for the littoral states. From economic autonomy to strategic stability, all the core areas of the offshore countries may face the effects. The “great game” in Rakhine, the port entanglement of Sri Lanka and Pakistan are the instances of the great power competition in the BoB region, to some extent.
In concluding remarks, it cannot be an exaggeration to claim that the Russian entrance into the Bay of Bengal will certainly intensify competition among the regional and extra-regional powers. It may create threats to the regional stability when specially the littoral countries are enjoying rapid economic growth and draining FDI inflows in pacing up their socio-economic
Amid the geopolitical and strategic competition, the Russian “Pivot to East” policy may add strenuous rivalry in the waters which may have invoke geo-economic race in grabbing and extracting the offshore hydro carbon resources and marine economic assets. The littoral states like Bangladesh may face strategic and political dilemma in balancing and hedging the rising great power competition and may fall into geopolitical oblivion resulting in loss of policy autonomy.
Contrarily, there is an opposite aspect of this bleak reality for regional rivalry and competition. Russia could rather provide a balancing strategy that may rather stabilize the security scenarios and create opportunities for economic development. Russia’s role may be perceived as a balancer in the Bay of Bengal. Hence, opportunities for Bangladesh also lie in this scenario. Bangladesh
must learn its own lessons from this evolving geopolitical great game and economic development paradox