Bangladesh ambassador to Russia Kamrul Ahsan

There was no recent precedent of Russia’s foreign ministry summoning an ambassador of Bangladesh to the country. That’s why many people were astounded when Russian news agency TASS on Tuesday carried a report that said Dhaka’s ambassador to Moscow, Kamrul Ahsan, was summoned.

The ambassador was summoned as Russian ship, Ursa Major, was not allowed to dock at Bangladeshi ports. Bangladesh forbade the ship, which was carrying materials for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, to dock as it is under the sanctions by the US. The ship was set to dock at Mongla port on 24 December last year.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko summoned Bangladesh ambassador to Russia, Kamrul Ahsan, at his office on Tuesday afternoon (Moscow time). Without mincing words, Rudenko informed Kamrul Ahsan about the Russian government’s discontents.

In the almost half-an-hour discussion Andrey Rudenko said the news that Bangladesh did not allow unloading of goods Ursa Major was carrying was published late in Russian media. The Russian government has been facing questions from people since the publication of the report. The cordial friendly relationship between the two countries has also been questioned, especially after the way Soviet Russia supported Bangladesh in the tumultuous days in 1971. Dhaka-Moscow relation carries a special significance to the people of Russia since the beginning of Bangladesh. But Russia considers that not allowing Ursa Major to enter Bangladesh is a deviation from the historic relation.

Rudenko remarked that Bangladesh behaved with tested friend Russia that way at the influence of the US.

The Bangladesh side said there is a continuous pressure on the country from the US and other western powers since the beginning of Ukraine war. They are desperate to include Bangladesh in their side. Despite this Bangladesh have been retaining its neutral position.

At this Andrey Rudenko said that there is an apprehension of negative effect on the historic relation between the two countries due to Bangladesh’s step regarding the Russian ship. The whole issue has made Russia thoughtful. He requested the ambassador to inform the matter to Dhaka.

An analysis of Russia’s stance on summoning the Bangladesh ambassador reveals that the impact of cold war between the US and Russia is clear since the beginning of Ukraine war. Bangladesh decided not to allow the ship considering its own interests as the country also faces the risk of punishment if it allows docking a ship that is on the list of the US sanctions. But Russia’s deputy foreign minister more than once told the Bangladesh ambassador on Tuesday that the US influenced Bangladesh taking the decision.

Many might ponder whether Russia has changed its tone just in two months of its war of words with the US in support of Bangladesh? In general Russia does not talk about other countries' democracy or human rights issues. But that Russia was seen different in December last year. The country sternly criticised the US at least thrice through statement, tweet and in regular media briefing from Moscow since 20 December. It seemed the ongoing cold war situation between the two superpowers centring Ukraine have spilled over to Dhaka.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko

But the time and reason of Russia’s voicing against the US also has to be considered. Russia issued a statement criticising the visit of US ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas to the house of a missing leader of opposition BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) in Shaheenbagh, Dhaka on 20 December. Though that statement did not mention about the Shaheenbagh incident, Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova on 22 December in Moscow said the US ambassador has continuously been trying to interfere in the internal issues of Bangladesh in the name of ensuring rights of the people of that country.

When Russia issued a statement on 20 December afternoon, Ursa Major started its journey for Bangladesh after unloading goods at Cochin port in India. Earlier in the morning of the same day (20 December), US embassy in Dhaka in a diplomatic letter to the foreign ministry said that Ursa Major is actually Sparta-3, which is on the list of US sanctions. Though the name and colour of the ship has been changed, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued certificate number of the ship is 9538892, which is actually the IMO certificate number of Sparta-3. There would be risks of US sanctions or financial penalty if any country loads or unloads goods from that ship, supplies fuel to it or lend any kind of assistance to the crews of the ship.

On the other hand, the Russian embassy in Dhaka sent two letters to the foreign ministry on 20 and 22 December. In both the letters, the embassy requested the ministry to allow the ship enter Bangladesh maritime boundary. The letter the Russian embassy sent on 22 December also mentioned that it might affect the bilateral relation if Bangladesh does not allow enter the ship. On that afternoon, the Russian ambassador to Bangladesh Aleksandr Mantytsky was summoned at the office of foreign ministry’s maritime affairs unit secretary Md Khurshed Alam. He was informed that Bangladesh will not allow the ship to dock.

Later, Aleksandr Mantytsky met with the different levels of the government in Dhaka seeking permission for docking of Ursa Major but failed. At a stage, it was told from the Russian side that goods from the ship will be unloaded at Haldia port in India and sent to Bangladesh from there. All this time the ship was anchored in the Bay of Bengal near India’s state of West Bengal.

Amid this situation, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu came to visit Bangladesh via India in January. The senior US diplomat then said Ursa Major won’t be allowed to dock in Indian maritime boundary as well. Though it unloaded goods at Cochin port in December, this time the ship won’t be allowed to enter Haldia port. Donald Lu also informed the ministry that the decision was taken after discussion with the Indian foreign ministry.

At the time of Donald Lu’s leaving Bangladesh, the Russian ship also left the Indian maritime boundary towards the deeper part of the Bay of Bengal. Lu left Dhaka for Washington on the night of 15 January.

Generally India does not follow any decision of sanctions except that of the United Nations. Several Russian ships that have been sanctioned by the US since the beginning of Ukraine war unloaded goods at Indian ports. The exception was the Ursa Major. This suggests geopolitics was the reason of Russia’s statement, tweet, and briefing against the US centring Bangladesh in December. For the time being the US has won as Ursa Major could not dock neither in Bangladesh nor India. But Russia has threatened Bangladesh that the incident could affect the bilateral relation. Only time can say what would be the result.

* The analysis has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza