On February 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry's spokesperson, the blonde, statuesque Maria Zakharova, used a segue during her weekly media briefing to address Moscow's ties to Dhaka, specifically how they are now being strained under pressure from Washington, in the year since Russia commenced its so-called 'military operation' in Ukraine:

"In an attempt to do as much damage as possible to Russia, the United States is increasingly forcing neutral countries to comply with anti-Russian sanctions," Zakharova began, after a long tirade against Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskyy.

"We have already talked about this (see briefing of February 1) and we are ready to cite another instance. We have learned that several dozen Russian vessels have been banned from calling at the ports of Bangladesh. We know that this unfriendly step was taken by the country's authorities not at all on their own initiative but under the threat of secondary sanctions by the United States. Here is another example of this intimidation," the spokesperson said.

Indeed, on February 1, Zakharova had cited the example of Bangladesh denying a berth to a Russian-flagged vessel carrying cargo for the under-construction Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (the Sparta III/Ursula Major incident in late December) as an example of 'forced solidarity' with the US.

Last Friday though, she was prepared to go further by addressing Bangladesh more directly on the issue:

"We regret that this is not the first time that Dhaka has succumbed to Washington's relentless pressure. By giving in to outright blackmail, it risks making the future of traditionally friendly Russia-Bangladesh relations contingent on the whims of a third country pursuing its own geopolitical goals," Zakharova added. Before she was done, she also chose to address the country's leadership more directly, undoubtedly invoking the memories of 1971 and the Liberation War.

"We expect the leadership of Bangladesh to find the strength to assert its national interests more resolutely. It is undoubtedly in their interest to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with Russia, which has come to the country's aid more than once in different periods of its history," she concluded.

Zakharova's comments that day were not reported in Bangladesh somehow, and they really only took on a new layer of significance with the news a few days later (Tuesday, Feb. 21) that the Bangladeshi ambassador in Moscow had been summoned by the Russian MFA over the same issue.

The Ursula Major incident

It was at the fag end of December that we learned a sanctioned Russian ship Sparta III (Ursa Major) had been scheduled to dock at Mongla Port in the southwestern part of the country on December 24, and unload cargo destined for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Pabna. But the authorities had denied the ship permission to dock at the port after officials got a letter from the US Embassy in Dhaka alerting them that the ship was on a list of Russian ships sanctioned by the US. Any entity engaging in a working relationship with the vessel, therefore, risked inviting US secondary sanctions, that tend to punish 'guilt by association', if you like.

Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has been one of the leading voices on the international stage expressing scepticism over the vast web of sanctions routinely wielded by the US. But her government was nevertheless forced to accept the reality that there was nothing to be gained from greater prominence on the US sanctions list maintained by the country's Treasury department, or the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC): as it is, her government was struggling to shake off some of the reputational damage it had incurred a year back, with the announcement of the first ever sanctions against Bangladeshi persons or organisations.

There was also a series of engagements planned with the US government at various levels over the following weeks and months, and Dhaka was truly optimistic about using the opportunity to not just set a better course for continued future cooperation with the US, but also for a shot at having the sanctions lifted. The latter is likely to have been simply misplaced due to unfamiliarity with the procedural issues underlying a sanctions regime. Otherwise we may have seen a far more mature and assured disposition from our Foreign Service pros, past and present. Instead of the despairing pleas and clueless queries we've encountered, whenever someone from the US government has exited the gates of Shah Jalal Airport International Airport.

Arguably the most consequential of these figures, the assistant secretary of state for the region Donald Lu, who was in Dhaka not long after the Ursula Major had been turned away, reflected on the incident not by patting the government on the back, but rather 'praying' that Bangladesh 'can avoid secondary sanctions'. Outwardly of course, Washington never likes to disclose its courtship, or its coaxing, or even its arm-twisting of foreign governments when it looks to build alliances. The implication here was quite clear: any violation of sanction parameters would invite penalties that even Lu wouldn't be able to prevent. Comply, and you'll be safe.

It was only after his visit wrapped up that we saw the Foreign Ministry draw up an advance list of the Russian vessels under US sanctions. Soon after he left, the Ministry provided a list of 90 banned large cargo ships to the Shipping Ministry so that it could stop the ships from entering the ports in Bangladesh. These vessels are subject to US and UN sanctions. Later the list was whittled down to the 69 facing US sanctions. The UN doesn't impose secondary sanctions.

Having the list to hand can hopefully avoid the kind of embarrassing situation that developed over the Ursula Major. The fact of the matter is that when it departed St Petersburg in November 2022, Bangladesh gave permission to the cargo ship to come and dock at Mongla, as there was no information about the ban in its possession. Even though the full list is publicly available on various US government websites, and has been since the start of the Ukraine War, possibly longer. Russia had sent a letter in October asking for permission for the ship to arrive at Mongla port.

About a week after Lu left, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen said Bangladesh will not allow Russian ships which are under sanctions to dock, noting that "Bangladesh has developed a good relationship with the United States of America."

They had accordingly conveyed to the Russian side that they can send equipment for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant on any ship except the sanctioned 69. The sanctioned Russian vessels will not be able to bring in shipments of imports, stop for fuelling, anchor in the area, or even use sea routes. Notices have been sent to the relevant ministries, agencies, ports, shipping services, and international organisations regarding the new restrictions.

It was this ban that Zakharova was reacting to in her last briefing on February 17, following the Russian state news agency TASS's reporting on the ban. However Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy agency that is contracted to build the Rooppur plant, has been very cooperative, and moved to provide assurances that the project will remain unaffected. Construction of the Rooppur nuclear power plant (NPP) in Bangladesh is on schedule and cargo is being delivered there using an alternative route, the press service of Rosatom nuclear corporation said on February 14.

"Construction of the NPP continues in accordance with the current schedule," the Russian state-run corporation said. "An alternative route for the delivery of cargo to the Rooppur NPP worksite has been found and is being utilised at the moment," Rosatom said.

Regional mass media reported earlier that Bangladesh had joined US and EU sanctions against Russian vessels and banned dozens of Russian ships from calling its ports. But this needs to be cleared up: Bangladesh has not 'joined' US and EU sanctions. Rather its actions are dictated by a desire to avoid secondary sanctions.

The actions of the Bangladeshi authorities will not affect the construction of the nuclear power plant, Rosatom told TASS. "We are unaware of the causes and problems of vessels you have mentioned. As regards deliveries of equipment for the NPP, we have a single case when a logistical company delivering cargo to Bangladesh faced a restriction when calling the port," the corporation added.

Balancing Act

On Friday, Bangladesh was among 32 countries that refrained from voting as the United Nations adopted a General Assembly resolution condemning Russia's attack on Ukraine and urging the immediate withdrawal of troops after ending the war.

The resolution was adopted with 141 votes at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, the eve of the first anniversary of the war between the two countries.

Six countries joined Russia to vote no -- Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua and Syria. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Cuba, Congo, Armenia and Vietnam also abstained from the vote. Three South Asian countries -- Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan -- voted in favour of the resolution.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022, Bangladesh has voted for only one of the four resolutions adopted by the UN. It refrained from voting for the other three.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the vote was more evidence that not only the West backs his country.

"This vote defies the argument that the global south does not stand on Ukraine's side," Kuleba said. "Many countries representing Latin America, Africa, Asia voted in favour."

The General Assembly has become the most important U.N. body dealing with Ukraine because the Security Council, which is charged with maintaining international peace and security, is paralyzed by Russia's veto power. General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, unlike Security Council resolutions, but serve as a barometer of world opinion.

'No adverse impacts'

Bangladesh has said it does not think that there will be any adverse impact on Bangladesh-Russia existing friendly relations over a single issue, noting that the two countries are working jointly on many fronts.

"Russia is Bangladesh's tested and long term friend with its special role during Bangladesh's War of Liberation. We are working jointly on many areas. Our understanding is so good that we don't think a single issue will adversely impact the existing bilateral and friendly relations," said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Seheli Sabrin.

She said the issue related to barring a sanctioned ship into Bangladesh was a six-week old issue but the Bangladesh Ambassador was called to the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 21.

The Spokesperson said Bangladesh is maintaining good relations with all the countries as it is a trade-dependent country.

Bangladesh earlier sought a detailed report from its ambassador in Moscow to know what exactly was discussed with the Russian foreign ministry.

Bangladesh Ambassador to Russia Kamrul Ahsan was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry following Bangladesh's decision to ban Russian ships from calling at Bangladeshi ports, reported Russia's state-owned news agency TASS on February 21.

"We drew the attention of the head of the diplomatic mission to the reports about the decision of his country's authorities to ban US-sanctioned Russian ships carrying cargoes for Bangladesh from calling at Bangladeshi ports," the Russian agency reported quoting the Russian foreign ministry.

"This step runs counter to the traditionally friendly character of bilateral relations and can have a negative effect on the prospects for our cooperation in various spheres."

Last week, the Russian Embassy in Dhaka told TASS that 69 Russian ships (sanctioned) had been barred from calling at Bangladeshi ports.

However, according to the embassy, this step did not mean that Bangladesh had banned imports of Russian goods.

Later, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Bangladesh had made this decision under the threat of US secondary sanctions, according to a TASS report.

In January, Bangladesh told the Russian side that they could send any ship, except the sanctioned ones, carrying equipment for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

Bangladesh hoped that Russia would now send non-sanctioned ships carrying the required materials.

In view of the government's directive not to allow 69 mother vessels of 7 banned Russian companies to enter the port of Bangladesh, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia invited Ambassador Kamrul Ahsan for a discussion on February 21.

At the meeting, the Russian side requested Bangladesh to take into account the historical friendly relations between Bangladesh and Russia in taking various steps.

The Ambassador also requested to convey the concern of Russia to the concerned authorities of Bangladesh.

During the discussion, the Ambassador highlighted the economic slowdown caused by the Corona and Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Besides, he also highlighted the position of Bangladesh in relation to the government's directive not to allow 69 Russian mother vessels to enter the port of Bangladesh.

Additional reporting by AKM Moinuddin

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