Russians are coming — to the Indian Ocean

The 500-ft guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut (file photo) was involved in an incident with a Russian navy ship in “northern Arabian Sea” on January 9, 2020.

The Cold-War hypothesis that the Soviet Union was hoping to “wet its toes” in the Indian Ocean was in reality an extension of the geopolitical construct known as the “Anglo-Russian Question” that was written about by Lord Curzon, onetime viceroy of British India (1899-1905). We now know that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was due to force of circumstances rather than as strategy. 

But Russia may now be coming to the Indian Ocean as a matter of strategy in response to the massive push by the US built on the policy of military strength. President Trump frequently affirms his faith in the goals of military hegemony. Recently in his speech on Iran on January 8, Trump disclosed his intention to bring the North Atlantic Organisation (NATO) into “the Middle East process”.  

Russia cannot but take note, considering that the NATO’s London Declaration of 4th December singled out Russia’s “aggressive actions” as a key template of “distinct threats and challenges emanating from all strategic directions” for the West.  

By January 10, two days after Trump spoke, a NATO delegation was already in Washington “to discuss increasing NATO’s role in Iraq, in line with the President’s desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defence efforts,” according to the state department readout.  

On the same day, Washington also introduced into the joint statement issued after the Italy-US Strategic Dialogue in Rome that the “areas of partnership” between the two allies now also pertains to “supporting security and defence cooperation in the Mediterranean region, including enhanced NATO engagement in the region and with the countries in the Sahel.” 

On January 12, unusually for a Sunday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to his Turkish counterpart Mavlut Cavusoglu to discuss the “developments in the Middle East” and to reiterate in particular “the need for NATO to play a greater role in the region”. Clearly, Trump didn’t speak out of the blue. There is a NATO project under implementation across the Middle East and North Africa.     

In recent years, Russia consolidated its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with an entente with Turkey — especially with their latest joint move to stabilise Libya in addition to their close coordination over Syria. Equally, Russia’s bases in Syria, apart from its wide-ranging relations in the Middle East cutting across political and sectarian divides, has raised Moscow’s profile as an influential power broker in the region. 

But its Achilles heel is the Indian Ocean where Russia has kept only episodic presence. Indeed, there are signs of late of Russia taking renewed interest in the Indian Ocean. In late November, Russia and China held their first trilateral naval exercise with South Africa. A month later, they had a similar exercise jointly with Iran. 

Hardly a fortnight after that, Russian and US ships angrily glared at each other somewhere in “northern Arabian Sea”. The US Fifth Fleet alleged that on January 9, a Russian Navy ship (presumably spy ship) “aggressively approached” USS Farragut, a 510-foot guided missile destroyer, which was “conducting routine operations in the North Arabian Sea”. 

The Russian Ministry of Defence blasted the US allegation saying that “in an intentional violation of international regulations of safety of navigation,” the US destroyer “crossed traffic lane of the Russian Navy ship”. 

Given this backdrop, the “working visit” to Colombo on January 14 by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assumes importance. The visit comes at a time when the US is again active in UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva blaming Sri Lanka of war crimes and violation of human rights with a view to stepping up pressure on Colombo to get into its “Indo-Pacific” bandwagon, which is directed against China. 

Sri Lanka has traditionally counted on Russia and China to oppose the western resolutions at the UNHRC. Lavrov will reiterate Moscow’s pledge to block the forthcoming US attempts in February-March to arm-twist Colombo. 

The signing of the Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement (ACSA) with the US in 2017 by the previous pro-western government in Colombo signified a setback to Russian (and Chinese) diplomacy. On the other hand, the US is currently pressuring Colombo to sign a Status of Forces Agreement and the Millennium Challenge Compact agreement, which would provide legal basis for bringing American military personnel on the island to advance Pentagon’s plan to dominate the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. 

No doubt, Sri Lanka figures today as a pivotal state in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. By a curious coincidence, the US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells as well as the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will also be in Colombo on January 13-14.

It becomes more crucial than ever today for Russia and China that Sri Lanka retains its strategic autonomy and independent foreign policies. Moscow and Beijing can be expected to coordinate their moves in this regard. 

Strong political and diplomatic support by these two big powers at the bilateral and multilateral level would create space for Colombo to ward off the US pressures. Russia also has defence ties with Sri Lanka, including sale of weapons, which it will be keen to develop. 

Above all, Lavrov himself is an old Sri Lanka hand, having begun his diplomatic career in Colombo in 1972. Both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa know him well. Above all, Lavrov’s words carry conviction, given the rock solid support Moscow extended during the LTTE war. 

In contrast, if Iraq’s current plight is anything to go by, once the Americans set up shop on Sri Lankan soil, it will be impossible for Colombo to ever evict them. Trump is now threatening Iraq that it risks losing access to a critical government bank account if Baghdad kicks out American forces. 

To quote from Wall Street Journal, “The State Department warned that the U.S. could shut down Iraq’s access to the country’s central bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a move that could jolt Iraq’s already shaky economy, the officials said.”

“Iraq, like other countries, maintains government accounts at the New York Fed as an important part of managing the country’s finances, including revenue from oil sales. Loss of access to the accounts could restrict Iraq’s use of that revenue, creating a cash crunch in Iraq’s financial system and constricting a critical lubricant for the economy.” 

Read an excellent analysis by two well-known US commentators titled Has the Trump Administration Now Launched a ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign Against Iraq?