Importance of top Russian General Oleg Salyukov’s visit to Sri Lanka
The five-day visit of General Oleg Salyukov, Commander-in-Chief of the Land Forces of the Russian Federation to Sri Lanka which began on Monday, is very significant in the context of the developing geo-political situation in the Indian Ocean Region.
The most important factor is the Russian opposition to the determined effort of the US and Japan to keep the Chinese out of the Indo-Pacific region, which includes the Indian Ocean.
The US-EU bid to woo or arm twist the Sri Lankan government into accepting their designs and tactics in regard to the Indian Ocean Region arises from the island nation’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean bang on the West-East shipping route. In this context, Russia too feels compelled to woo Sri Lanka and use its leverage over it to prevent the West from hijacking the strategically located island to serve its interests exclusively.
Russia’s displeasure with the West’s design was expressed succinctly by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovat the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in January. He said: “Why do you need to call Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific? The answer is evident — to exclude China. Terminology should be unifying, not divisive.”
On firmer ground in Lanka
Russia is on firmer ground in Sri Lanka than the US and the West. Russia has a long and uninterrupted history of friendship and civil and military cooperation with Sri Lanka unlike the West. In the Lankan view, an unsavory British imperialism had been replaced by an even more unsavory US meddling in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. On the contrary, the Soviet Union (or Russia) has been friendly for a very long period especially during the leftist regimes of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
While the West refused to sell arms to Sri Lanka during the latter’s fight against Tamil separatism and terrorism, and while the West harried Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council, Russia stood four square behind Sri Lanka in the UN and supplied it with much needed arms to fight the Tamil Tigers.
The continued importance of Russia to Sri Lanka and vice versa was evident in the statement issued by the Lankan army to welcome Gen. Salyukov, He was described as a “special distinguished guest”, a term not used for other foreign visitors of the same rank. Gen. Salyukov participated in the 72nd National Day celebration on Tuesday.
Russo-Lankan military ties
Russia and Sri Lanka have of late been strengthening their military ties, as a follow up to the critical role Russian equipment had played during the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV which saw the annihilation of the Tamil Tigers as a military outfit.
In August 2019, the then Commander of the Sri Lankan Army Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, had made a very fruitful visit to Russia. A Sri Lankan army release at the time said that during Gen. Senanayake’s meeting with Gen. Salyukov, Sri Lanka was assured of an increased number of places in Russian military institutions in 2020. The release described this assurance as “a milestone opening and a fillip to the Sri Lanka Army for the first time in history.”Russia had also assured reservation for Lankan officers in the “prestigious” Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia.
Gen. Senanayake briefed his Russian counterpart about the then prevailing security concerns in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the April 21 Easter Sunday terrorist bombings. Both of them agreed to fight the “the enemy within the population, yet unidentifiable and invisible”.
Gen. Senanayake requested the Russian Land Forces Commander to formulate a study program that would help understand the ways and means adopted by the Russian military in their counter terrorist operations. This would further widen the knowledge and capability of Sri Lankan troops who had experience in crushing one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world before May 2009, the Lankan General said.
Gen. Senanayake sought assistance to train Sri Lankan troops in the field of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Operations (CBRN) and Cyber warfare, and assistance to renovate the Russia-produced armored vehicles.
The Russian Land Force Commander assured that the Lankan Army would “always be within the focus of Russia.” He further said that there are plans to send Russian Military Instructors to train Sri Lankan military troops in the fields of Cyber Security, Information Technology, and Counter Terrorism.
The Russian government said that it would extend an invitation to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to participate in six multinational military exercises, scheduled in the future as “gestures of goodwill and understanding that have thrived for generations.”Gen. Senanayake requested his Russian counterpart to send observers to Sri Lanka-organized multinational military exercises.
Sergey Lavrov’s visit
In mid-January 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Sri Lanka for two days along with a 42-member delegation. Speaking at a joint press conference with Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Lavrov said: “We are ready to continue to provide the Sri Lankan forces with all the weapons they need for security.” He noted that Russia and Sri Lanka are cooperating in the UN and assured that Russia would continue to support Sri Lanka in the UN and other international forums.
“We thank Sri Lanka for its support to Russia's proposals at international organizations including the UN. We support the implementation of the proposals put forward by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to normalize the country,” Lavrov said. In reply Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said: “We thank Russia for supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.”
Lavrovhad learnt Sinhala at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations before he was posted in Colombo in 1972 as a Counselor. His proficiency in the Sinhala and English languages had made him a keen observer of Sri Lankan politics.
During his 2009 visit to Colombo, Lavrov “pledged” that Moscow will support and stand by Sri Lanka in the event the international community takes steps to charge the island nation with war crimes. Moscow kept its word. It was during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Moscow in 2010, that Russia extended a credit line of US$ 300 million to purchase armaments and dual-purpose technology for the Sri Lanka’s military.
Land Forces General, Oleg Salyukov’s current visit to Sri Lanka has to be seen in the context of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement after Gotabaya Rajapaksa took over as Lankan President in November 2019. Pompeo had hinted that the US could seriously re-open “human rights” issues and “promote good governance and justice.” He reminded Colombo that the US wanted the Lankan government’s cooperation in “fostering a free and open Indo-Pacific region”.
It was clear that the US wanted Sri Lanka to toe its political and anti-China strategic line, a line which would be very difficult, nay, politically suicidal, for the Gotabaya regime.
The Trump administration has been wanting the Gotabaya government to sign on the dotted line on two controversial agreements: Firstly, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which will enable the US to station its troops in Lanka and have US laws to govern them; and Secondly, the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s US$ 480 million grant, a part of which will go into land administration and land reform.
While SOFA will not be accepted, the MCC has been referred to a Presidential committee for detailed examination. Since land alienation to private parties (foreigners included), is a political hot potato, the MCC will be subjected to a referendum also, the government has said.
If the US continues to mount pressure on Sri Lanka on these issues which are of strategic and economic interest to the US but are politically dangerous for the Sri Lankan government, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime will have no option but to distance itself from the West and lean more and more on Russia and China.