Relations Between Sri Lanka and Russia: Cooperation or Friendship?

Sri Lanka, as a non-aligned nation state, is maintaining a collaborative, free and progressive foreign policy.In this setting, the relationship between Sri Lanka and the former Soviet Union, as well as the present-day Federation of Russia, has been cordial and friendly since 1956.

The continuation of friendly ties between Russian and Sri Lanka has once more been witnessed with the invitation for a state visit extended to President Maithripala Sirisena. This honour made President Sirisena the first Sri Lankan President to be invited on a state visit to Russia. President Sirisena will make this visit while marking a historic moment in diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The beginning of Relations

A period of transition (1956-60) in Sri Lankan politics began during the tenure of former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike with a policy of neutrality in international affairs. Prime Minister Bandaranaike realised that the Soviet leaders showed interest in emerging neutralist nation states through a new dimension which comprised trade and aid programs. Therefore Prime Minister Bandaranaike conducted international relations with a perspective of being ‘friendly with all’ from the Soviet bloc. This important step laid the foundation to create cooperative and friendly relations between the two state actors.
Afterwards, the two respective governments found a relevant trajectory to drive forward mutually important foreign affairs, economic affairs and technical relations. For example, the Soviet Union granted Rs. 120 million as economic aid to Sri Lanka while providing technical assistance for the Colombo Plan.3 Moreover, total foreign aid from the Soviet Union amounted to Rs. 355.9 million while capitalist states only granted Rs. 195.9 million.4 Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s non-aligned and neutral foreign policy approach, along with the pro-socialist perspective, created a new chapter in Sri Lankan foreign policy evolution.

After the assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike entered politics (1960-64) with the political influence of her husband. Even though she was a newcomer to politics, she became adept at handling both national and international affairs as a Prime Minister.

Specifically, at the United Nations’ roll-calls sessions, during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Sri Lanka had clearly indicated its total partiality towards the Soviet bloc. Moreover, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s economic policy also signified its attachment to Socialist strings. As a result of her pro-socialist tendencies, most foreign bilateral relations took place with the Soviet Union. For instance, a bilateral trade agreement with the Soviet Union was signed in 1970 (during her second tenure in power from 1970-76). Moreover, a bilateral export trade agreement (mainly for tea and rubber) and import trade agreement were also brokered.

The cordial relationship between Sri Lanka and the Soviet Union has existed in non-economic fields as well. According to the joint Sri Lanka-Soviet Communiqué (1963), both nations tied up for the “usefulness of the expansion of cultural relations, the exchange of scientific information, the strengthening of the contacts between specialists, working in the field of science, culture, education and health”.5 Such examples are the air transport agreement of 1964 and aid and assistance agreement of 1965. 
Apart from these agreements, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s high-level diplomatic visits to the Soviet Union in 1963 and 1974 also revealed the enhanced foreign relations between the two nations.

With the end of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure in 1976, friendly and cordial relations between Sri Lanka and the Soviet Union continued under President J.R. Jayewardene. There were economic and cultural agreements which were inked during his presidential tenure e.g. the trade and economic agreement in 1977, shipping agreement in 1982 and cultural agreement in 1982.

The revival of Sri Lanka-Russia (after the 1990 Belavezha accord, the Soviet Union was renamed the Federation of Russia) relations emerged during the presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (1995-2004).

Similar to her parent’s foreign policy, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga also maintained cordial foreign relations with Russia. During this period special focus was given to bilateral trade agreements which helped boost the Sri Lankan economic sector. For example, import and export trade relations between the two nation states were established. 

On the export side, Russia has become one of Sri Lanka’s major tea buyers while also becoming a strategic import trade partner for the country. Gradually these economic trends have increased the national economic growth rate and have also become a reason to promote the national export industry abroad.
‘Sri Lanka Week 96’,6 a fair and exhibition staged by Sri Lanka in Moscow, was deeply focused on trade and tourism so as to promote the national trade and tourism industry abroad. This fair has opened economically beneficial opportunities for Sri Lankan traders to step into a trade contract with the Russian Government for garments, tea, precious and semi-precious stones.7 On the other hand, Sri Lanka has participated in exhibitions organised by the Russian Government, with the anticipation of strengthening economic ties between Colombo and Moscow. 

Beyond the economic sphere, the science, technology, defence, agriculture, culture and education domains were also touched by the two governments’ bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding (MOU). Instances of this are the agreement on cultural and scientific exchange in 1999, the agreement on defence in 2001, the agreement on defence in the field of military-technical cooperation in 2003 and the Memorandum of Understanding for assistance for the Sri Lankan agriculture sector.8 

On the education front, President Kumaratunga’s Government has maintained student exchange programs and granted scholarships to local students to strengthen the respective relationship.

This period was marked by a historic incident when the second high-level diplomatic visit to Russia occurred in 2004. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s Foreign Affairs Minister was able to visit Russia, following on from former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The visit served to strengthen bilateral ties. For instance, subsequent to it the Russian Government assisted Sri Lanka with oil drilling in the Mannar basin.9 This economically beneficial opportunity has paved the way to deal with leading Russian oil and gas company, Gazprom. The same project was also continued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

However, the pro-socialist foreign affairs approach, which was adopted by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, laid a stable foundation for the expansion and strengthening of cooperative foreign relations with a friendly Russia. All these mutual commitments have eventually resulted in creating a close foreign relationship between Sri Lanka and Russia.

During critical times

Sri Lanka-Russia friendly ties have also existed during the critical periods confronted by Sri Lanka. During Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, Russia functioned as a close friend. 

“… the Sri Lankan Army is equipped with substantial numbers of soviet designed small arms, artillery and armored vehicles.”10 Moreover, the Sri Lankan Air Force has also been given Russian-designed Mi-24 attack helicopters and MiG-27 ground attack aircraft by the Russian Government.11 

Nevertheless, the governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding on military and technological-related issues in 2007, and from 2008 the Russian Government has provided short military training programs for the Sri Lankan defence forces. As a result Russian military assistance to Sri Lanka has paved the way for considerable Sri Lanka-Russia defence cooperation.

Russia has been playing a supportive role at the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC) since the beginning of Sri Lanka’s post-war period. At the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, Russia has always remained beside Sri Lanka. In 2011 the Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Vladimir P. Mikhaglov, declared that “the LLRC was appointed and is working. We should give time for the commission to make conclusions and present the report to the president and for Sri Lanka to take necessary steps. Unfortunately, the panel did not wait for the report”.12

This reflected that the Russians understand the reality and truth behind the Sri Lankan humanitarian operation.

However, within the multi-polar balance of power politics, the Sri Lanka-Russia nexus prevails as a strategically pivotal one for both parties. Moreover, the continuation of friendly relations with Sri Lanka would not be disadvantageous for Russia, especially if Sri Lanka turns into an attractive destination for foreign investments with advanced economic, social and infrastructural development. However, it must be mentioned that as Sri Lankans it is an honour to maintain friendly and cordial relations with a previous super power and present day global power which showcases the balanced foreign policy strategy of Sri Lanka.