Economic Statecraft
Russia-Sri Lanka Relations: The Eurasian Role of the 'Emerald Island'

As the gradual but massive “pivot to the East” progresses, Russia is also turning to the South. If the strategic partnership with China can be recognised as a symbol of the eastern vector of the country’s foreign policy, then the south looks more diverse. After the beginning of the implementation by Washington of the course towards "creating a free and open Indo-Pacific region", Moscow’s need for the additional strengthening of its influence in the Indian Ocean basin became more acute.

One of Russia's closest partners and good friends in South Asia is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. In 2022, our countries celebrate the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. After the proclamation of independence in 1948, Sri Lanka adhered to a non-alignment policy, refusing to side with any bloc, and rapprochement with the USSR became possible thanks to the decision of the father of Sri Lankan statehood, Solomon Bandaranaike, to reciprocate Moscow's interest in developing ties with neutral states and sympathy for peoples freed from colonial rule.

One of the significant moments in modern relations between Moscow and Colombo was the visit of the then President Mainthripal Sirisena to Russia in March 2017 at the invitation of Vladimir Putin. According to the Joint Statement adopted at the end of the talks, the parties highly appreciate constructive interaction within the framework of the UN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue. Achieving a trade turnover of $700 million in the coming years was set as a high-priority goal, as the countries intensified the work of the Intergovernmental Russian-Sri Lankan Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation.

It is noteworthy that the bilateral partnership has a developed legal framework - there are agreements on cooperation in the field of fisheries, science, technology and innovation, as well as tourism, culture, and space exploration.

At the moment, the planned indicator of the volume of trade turnover has not yet been reached - according to the results of 2020 it amounted to $492 million; promisingly, this is a quarter higher than a year earlier. Almost half of Russian exports consist of machinery and equipment, while up to a third are cereals, mainly wheat. Until 2018, Sri Lanka was one of the world's leading buyers of Russian chrysotile asbestos, used in construction. However, the government of the country has decided to completely abandon the use of this material by 2029, and the volume of purchases has decreased significantly. The Emerald Island supplies Russia mainly with tea, which accounts for half of its imports, as well as textiles and knitwear (40%).

An intergovernmental agreement on cooperation and mutual assistance in customs matters is being prepared for signing. At the meeting of the co-chairs the intergovernmental commission in June 2021 noted the prospects for cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, including the construction of nuclear power plants, as well as the use of nuclear technology in medicine and agriculture. In the interest of ensuring the energy security of the island, Russia also intends to increase the supply of coal and petroleum products, and cooperation in the hydropower industry is also planned in the future. There is potential in the civil aviation, construction, chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

An important area of ​​bilateral cooperation is tourism. In the pre-Covid times, the unique natural and historical sights of the Emerald Isle rightfully won the love of Russian tourists. In 2020, due to the restrictions imposed, only 49,000 Russians were able to visit Sri Lanka, but thanks to the easing of the quarantine regime and the restoration of air traffic, the prospects for doubling the number of visitors have opened up for today.

In November 2021, after participating in the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev visited Sri Lanka. At the meeting, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked the Russian side for 5,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine and help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sri Lankan President expressed his desire to increase the volume of exports and the range of goods supplied to Russia, including the use of public-private partnership schemes. He also invited Russian investors  to participate in the re-equipment of the port of Colombo, the construction of a business district, "Colombo City", and infrastructure facilities on the island, as well as initiatives in energy, agriculture, information technology, the pharmaceutical industry, the development of oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Manara and other areas.

Cooperation in the field of security is of particular importance. The Sri Lankan side has repeatedly noted that the USSR and Russia have consistently supported the government in the fight against the threats of terrorism and separatism. Unlike Western countries, Moscow shared Colombo's concerns and tried to bring them to the forefront of international organisations, including the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Russia condemned the terrorist attacks on the island in April 2019.

In August 2021, Kamal Gunaratne, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and the State Ministry of National Security, visited Moscow. During meetings with the leadership of Russian departments, prospects were discussed for strengthening cooperation in the fight against extremism, terrorism, cyber threats, including the exchange of intelligence information, the prevention of the financing of terrorist activities, and the fight against crime using information technology. In September 2021, representatives of Sri Lanka observed the progress of the joint Russian-Belarusian strategic exercises "West-2021" in the Nizhny Novgorod region.

In October 2021, a delegation of the Sri Lankan military headed by the Chief of Staff of the Defense Forces, Commander of the Ground Forces Shavendra Silva, arrived in Russia. At negotiations with the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces, Army General Oleg Salyukov, agreements were reached on holding joint military exercises, getting education, and the training of the Sri Lankan military personnel at the universities of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as well as participation in competitions, including the International Army Games. The delegation also visited the Moscow Higher Command School,  Mikhailovskaya Military Artillery Academy and the Kantemirovskaya Tank Division of the Western Military District.

In November, during Nikolai Patrushev's visit to Colombo, some aspects were further developed. In particular, Sri Lankan observers are invited to the maneuvers planned in Russia for 2022, and Russian observers are invited to exercises and seminars on combat operations in the jungle. The Sri Lankans have indicated their interest in Russian armored vehicles and vehicles for the army and police, helicopters, small arms, and the training of pilots and aviation engineers. The Russian side offered a connection to the FSB data bank on individuals and organisations involved in terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. Also, at the initiative of the Ministry of Public Security of Sri Lanka, the position of a police attaché can be established at the Russian embassy, ​​who will provide assistance to Russian tourists. Problematic issues include the protracted approval of a draft treaty on the protection of intellectual property in the field of military-technical cooperation.

Military-technical issues were also discussed during the trip to Sri Lanka of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in January 2020. In particular, it is possible to say that Colombo will be granted an export loan of $500 million to pay for part of the purchase of Russian weapons. Among the promising models are the BTR-82A, Su-30 fighters, and patrol ships. At the same time, the readiness of the island's authorities to provide Russian warships with preferential terms for calling at Sri Lankan ports was also voiced. In practice, this agreement was already implemented in October 2021 when the Govoryashy corvette and the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Volkhov submarines, en route from the Baltic, moved to their permanent bases on Pacific Fleet.

Of particular importance to Russia is the fact that Sri Lanka occupies a neutral position in the competition between the US and China or China and India. Colombo does not support the American "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" initiative. In particular, the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  Jayanath Colombage noted that Quad could lead to a Cold War situation in the Indian Ocean basin, and Sri Lanka does not want to be squeezed between centers of power.

Moscow is able to assist Colombo in resolving difficult situations in relations with Beijing and New Delhi. In January 2022, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa approached Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with a debt restructuring proposal in the context of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. The country's reserves are at a level of 1.5 billion dollars, and debt obligations to China  alone exceeded 4 billion. "Indian neighbors provide significant assistance to the Sri Lankans - in early 2022, a $1 billion credit line was announced to purchase food, medicine and fuel. At the same time, New Delhi fears the deployment of Chinese military infrastructure on the island, which, in their opinion, will upset the balance of power in this zone of the Indian Ocean. In turn, the Indian side is interested in the use of the Trincomalee port on the east coast by the national navy, which is perceived with caution in Beijing.

In this regard, Russia could act as a referee, encouraging China and India not to involve Sri Lanka in competition with each other. There are opportunities for this, for example, through the SCO, where the island state is a dialogue partner. In this regard, Colombo's course towards the development of relations with Iran is also noteworthy, as it is also a valuable partner of Russia. The involvement of the Emerald Isle in the Greater Eurasian Partnership project will contribute to the disclosure of economic, transport, logistics and strategic potentials, thanks to access to new markets, technology and financial institutions.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.