‘Nobody will look after us’ if S’poreans can’t look after ourselves: Bilahari on Ukraine in 2014

8 years later, his reflections still hold weight.

Bilahari Kausikan | February 25, 2022, 03:58 PM

COMMENTARY: In March 2014, former permanent secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bilahari Kausikan, published a commentary on lessons for Small States from Ukraine in The Straits Times.

He visited Ukraine in December 2013 and had the opportunity to observe the EuroMaidan demonstrations. After his visit, he reflected on how a country has fallen prey to Great Power politics and what this means for Singapore and Singaporeans.

The essay was written in the wake of Russia's invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in early 2014. It can be found in Bilahari’s 2017 “Singapore Is Not An Island: Views on Singapore Foreign Policy” book. Published by Straits Times Press, you can get a copy of his book here.

Bilahari Kausikan is chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

By Bilahari Kausikan, first published in 2014

Last December, finding myself in Ukraine, I took the opportunity to visit Kyiv's Independence Square to observe the EuroMaidan demonstrations.

On one visit I listened to some European Union (EU) politician — I think it was a member of the European Parliament — give a rousing speech. He spoke of freedom and democracy, the usual phrases tripping off his tongue fluently.

The speech was in English and I do not know how much the crowd really understood. But the intent was clear in any language and the crowd responded enthusiastically to the expression of support. There was an almost festive air.

But the thought crossed my mind: This could end up like Hungary in 1956. At that time, the West encouraged an anti-Soviet revolt, then folded its arms as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest.

Relationship between Russia and Ukraine

Thankfully, the current Russian intervention has so far been limited and less bloody.

But Russia's response was entirely predictable, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the region's history and Ukraine's complicated relationship with Russia should have known.

Russia cannot allow Ukraine to become part of the Western system without losing an essential part of itself and without abandoning President Vladimir Putin's goal of a revived Russia as a great power. And Mr Putin's own authority rests in no small part on his reputation as a strong Russian nationalist.

Some 17 per cent of Ukraine's population — more than eight million — is ethnically Russian, the largest Russian diaspora in the world. Ethnic Russians constitute the majority of the population in the Crimea. There are also substantial numbers in East and South-east Ukraine next to the Russian border, as well as in the major cities.

Indeed, the origin and heart of Russia's Slavic culture lies in the mediaeval kingdom of Kyivian Rus centred in modern Ukraine, not Moscow.

The pipelines that supply Russian gas to West Europe pass through Ukraine. That revenue is essential to the Russian economy. Geopolitically, Sevastopol on the Black Sea in Crimea is Russia's only warm water port.

Ukraine, Russia, and the West

In August 1991, with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, then U.S. President George H. W. Bush flew to Kyiv and cautioned the Verkhova Rada, Ukraine's Parliament, against "suicidal nationalism".

He was roundly criticised by the Western media. But the wisdom of Bush senior is now clear.

Ukraine was and remains deeply divided over the question of closer association with the EU, opinions generally mirroring the ethnic divisions. It was reckless of the post-Yanukovych government to have abolished Russian as Ukraine's second language as its very first act.

It aroused the worst fears of Russia and Russian Ukrainians. In January and February this year, it is estimated that almost 700,000 Ukrainian citizens, most believed to be ethnic Russians, fled to Russia.

It was inevitable that Russia would move decisively. And so it did, with its customary ruthlessness that caught the West flatfooted.

What can the West do to Russia?

U.S. President Barack Obama has said the Russian intervention will have "costs". But what costs?

The United States and the EU are not going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, as Mr Putin well knows. After a decade of wars in the Middle East, the American public is weary of foreign adventures.

That was among the reasons that Mr Obama was elected in the first place. The EU has neither the capability nor the stomach to wage war on Russia.

Will there be sanctions? Perhaps there will be some symbolic sanctions, and they may inconvenience individual Russians and businesses. But they will not bite deep enough to make Russia reverse course.

Will — or can — Western Europe stop buying Russian gas? That is the only sanction that would really hurt, and it is not going to happen, as Mr Putin again well knows.

There will probably be a boycott of the Sochi G-8 Summit. Russia may even be expelled or suspended from the G-8. So what? Does Mr Putin really care? Ukraine is a vital interest to Russia and to him personally.

Weighed in that balance, any cost the U.S. and EU can realistically impose is insignificant.

The United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session. Predictably, it achieved nothing. As a permanent member, Russia holds a veto. The U.S. and EU know this.

Arguably the very reason they convened the Security Council was precisely that it would achieve nothing: It was a low-cost gesture to preserve some semblance of amour propre.

The annexation of Crimea

Crimea is lost to Ukraine. In some weeks or months, there will probably be a referendum or some other act of self-determination. A new state will then be set up in Crimea on the model of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia established after its 2008 intervention in Georgia.

I doubt that Russia will intervene in East or South-east Ukraine in the same way as it did in Crimea. Moscow need not resort to naked military intervention again to drive home the point that Russian interests cannot be disregarded in its "near abroad".

On a personal level, Mr Putin has made himself look strong and American and European leaders look weak. He can afford to stop.

After a decent interval, the U.S. and EU will again "reset" relations with Russia. As a nuclear weapon state, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a major energy supplier, Russia simply cannot be ostracised forever.

The EU was itself divided over the prospect of a closer association with Ukraine. The EU members that were formerly part of the Soviet empire — Poland and the Baltic states — were the most enthusiastic. Other EU members were more ambivalent, fearing the costs of a closer partnership with such a huge country at a time when their economies were still fragile.

The EU politician I heard last December was not the only or the most important Western leader to give encouragement to the Ukrainians. It was irresponsible to do so without the capacity to deter a Russian intervention or to respond effectively when Russia did intervene.

Lessons applicable to Singapore and Singaporeans

None of this in any way excuses Russia's actions. As a small country, Singapore must take seriously any violation of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, wherever and whenever they occur.

I am certain that those Singaporeans who have paid attention to recent events in Ukraine feel sympathy for its people.

But more importantly than empathy for yet another country that has fallen prey to Great Power politics, the plight of the Ukrainians holds valuable lessons for us.

Do not just listen to the sweet words of foreigners, however pleasing to the ear. We must calculate our own interests as clinically as we can and not let anyone beguile us into believing they know better.

The West speaks often and eloquently of democracy and elections with a near religious fervour. The ousted Yanukovych government, whatever its failings, was popularly elected in a manner that just four years ago the U.S. and the EU hailed as free and fair.

Yet when the U.S. and EU thought that it was in their interests, they did not hesitate to recognise the government that seized power in Kyiv after President Viktor Yanukovych was forced from office. In doing so, they broke an agreement to hold new elections that had been signed by Mr Yanukovych, the Ukrainian opposition and the European foreign ministers themselves just weeks earlier.

A Russian Special Envoy was present at those negotiations but did not sign. That was a strong signal that should have been heeded. Why did the U.S. and EU miscalculate so disastrously?

One important reason why they were blindsided by Russia was that having no stomach for drastic action themselves, they thought everyone else was similarly squeamish.

The U.S. and the EU responded to the new government in Kyiv by immediately offering International Monetary Fund assistance. This was undoubtedly very necessary. But they failed to understand that Russia's calculations and priorities were entirely different.

The U.S. and EU mistook their own beliefs and hopes for reality. We must never do that.

An ideal world or a dangerous world?

A world ruled by international law is the ideal world for small states. But is this really such a world? Perhaps sometimes; or even most times; but not all the time.

International law is an instrument of state policy, not an autonomous reality. Great powers resort to it only when convenient. Russia is not unique in this respect. This is a dangerous world.

The U.S. and EU have suffered a blow to their credibility. But they, or at least the U.S., will eventually recover.

It is the Ukrainian people who paid and who will continue to pay the heaviest price for Western miscalculations.

There is yet another particularly apt lesson here for Singaporeans. Calls for a reduction in national service commitments should be regarded with great scepticism.

We must never lose the ability to look after ourselves, because if we cannot look after ourselves, nobody will look after us.

Top image via Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images & @ComingSoon45/Twitter