Small countries often pay the price in conflicts among great powers: Shanmugam

Shanmugam said that in geopolitical conflicts between Great Powers, smaller countries were the ones who often paid the price, whether they were "willfully used as pawns" or inadvertently caught between them.

Sulaiman Daud | Tan Min-Wei | March 09, 2023, 12:30 PM

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Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam gave the closing keynote speech on March 8 at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institutes' closed workshop: "The Russia-Ukraine War and Southeast Asia One Year On: Implications and Outlook". 

The two-day workshop was attended by close to 70 participants from the diplomatic, business, academic, and financial sectors.

A gross violation of international law

Shanmugam first reiterated Singapore's position, that regardless of stated reasons, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia was "totally unacceptable", a stance that he would express several times throughout his speech.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a a "clear, gross violation of international law" and "the principles enshrined in the UN Charter."

Singapore, he said, had taken "a firm stand", including co-sponsoring and voting in favour of several resolutions at the United Nations condemning "Russia's aggression against Ukraine".

It also included being one of the few countries in Asia, and the only one in Southeast Asia, to sanction Russia, in particular sanctioning some Russian banks and financial transactions.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan previously explained Singapore did so to stand up for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Shanmugam then drew comparisons to Singapore's own history, saying that Singapore's rejection of the recent war was part of a long line of consistent behaviour from Singapore.

This included the 1978 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, the invasion of Grenada in 1983 by the United States, and the initial 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia.

In all these cases, Shanmugam said that there were a consistent thread, that there are "real-world consequence if one country can unilaterally invade another country".

Whether it be the "excuse" of common history, or alleged historical errors, or any other excuse; if these excuses were accepted another country could use the same reasoning with Singapore.

He gave the example of Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian PM, who said in 2022 that Singapore and the Riau Islands, the latter belonging to Indonesia, were historically "Tanah Melayu" or "Malay Lands".

Shanmugam said that a leader of Malaysia with a similar opinion could result in them attempting "adventurous ideas".

Two views of the conflict

Shanmugam would lay out two views on the conflict in Ukraine.

How the West viewed it

Referring to an article by the New York Times, he summed up the West's view:

"Essentially that it (the current war in Ukraine) is Russia and President Putin who are the sole irresponsible actors. The President's megalomania has led to all this suffering"

Referring to a speech made by Putin just before the war, Putin considered "Ukraine’s sovereignty is an artificial construct, and that sovereignty does not have to be respected.

This was despite promises made by Russia in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum where Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for a promise of Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom to respect its statehood an integrity.

Shanmugam also noted that the West asserts that Ukraine's admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was itself not on NATO's agenda, referencing the fact that the West does not have a clearly aligned view on whether Ukraine's membership was ever considered.

Shanmugam said while he considered this to be a largely accurate description, to him it did not convey the whole picture and "too conveniently absolves the West of any responsibility for the way events have unfolded."

How Russia viewed it

Shanmugam said that as late as 2012, Putin had said that Russia was an inalienable, organic part part of wider European civilisation.

Shanmugam expressed a view that Russia in the 1990s and 2000s was seen as a "has-been", and thus insufficiently consulted, or was treated without "a great deal of respect", particularly when it came to the expansion of NATO.

He mentioned the "not one inch" issue where nothing was set down in writing, but historical records suggested that Russia was given basis to believe that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Soviet Union.

However, Eastern European countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO in 1999 and 2004, under Russian protest.

Shanmugam also spoke about how Russia claimed that the West had a hand in the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, where the Ukrainian people ousted pro-Russian leader in Viktor Yanukovych after he rejected an association agreement with the EU in 2013.

This, Shanmugam said, was seen by Russia as hypocrisy as they believed the U.S. and the EU worked to overthrow an elected leader, albeit a pro-Russian one.

In Russia's view, this necessitated the annexation of Crimea and support for separatist in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Shanmugam he said that while nothing justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the suffering it had caused, "The West and NATO, in my view, were not uninvolved bystanders who had no role to play in the current situation."

Lessons for small countries

Shanmugam spoke about the lessons that small countries like Singapore could take from the events in Ukraine.

He spoke of two important principles of international law:

  • That of indivisible security, where states' security were inseparably linked together, and a state should not enhance its security at the expense of another's.
  • That of self-determination, the right of a state to choose its own political and military alliances.

He then shared three observations.

Firstly, that the two principles could contradict each other. "One country’s self-determined source of security can be another country’s source of insecurity."

Secondly, that larger powers would pick which of the two principles to emphasise based on whichever one suited their best interests.

To illustrate this, Shanmugam said that in the current crisis, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov referred to the indivisibility of security, which Lavrov said Ukraine violated by attempting to join NATO.

On the other hand, his U.S. counterpart Antony Blinken, Secretary of State emphasised Ukrainian sovereignty, and right to self-determination.

Shanmugam referred to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where Cuba chose to "enhance its security at the expense of the U.S.'s" by siting offensive medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles provided by the Soviet Union.

In that case, the positions were reversed, with the U.S. emphasising the principle of indivisible security, while Russia emphasised sovereignty, even accusing the U.S. of "undisguised interference" in the internal affairs of Cuba.

Then as now, he said, neither Great Power accepted a potential threat at their doorsteps, citing the relevant principle that best suited them. "Big countries do that frequently," Shanmugam said.

However, the Cuban Missile Crisis differed in that NATO was not preparing to site offensive nuclear ballistic missiles in Ukraine, even if it had somehow become a member. Currently, the Baltic states that border Russia and are also NATO members, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do not possess offensive nuclear missiles, unlike the Soviet Union's move with Cuba.

Even as the U.S. and allies ship offensive weapons to Ukraine, President Joe Biden has resisted sending long-range weapons that may be used by the Ukrainians to strike targets within Russian territory. For example, he has refused to send long-range ATACMS missiles and F-16 fighter jets to avoid the possibility that they may be used to strike at Russian territory.

Shanmugam's final observation was that in geopolitical conflicts between Great Powers, smaller countries were the ones who often paid the price, whether they were "willfully used as pawns" or inadvertently caught between them.

Steel and blood

Finally Shanmugam paid tribute to the Ukrainians' defence of their nation, calling it "nothing short of heroic".

He said that if there had been doubts about Ukraine as a state before, "Ukraine's sense of national identity, purpose, and independence have now been forged in steel and blood."

He added:

"Ukraine’s spirit has become immeasurably stronger, and it is unlikely to be rolled over.

"There is a lot to admire about the way Ukraine has defended itself."

He added that Singapore must continue to act only and always in its own interests, and stand up for the principles on which these interests are based, with a basis in international law.

You can read his full speech here.


Shanmugam's speech comes as the conflict stretches well past its first year with fighting looking set to continue.

His main points about the vulnerabilities of small countries, and Singapore's rejection of the Ukrainian invasion echo statements made recently by Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan at the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting.

There Vivian said that the war in Ukraine "needs to stop".

He also said that all G20 nations needed to comply with the United Nations Charter; and defended the rights of all nations, large or small, to "have their independent sovereignty and territorial integrity fully respected".

Shanmugam's comments were also echoes of comments made by Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said during this year's committee of supply debate, in relation to the Ukrainian people's will to fight -

"If this war (the war in Ukraine) has taught us anything, it must be that weaponry and fighting platforms are important, but ultimately, it is the fighting spirit of the people that will decide if they end up subjugated or sovereign.

We Singaporeans must build and have that same spirit and resolve. Our lives and our country will depend on it."

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Top image via K Shanmugam/Facebook & @UArmedForces/Twitter