Russian troops should not be in Ukraine: Singapore

Armed servicemen wait in Russian army vehicles in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014.

SINGAPORE - Singapore strongly objects to any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext or excuse, said Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate yesterday.

In his remarks, Mr Shanmugam added: "Russian troops should not be in Ukraine in breach of international law. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected. International law must be respected. There can be no qualifications to this."

He explained that he dwelt on the Ukraine issue for two reasons: Singapore has always emphasised that all countries, big or small, must observe international law, and because the events in Ukraine hold a number of lessons for Singapore.

Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate on March 5, 2014::

As we speak, yet another new crisis has been added to the international problems already facing all of us. What is happening in the Ukraine impacts on all of us at several levels - there is a potential impact on the World Economy and therefore our economy as well. Other countries will see what patterns of behaviour are possible. This is a situation of a standoff now between a big country and a small country. It offers several lessons for Singapore in real politics and international relations.

Russian troops are in control of parts of Ukraine. The United Nations Security Council has been debating the issue for days. Russia and the P3 have been making points against each other.

The P3 point out that moving troops into another country is in gross violation of international law, and that Russia has breached a 1994 MOU that it had signed. I will refer to this MOU later.

Russia responds by saying that the lawfully elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by a coup, and Yanukovych has invited them into Ukraine to help, and Russia wants to protect Russians in Ukraine, and Russia refers to American actions in Granada in 1983.

Will the Security Council take meaningful action beyond being a debating platform? Unlikely given the vetoes that the P5 have, and Russia is one of the P5.

So what will happen hereafter? One has to assess Russian interests in Crimea. Since the 18th Century when Russia annexed Crimea, Russia has always considered its interests in Crimea to be vital. Russian actions against the Ottoman Empire, in pursuance of these interests, led to the Crimean War over 150 years ago. Britain and France decided to confront Russia then, through military action. Russia lost that war. If one had stepped back and considered the matter, as Ukraine was going through its protests in the last several weeks, it would have been fairly obvious that there was a significant risk of Russia moving to protect what it will consider to be its vital interest. We do not know what was or was not considered by the different parties. And we do not know what the P3 and EU plan to do next. What is obvious now is that it is, unfortunately, Ukraine and its people who have to face the consequences of all that has happened.

Singapore's stand: We strongly object to any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext or excuse. Russian troops should not be in Ukraine in breach of international law. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected. International law must be respected. There can be no qualifications to this.

Madam Speaker, I have dwelt on Ukraine at some length for two key reasons: first, Singapore has always emphasised, that big or small, all countries must observe international law. We have consistently opposed invasions, whether East Timor or Cambodia. We have taken a clear stand, even when our views were contrary to those of far bigger powers, who were quite unhappy with us. Indonesia, Soviet Union were amongst those who were unhappy then. We take the same stand now. There should not be any invasion of Ukraine.

Second, the events in Ukraine hold a number of lessons for us. Russia had signed an agreement in 1994 with the United States and the United Kingdom agreeing not to threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. They also pledged never to use economic coercion to subjugate Ukraine to their own interest.

Ukraine's sovereignty and independence was thus confirmed by a treaty. So the first lesson really is, when it comes to the crunch, treaties are only meaningful if you have the ability to enforce them. If Ukraine cannot defend the treaty, and has no partners which will come to its aid - and I mean with deeds, not just words, then the treaty by itself will not help Ukraine.

Lesson No. 2: In international relations, size matters. The disparity between big and small countries is a fact of life. A small country which cannot protect itself puts its sovereignty and its people at risk. Russia is vastly bigger than Ukraine, and its armed forces are much more powerful than the Ukraine armed forces. Russia is a nuclear power, and Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons as part of the 1994 treaty.

Lesson No. 3: something we have repeated many times: the Security Council cannot always act decisively to protect small countries.

Lesson 4: When squeezed between two big powers or blocs, a smaller country like Ukraine can become a pawn. The country caught in between can be sacrificed if the two contending powers or blocs decide to reach a wider accommodation with each other, trading off their various interests. This has happened frequently in history - for example, to Poland. Smaller countries must always be aware of this.

Madam Speaker, I read what Honourable Mr Laurence Lien said about need for "a more positive narrative that is grounded in optimism". I wish it were possible to agree with him. But at least from the foreign policy perspective (which has a direct impact on domestic well-being of Singaporeans), that would require one to ignore the facts and stop being realistic and honest with the people of Singapore.

Everything may look fine on the surface, but does that mean that our size does not matter? The treaties which guarantee our sovereignty and survival will by themselves be enough? That we can ignore the reality that we exist on 720 square kilometres? And that we are quite at the mercy of international economic winds, competition, bilateral disputes, regional tensions and shifts in the strategic balance? It is a harsh world, with rules which are often ignored by many countries, including the major powers. Success is not pre-ordained for any country, let alone a small city state. We ignore that at our peril.

One has to accept facts, reality and then calmly and rationally deal with them, and explain publicly the situation and the response.

Last week, I stopped over in Istanbul, on my way back to Singapore, from Iran. I met the Turkish Interior Minister. He hosted me to lunch, on the Bosphorus. As I looked out into the Bosphorus, the crisis in Ukraine, (which is just really across the waters from the Bosphorus and the Black Sea), kept going through my mind. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe - it has a population of 45 million. It has an armed force of 90,000 active personnel with another 1 million reserve personnel. It had an elected President and Parliament. It was a functioning state, not a failed state. It was negotiating an economic agreement with the EU. It has embassies all over the world, including Singapore. Yet it finds itself in deep crisis - its political system is in limbo, foreign troops on its soil, facing the serious risk of dismemberment, economy seriously affected, reserves running low.

I could not help but then think of our own situation - if we do not constantly run hard to make sure that everything works, that we out compete the world, that we can defend ourselves, how long will it take for our situation to unravel ?

Mr Lien also said that we should trust our people. That I have no quarrel with - I entirely agree with him. But we also have a duty to be honest with our people, and tell it like it is; and not sugar-coat the truth. It is best to be unvarnished about the truth.

ellenja@sph.com.sg

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