Conflict at the Russia-Ukraine Border: A Far-flung Issue to Singapore?
By Jun Hui, Editor
In February 2014, mass political protests in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, culminated in the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych. This political development was a key factor leading to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region later that month. Russia completed the annexation within a month and has de facto ruled Crimea since. NATO’s then Secretary General Anders Rasmussen called the annexation “the most serious security crisis since the end of the Cold War” .
Nearly eight years later, in November 2021, Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s border has renewed fears of armed conflict. Analysts fret that Europe could face “its worse security crisis since the Cold War” – a phrase almost matching Rasmussen’s remark in 2014 . Besides such semantic resemblance, real parallels exist between 2014 and 2021: firstly, both conflicts have occurred during Vladimir Putin’s presidency of Russia. Secondly, underpinning Russia’s conduct is a fear of Ukraine’s closer ties with the EU and NATO. Finally, economic sanctions have featured in the West’s response to Russia’s actions.
Due to its geographical remoteness, the latest Russia-Ukraine conflict seems somewhat inconsequential to Singapore, both strategically and politically. Beyond this first appearance, however, the conflict could well have less visible–but no less important–political and economic impacts on Singapore.
Russia’s Military Build-up Since November
In November 2021, the US disclosed intelligence about Russia massing troops and artillery near its border with Ukraine. Concentrated at various spots near the border, the military build-up resembled an imminent invasion – one in which “troops would cross into Ukraine from Crimea, the Russian border and via Belarus” . Other signs seemed to support the invasion hypothesis: Russia’s call-up of reservists–numbering tens of thousands–that month was its largest since the Cold War ended . Those reservists would potentially secure territory “in a later phase after the tactical battalions paved the way” . Later in December, Russia “published new domestic regulations to expedite mass burials of those killed in armed conflict” .
130,000 Russian troops are now stationed along Ukraine’s borders, accompanied by tanks, anti-aircraft systems, and heavy artillery . The numerical and technical superiority of Russia’s forces over Ukraine’s has been noted by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff . Russia’s placement of its arms and troops can be classified as follows: at the Russia-Ukraine border, in Crimea, and at the Belarus-Ukraine border (Belarus being Russia’s ally). When visualised on a map, Russia’s placement of its forces does resemble an encirclement of Ukraine . Also, the visualisation makes the earlier prediction of a three-pronged invasion look plausible.
Having said that, an invasion by Russia is likely to focus on Ukraine’s east, not its entirety. A former Ukrainian defence minister claimed that a full-scale invasion required “several hundred thousand troops, not only on the border with Ukraine, but also on Russian territory behind the front line” . Another factor hindering an all-out invasion is its great human and economic costs, which are likely to provoke a strong domestic backlash in Russia . Instead, an invasion is likely to focus on Donbas – Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk . This scenario is supported by the positioning of Russia’s forces: although stationed along much of Ukraine’s border, they are far more concentrated around the eastern part of that border . In this case, an invasion could have the limited aim of securing or expanding Russia’s existing territorial control in Donbas – where Ukraine’s military has been at war with pro-Russian separatists since 2014 .
How have Kiev and NATO Countries Responded?
In November, soon after news of Russia’s military build-up emerged, Putin publicly denied plans to invade Ukraine . Kremlin officials likewise said that the deployments were defensive in nature, adding that Russia had a right to move troops within its borders . Ostensibly, these statements have a ring of truth: the latest build-up resembles the Zapad military exercises that Russia has conducted in the past five years . Involving “sudden and significant troop movements to Ukraine’s borders”, Russia’s Zapad exercises test its military’s ability to mobilise against a presumed threat from the West . While undoubtedly intimidating, Russia’s past Zapad manoeuvres concluded without territorial incursions. This track record gives some reason for viewing the latest build-up as just another military exercise.
Nevertheless, Russia’s explanations have fallen flat in Ukraine, where officials instead think that Russia could invade in January or February . Ukraine’s Defense Minister visited Washington in November with requests for military assistance. That month also saw Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visit Brussels, where he met with EU foreign ministers and NATO’s Secretary General . Similarly, during a news conference held in late-January, President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of Ukraine’s ongoing preparations for a possible all-out war . While Zelensky’s other remarks from the conference seemed to understate the invasion threat, he had likely made those remarks for purposes other than to outline his tactical assessment. For instance, when he chided Western leaders for publicly warning about Russia’s imminent invasion, he was arguably projecting confidence before Ukraine’s citizens, businesses, and foreign investors . From his point of view, doing so came at a low political cost and served the purpose of calming Ukraine’s rattled economy. Therefore, while Kiev’s defence preparations ultimately reveal its belief in an imminent invasion, political reasons have led Zelensky to obscure that belief in public.
Like their Ukrainian counterparts, Western officials have doubted Russia’s assurances. To show support for Ukraine, Britain’s defence minister made a November 16 trip to Kiev, where he discussed naval financing with Zelensky . Since then, the West’s scepticism toward Russia’s intentions has hardly abated. At a news conference on January 28, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested that Russia’s build-up of forces “far and away exceeds what we typically see them do for exercise” .
Economic sanctions have always been a key part of the NATO countries’ response to the crisis. US officials stated recently that the US and EU were reaching an agreement on sanctions targeting Russian banks, to be imposed if Ukraine was invaded . They had also discussed “export-control measures to deprive Russia of sensitive technologies and curbs on the country’s energy sector” . In addition, the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline has become a possible sanction target. Serving to transport Russia’s natural gas to Germany, the pipeline was completed recently but has not started operating due to regulatory reasons . The US and Germany have threatened to prevent the pipeline’s operation should Russia invade Ukraine .
Dialogue with Russia has been another key part of the NATO countries’ response. Since early December, they have entered a series of high-level talks to discuss the build-up: Joe Biden’s video call with Putin on December 7; the respective meetings of Antony Blinken and Wendy Sherman (US Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary of State) with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov; the talks between negotiators from Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on January 13; French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Putin in Moscow on February 7. While Putin had called some of Macron’s proposals a potential “basis of further joint steps”, positive mentions of their meeting have been overshadowed by the Kremlin and Elysée Palace’s contradictory accounts of what both leaders had agreed on . Despite the flurry of high-level diplomacy since December, Ukraine’s border has not seen any significant draw-down of Russian forces.
During these talks with the West, Russia’s leader and diplomats have advanced a narrative focused on security. For example, during the call with Biden, Putin sought for guarantees that Ukraine would never join NATO . The security narrative, which indirectly gives a geopolitical context to Russia’s build-up, has also been stated publicly by Putin. According to him, the build-up had helped to get NATO’s attention on the issue of “Russia’s ‘red lines’ over Ukraine” . On December 8, Putin said publicly: “We cannot but be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine's possible admission to NATO, because this will undoubtedly be followed by the deployment of appropriate military contingents, bases and weapons that threaten us” . Putin’s message calls to mind an explanation that Henry Kissinger once gave: Moscow saw Ukraine as a security buffer against a NATO that was expanding eastwards since the Soviet Union’s collapse . While Moscow has repeatedly stated that it was not planning to invade Ukraine, its narrative–which centres on Russia’s security and NATO’s relation to it–suggests that the build-up is hardly a mere military exercise.
Military aid and deployment have been another key part of the NATO countries’ response. In December, Washington confirmed a $200 million military aid package to Ukraine. The contents included small arms, radios, medical equipment, and Javelin anti-tank missiles . Roughly “200,000 pounds of lethal aid” from that package reached Ukraine in mid-January . To a lesser degree, other NATO members like the UK, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have also sent weapons to Ukraine . Still, the sum of these weapons deliveries from NATO remains insufficient to meaningfully change the Russia-Ukraine military balance.
As for troop deployment, the NATO countries’ approach has been largely based on the fact of Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO. That fact makes NATO lack a legal obligation to defend Ukraine against invasion. By default, NATO countries will deploy troops to defend a non-allied country only if there was some strong reason – compelling enough to justify the domestic political cost of the deployment. In Ukraine’s case, it seems that NATO has not found any such reason. Hence, while NATO countries have publicly supported Ukraine’s sovereignty, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ultimately stated that NATO’s support for Ukraine did not extend to troop deployment . Likewise, Biden has said that sending US troops to Ukraine was “not on the table” . The Pentagon’s new decision to send 2000 US troops to Poland and Germany, while moving 1000 Europe-based US troops to Romania, could complicate things if these troops later entered Ukraine somehow . Meanwhile, however, NATO’s approach to troop deployment remains unaffected.
Can the Ukraine Issue Impact Singapore?
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea because Putin had believed that a military approach was necessary to stem Ukraine’s further drift towards NATO, which was Moscow’s “principal security threat” . However, by doing so, Russia was in effect ripping up the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which it “agreed to respect (Ukraine’s) borders in exchange for it giving up its nuclear arsenal” . This episode showed that even when two parties had signed a treaty in good faith, strategic circumstances could evolve over time beyond either side’s predictive power, to a stage where reneging on the treaty will be in one party’s self-interest. Ultimately, legal commitments–much like an interpersonal promise–made by another country could be broken. Should Russia’s latest build-up turn into an invasion, it would mean a similar breach of the 1994 treaty.
This discussion highlights the value of having some capability to enforce or safeguard treaty agreements. When it comes to bilateral agreements involving territorial issues, the relevant enforcement tool is defence capabilities. For instance, if Ukraine’s military reached a strength comparable to Russia’s, it could inflict greater costs on an invading army, thus making Russia rethink the breach of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. While signing bilateral treaties on territorial issues is a good first step, deterrence and defence capabilities can provide a valuable fail-safe measure.
The lesson on defence capabilities may apply to Singapore’s disputes with Malaysia, with a big caveat: although both countries have territorial disputes, these spats do not share the strong security element seen in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. For instance, Russia sees Ukraine as a territorial buffer against a perceived security threat from the west. Unlike Ukraine, Singapore’s territory is not big enough to provide any similar buffer effect. Therefore, while Russia-Ukraine tensions have such a strong security component that invasion is a thinkable response for Russia, territorial spats between Singapore and Malaysia are unlikely to motivate similarly severe violations of territorial integrity.
Having said that, maintaining the relevant defence capabilities can help Singapore to tackle maritime disputes that arise with Malaysia. One such dispute arose in 2018, when Malaysia extended its Johor Bahru port limits into waters that Singapore had exercised jurisdiction over since 1999 . Although not a violation of some treaty with Singapore (unlike in Russia’s case), the action had challenged the longstanding practical arrangement between both parties. The incident was accompanied by incursions of Malaysian vessels into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas. While the main response to such challenges should be diplomacy and negotiation, having relevant naval capabilities can “give Singapore the necessary backing at the negotiation table” . In general, with elections in neighbouring countries being a natural reason for shifts to the bilateral status quo, the need to maintain adequate defence capabilities is unlikely to ever subside.
Beyond this lesson for Singapore, a more concrete impact of the latest Ukrainian crisis is the potential for similar dynamics to occur closer to home, such as in the South China Sea (SCS). If Russia invades Ukraine, the US and EU will certainly impose their previously announced economic sanctions, which include restrictions on Russia’s financial and energy sectors. One indication of these economic sanctions’ effectiveness is if Russia subsequently asks the West to lift parts of them, in exchange for Russia’s withdrawal of some forces from Ukraine. However, the opposite is also possible: if Russia seeks no roll back of the sanctions, China might infer that the sanctions’ economic damage fell short of Russia’s ‘pain threshold’. In this scenario, China could draw a similar conclusion about its own economy’s ability to withstand potential US sanctions. Such a conclusion would motivate China to expand its militarisation activities in the SCS, even if it knows that the US will respond with sanctions .
Similarly, if Russia’s invasion somehow produces unforeseen circumstances that draw the US deeper into the conflict, Beijing may have the above reaction as well – this time to capitalise on Washington’s distraction by the Ukraine conflict. Left unchecked, China’s widening of its SCS actions would shorten the time that it needs to gain effective control and influence over most of the SCS. In turn, Chinese control over the SCS’s resources and shipping lanes can become a new tool of leverage in Beijing’s relations with the ASEAN countries, including Singapore.
For instance, as a method of tackling its foreign policy disagreements with Singapore, China could subtly delay or disrupt Singapore’s inbound and outbound maritime cargo traversing the SCS. Singapore’s high dependence on maritime trade would unfortunately increase the pain felt from any such cargo obstruction. While seemingly far-fetched, the scenario arguably has a comparable precedent: the 2016 Terrex incident, during which Singapore’s military vehicles were impounded in Hong Kong for months. The incident was likely due to China’s displeasure with parts of Singapore’s foreign policy positions on Taiwan and the SCS. Therefore, from a pessimistic point of view, China’s actions in the Terrex incident may foreshadow its behaviour during a future bilateral disagreement with Singapore.
Although drawing the broad parallel between Ukraine and the SCS may seem far-fetched–given the different strategic environments in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia–the issues in Ukraine and SCS do share similarities: both involve a great power’s use of military means to expand its regional influence. Secondly, Russia and China have the advantage of geographical proximity vis-à-vis the US, their strategic rival. Lastly, the disputed areas are bordered by US treaty allies – Ukraine by NATO members Poland and Romania, the SCS by Mutual Defense Treaty ally the Philippines.
Also, if Russia invades Ukraine, the ensuing conflict could impact Singapore economically via the channel of energy prices. This impact draws relevance from the fact that Singapore’s utilities “source 95 per cent of the country's electricity from imported natural gas” . Should the West impose sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas exports, the global demand for energy would turn towards other energy suppliers, who are likely to raise prices when faced with high demand . Russia’s energy exports could be similarly impacted if Russian banks faced Western sanctions, which “would be an obstacle for making payments” . Currently, the OPEC+ producers “are nearing their production limit, while US shale frackers are unlikely to meet the supply gap amid robust Asian diesel and petrol demand” . Oil prices are nearing $100 a barrel, levels not seen since a decade ago . If the sanctions occur in this period, they could exacerbate the hike in global energy prices.
The energy crunch ultimately impacts Singapore’s export competitiveness in various industries. This is because oil and gas can “raise the base of the cost structure for virtually all industries, as they are the basic raw materials that power everything from transport to electricity” . In other words, Singapore’s exports will take a hit from the price hikes of energy and non-energy production inputs.
Eight years after 2014, Crimea’s shadows have resurfaced today, through the form of Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine’s border. Beyond surface similarities, both crises do share a similar cause, namely Russia’s chosen method to address its security grievances with NATO. The NATO countries have responded mostly through high-level dialogue, deterrence via sanctions, and arming Ukraine. If Russia invades Ukraine, Singapore’s geographical location may not buffer it against the economic impact of energy-based inflation, or the longer-term consequences of a potentially more heavy-handed Chinese strategy in the SCS.
The Ukraine situation remains volatile today for various reasons: firstly, Russia’s forces remain at the border. Secondly, Russia is supposedly planning a false-flag operation that would give itself a convenient reason to invade Ukraine . Thirdly, Putin has already committed much politically–in terms of optics and statements–over the past three months and is unlikely to back down without something to show for his efforts. Furthermore, given the West’s warning of sanctions, Putin can hardly risk being seen as cowering from the threat. Finally, modern warfare has a lurking potential to drag participants into unforeseen and unplanned circumstances. A former US ambassador to Russia has noted: “Accidents can happen and planes can get shot down. Americans in Ukraine could get killed. All those kinds of scenarios could happen, and then we’re in a different world” . Much rests on the outcomes of further high-level talks between Russia and the West, because other than the dialogues’ success, few other things seem valuable enough to make Russia withdraw its forces from the border.
Jun Hui is a Year 4 Economics undergraduate serving as an Editor at The Convergence. He joined as an Editor out of a desire to add to the university’s intellectual discourse. Some of his hobbies include watching films (from the thriller genre in particular), exploring places in nature with friends, reading fiction (mostly detective and crime novels) and non-fiction (politics, history, economics, etc).