4 lessons for S’pore from the 2014 Ukraine crisis

Eight years ago, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula, prompting then Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to deliver a speech in parliament, strongly objecting to the invasion.

He said: “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.”

He emphasised that all countries, big or small, must observe international law and that Singapore has consistently opposed invasion, even if it means having a different view than bigger countries.

“We have taken a clear stand, even when our views were contrary to those of far bigger powers, who were quite unhappy with us,” he said.

He then outlined four lessons that Singapore can learn from the 2014 Ukraine crisis.

 1. Treaties are only meaningful if you can enforce them

Russia went on to seize Crimea even when there was an agreement between Russia and the United States and United Kingdom back in 1994 not to invade Ukraine or use economic coercion to subjugate Ukraine.

Thus came Minister K Shanmugam’s conclusion that treaties are only meaningful if one can 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,” he said.

2. Size matters

In international relations at least.

Ukraine is smaller and has a less powerful army as compared to Russia and furthermore, it has given up its nuclear weapons as part of the 1994 treaty, while Russia remains a nuclear power.

Minister K Shanmugam reminded the House and all Singaporeans by saying: “A small country which cannot protect itself puts its sovereignty and its people at risk.”

3. Security Council cannot always protect small countries

It’s been oft-repeated, the Security Council cannot always act decisively to protect small countries, he said.

4. Smaller country can become a pawn

The country caught between two big powers can be sacrificed if both powers decide to reach a consensus and thus becoming a pawn.

“This has happened frequently in history – for example, to Poland. Smaller countries must always be aware of this,” he said.

We must defend ourselves

Singapore is at the mercy of international economic winds, competition, bilateral disputes or regional tensions, he said.

“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.”

At the end of his speech on the Ukraine crisis, he warned that it could well be Singapore in Ukraine’s shoes.

For if the second largest country in Europe, with an armed force of 90,000 active personnel and another 1 million in reserve, complete with a functioning state with an elected President and Parliament can be invaded, what are Singapore’s chances?

He concluded by saying: “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?”

You can read the full speech here.

Cover photo credit: K Shanmugam Facebook