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Explainer: Why are there tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and what do they mean for Singapore?

SINGAPORE — Tensions between Russia and neighbouring Ukraine have flared in recent months with talk of a possible full-blown war after Russia stationed 100,000 troops at the border. The temperature was lowered a little earlier this week when both sides agreed to observe a ceasefire after talks in Paris.

Members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces take part in coastal defence drills in the Odessa region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released January 28, 2022.
Members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces take part in coastal defence drills in the Odessa region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released January 28, 2022.
  • Fears Russia will invade neighbouring Ukraine increased when Moscow stationed 100,000 troops at the border
  • Analysts TODAY spoke to said the current conflict has diverted the attention and resources of the US from the Indo-Pacific, including China
  • But the direct impact of any escalation of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on Singapore is likely to be minor, some analysts said
  • Still, one analyst said a major conflict, especially one that involves economic sanctions, could cause significant ramifications globally

SINGAPORE — Tensions between Russia and neighbouring Ukraine have flared in recent months with talk of a possible full-blown war after Russia stationed 100,000 troops at the border. The temperature was lowered a little earlier this week when both sides agreed to observe a ceasefire after talks in Paris.

Russia's military move, which sparked fears it might invade Ukraine, was designed to exert pressure on the country and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Ukraine, a nation slightly smaller than Myanmar with about 43 million people, wants to join NATO, a military alliance of 30 countries in Europe and North America, but Russia is concerned that any such move would tip the global power balance against it.

Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union of Socialist Republics, headquartered in Moscow, which collapsed in 1991 with the fall of the Berlin wall that divided the former West Germany and East Germany, which was a Soviet state.

The Soviet Union engaged in a decades-long "Cold War" with the West that has some echoes in the current stand-off.

Russia wants a written guarantee that Ukraine, now an independent nation keen to ally itself with the European Union (EU), will not be allowed into NATO. It also wants the alliance's deployments in Eastern Europe to be pulled. 

The United States and NATO have already rejected the first demand, saying membership is open to any qualifying country.

The alliance has also stepped up support for Ukraine by sending additional troops and military equipment, and threatening sanctions against Russia.

Analysts TODAY spoke to said the conflict has diverted the attention and resources of the US from the Indo-Pacific, where the rise of China as a major military and economic force is its key focus.

They added that the impact of the potential conflict on Singapore is likely to be minor, though one analyst said any major conflict, especially one that involves economic sanctions, could cause significant ramifications globally, due to disruptions in trade and supply chains, and volatility of financial markets. 

TODAY takes a closer look at what the conflict is about and what the ramifications are likely to be for Singapore.

WHY IS THERE A CONFLICT?

Ukraine, a country sandwiched between Russia and Europe, won independence in 1991. Since then, its foreign policies have oscillated between pro-Russian and pro-European.

But in 2013, protests erupted in the capital Kyiv against a decision by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Moscow, to reject a plan for greater economic integration with the EU. This saw him removed as the country's leader a year later.

Yanukovych then fled the country and the capital fell into the hands of various pro-EU opposition parties. The focus turned to Crimea, a peninsula in the south of the country which is home to an ethnic Russian majority, and where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was headquartered.

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, starting the bloodshed in two regions in the east of the country which has seen more than 14,000 people killed and continues until this day.

Despite the fact that Russia and Ukraine signed a peace pact in the Belarussian capital Minsk in 2015, sponsored by France and Germany, ceasefire violations have occurred on several occasions.

In December 2019, the leaders of the four countries convened in Paris to reaffirm their commitment to the 2015 peace pact, but little progress on a political settlement has been made.

HOW DID IT GET TO THIS STAGE?

NATO, established in 1949 to counter Soviet aggression, has agreed that the entire alliance will be mobilised to defend any members invaded or attacked by a third party.

Ukraine is regarded as a partner of NATO, and while it would like to formally join the alliance, member countries have said there no plans to grant Ukraine membership anytime soon.

On the other hand, Russia wants NATO to pledge that Ukraine and Georgia, another former Soviet republic that Russia invaded briefly in 2008, will not join the alliance, even though it cannot deny Ukraine that right.

Western nations such as the US and the United Kingdom have thrown their support behind Ukraine, supplying weapons and mobilising troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also insisted that Russia is only protecting itself from what he sees as an expanding NATO alliance and demanded assurances that Ukraine will not be admitted as a member.

WHAT COULD HAPPEN NEXT?

On Wednesday, Russia and Ukraine agreed at talks in Paris that all parties should observe a ceasefire in the east of Ukraine after more than eight hours of discussions. 

But an aide to French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the news agency AFP that the Paris talks had been about resolving the separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014, not the threat of a Russian invasion.

Commenting on Wednesday's talks in Paris in which he took part, the Kremlin's representative on Ukraine, Mr Dmitry Kozak, said Kyiv had failed to respond to proposals made by the Russian-backed separatists. He said he hoped the next round of talks in Berlin in two weeks' time could narrow the differences.

Analysts TODAY spoke to do not believe a full-scale invasion is imminent, given the economic sanctions threatened by the West against Russia if that were to happen.

Dr Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), who analyses security order and multilateralism in Europe and Asia, said Mr Putin is well aware of the consequences of the invasion and is under no illusion as to the sanctions that may be imposed on him.

Although only Putin knows for sure, I have grounds to believe that this serves not as a preparation for an actual invasion but for the purpose of increasing pressure to engage Russia in high-level dialogue on a new continental security order.
Dr Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

“Although only Putin knows for sure, I have grounds to believe that this serves not as a preparation for an actual invasion but for the purpose of increasing pressure to engage Russia in high-level dialogue on a new continental security order,” he said. 

Dr Michael Raska, the coordinator of the military transformations programme at RSIS, predicted that if the conflict were to escalate, it is likely to be a combination of cyberattacks, disinformation and sporadic low-intensity fighting, not a full-blown invasion. 

“The cost for the Russians will be so high that they will not initiate the move. You can also argue that there isn’t a need for Russia to invade Ukraine to reach its strategic interest, which is to undermine the unity of the West, because all they have to do is bring their troops to the border and watch the West grapple with this.”  

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ASIA AND SINGAPORE?

Dr Kliem said a prolonged conflict in Europe would divert American attention away from the Indo-Pacific region, which should be and is America's strategic focus.

The US has been actively engaging countries in this region with the primary focus of preventing conflict, particularly involving China.

For decades, the vast expanse of territory stretching from Australia to India was referred to by the US as “the Asia-Pacific”, but the lexicon shifted under the former Trump administration as “Indo-Pacific” which was commonly used among foreign policy experts, mainly in India, Indonesia and Australia.

“The US would be well advised to not take the eye off the ball in Asia and to not get embroiled in Europe. The situation serves a good opportunity to remind the Europeans that they need to take responsibility for their own security,” said Dr Kliem. 

Agreeing, Dr Raska said that the crises happening in Europe and in East Asia have stretched the US’ military resources and strategic focus to expand its geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The analysts also said that the direct impact of the conflict on Singapore was likely to be minor but countries in the region which have close ties with both Russia and the US, such as India, might run into diplomatic problems. 

The cost for the Russians will be so high that they will not initiate the move. You can also argue that there isn’t a need for Russia to invade Ukraine to reach its strategic interest, which is to undermine the unity of the West...
Dr Michael Raska, the coordinator of the military transformations programme at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Dr Raska said an invasion of Ukraine by Russia is enough to cause economic ramifications globally, as an invasion would trigger economic sanctions.

The US and some of its European allies have proposed sanctions against Russia, which include cutting the country out of the Swift financial system, which moves money from bank to bank around the globe.

This would effectively end Russia’s ability to send and receive money from abroad, thus damaging its economy immediately and in the long term.

Financial markets are also jittery over possible retaliation by Mr Putin if economic sanctions were imposed. Russia is a major oil producer and supplies large amounts of gas to Europe and could use this position to punish the West.

Related topics

Russia Ukraine conflict war United States Singapore geopolitics

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