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Explainer: Will Singapore's sanctions against Russia have any impact?

SINGAPORE — Singapore’s exports to Russia significantly dwarf exports from Russia to Singapore but the sanctions imposed by the Republic on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine will still have some impact, experts said.

Explainer: Will Singapore's sanctions against Russia have any impact?
Singapore exports to Russia products such as navigation systems and integrated circuits which have potential military applications, said an expert.
  • Singapore’s trade with Russia accounts for less than 1 per cent of the total exports and imports here, said economists
  • Among the top products that Russia imported from Singapore in November 2021 were laboratory reagents and navigation equipment. 
  • Notably, the main products that Russia imported from Singapore in 2019 include navigation equipment and integrated circuits
  • With these products having potential military applications, the sanctions may limit Russia’s capacity to continue conducting military operations against Ukraine, said an expert
  • It will also help to limit Russia’s attempt to circumvent sanctions imposed by the West

SINGAPORE — Singapore’s imports from Russia dwarf its exports to the same country, but the sanctions imposed by the Republic against Russia — in what was described by the Singapore Government as a rare move — over its invasion of Ukraine will still have some impact, experts said.

This is because Singapore exports to Russia products such as navigation systems and integrated circuits which have potential military applications, said Dr Bernard Loo, a senior fellow with the Military Studies Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

According to former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, who took to Facebook on Monday to welcome the sanctions, the last time Singapore imposed unilateral sanctions was over four decades ago, after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978. TODAY has sent queries to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to verify Mr Kausikan's statement.  

Russia is paying a price for its aggression as countries all over the world hit the country with new injunctions in the last week as they condemn the military incursion that has unfolded.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and countries under the European Union banner have already banned certain Russian banks from the Swift international payment system.

The US has also restricted exports of technology hardware, including computers, sensors, lasers, navigation tools, telecoms, aerospace and marine equipment, prompting many firms, such as Dell Technologies, to suspend Russia sales.

On Monday, (Feb 28), Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament that Singapore will follow suit and impose sanctions on Russia, due to the "unprecedented gravity" of the situation and Russia's veto last week of a draft resolution by the United Nations Security Council.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore has always complied fully with sanctions and decisions of the UN Security Council, which is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, but has rarely acted to impose sanctions on other countries in the absence of binding decisions or directions by the council.

"However, given the unprecedented gravity of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the unsurprising veto by Russia of a draft Security Council Resolution, Singapore intends to act in concert with many other like-minded countries to impose appropriate sanctions and restrictions against Russia,” he added.

The sanctions include banking and financial measures as well as export control on items that could be used as weapons against Ukraine.

TODAY looks at the trade relationship between Singapore and Russia and how the sanctions imposed by Singapore will impact Russia.

HOW MUCH TRADE DOES SINGAPORE HAVE WITH RUSSIA?

Data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an online trade data hub, showed that Russia’s exports to Singapore amounted to US$94.2million (S$127.9m) in November 2021, while its imports from Singapore that month amounted to US$65.2 million (S$88.5m).

Economists told TODAY that Singapore’s trade with Russia is “very small”, with DBS senior economist Irvin Seah pointing out that Russia accounts for just 0.1 per cent of Singapore's total exports, and 0.8 per cent of total imports.

Among the top products that Russia imported from Singapore were laboratory reagents, packaged medicaments and navigation equipment. 

Notably, in 2019, the main products that Russia imported from Singapore were navigation equipment, integrated circuits and office machine parts.

HOW WILL THE SANCTIONS IMPOSED BY SINGAPORE IMPACT RUSSIA?

Experts said while the sanctions imposed by Singapore may not have a big impact on Russia given Singapore’s limited influence, it will help to limit Russia’s attempt to circumvent sanctions imposed by the West as well as its capacity to continue conducting military operations against Ukraine.

Assistant Professor of modern European history at Yale-NUS College Mate Rigo noted that the European Union, the United States and their allies have already made a concerted effort to freeze out Russia from the global financial system and turn it into a pariah state. 

“Under these circumstances, the stance of independent financial hubs like Singapore may turn out to be crucial in limiting Russia’s attempts to circumvent Western sanctions,” he said. 

Sanctions on Russian banks as well as potential sanctions on technology exports to Russia would also affect the country’s economy in the long term, added Asst Prof Rigo. 

“Russia is a minor trading partner of Singapore, yet the economies of the two states both have a vested interest in the trade of oil and natural gas. If Singapore closed its ports to Russian commercial shipping or the shipment of Russian goods, it could seriously impact the Russian economy,” he said. 

Dr Loo said Singapore’s ban on armament will also affect Russia’s continuing capacity to conduct its military operations against Ukraine given that some products exported to Russia from Singapore have potential military applications, even if the volume that Singapore supplies to Russia is small. 

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SANCTIONS?

This rare move for Singapore to impose sanctions on one of the big powers of the world shows that it is willing to sacrifice minor economic gains on the altar of international law and the interests of small states, said Asst Prof Rigo.

He said that Dr Balakrishnan’s address on Monday showed that Singapore has “correctly understood” that the fate of today’s Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia are strongly intertwined. 

“If the crushing of smaller states by large and mighty ones turns into a model, states like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea will face a very difficult situation,” added Asst Prof Rigo.

Agreeing, Assistant Professor Benjamin Ho from the China Programme at the RSIS, said that the sanctions will not have much impact on Russia given Singapore's limited influence, but it sends a signal that as a small country, Singapore is not without agency and voice.

Dr Loo said the imposition of such sanctions against Russia has diplomatic value — it underscores Singapore's commitment to the rules-based system through which most international relations is conducted and its commitment to peace and stability in international politics. 

And while the sanctions have "some real impact" on Russia, they are "nevertheless more symbolic in value", he added. 

“It is, to my mind, the principle that matters, that whatever the grievances, real or imagined, the resort to military force can never be tolerated, unless it is clearly in an act of self-defence," he said. 

Related topics

Ukraine Russia US sanctions Singapore war trade economy

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