Small, newly independent Ukraine's dealings with an assertive Russia hold lessons for small states in Asia dealing with a large regional power
Mr Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine's foreign minister, has a bone stuck in his throat. It's Russian, and a very large one.
Since 2014, Russia has occupied Crimea and entered the Donbass region, where, he says, some 2,000 Russian armoured vehicles and tanks are located in an area that accounts for just 3 per cent of Ukrainian territory. A two-day power blackout last month in Kiev, the capital city, was suspected to be the work of Russian hackers, although firmly denied by Moscow.
The United Nations Security Council, of which Ukraine is currently a non-permanent member, is unable to help him because Moscow has a veto there.
The United States and the United Kingdom, which, along with Russia, in 1994 signed the Budapest Memorandum which provided Kiev assurances against the violation of its independence or territorial integrity, have done little to help Ukraine evict the intruder.
Last September, Ukraine finally instituted arbitration proceedings under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) with respect to maritime zones adjacent to Crimea.
Over two lengthy meetings this week in Singapore, Mr Klimkin, who was a lowly second secretary handling disarmament when Ukraine signed the memorandum in exchange for surrendering the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, told me he now wished his political masters had heeded his advice to have stronger guarantees in place before they had agreed to give up the weapons and delivery systems.
The force that's pressuring his nation is overwhelming. It is not just vast swathes of territory Russia has occupied.
It has deployed hybrid warfare in a comprehensive and consistent way, he says. Aside from conventional methods, Russia uses new kinds of electronic warfare alongside economic, cyber and propaganda.
Besides, in its actions, Moscow has crossed a number of psychological barriers not just in Ukraine, but latterly, in Syria too.
Crossing these barriers, combined with the ability to destabilise, makes for a potent combination. It leaves those that steer this instability with the advantage, especially in regions where a potent mix of history, religion and cultures offer fertile ground for sharpening differences.
"You cannot counter it if you do not have clear political will and the means to act," Mr Klimkin adds.
It is a sobering thought. Ukraine is some distance from Asia but my interest in Mr Klimkin - this week, I also sat through his talk at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy - was to see what other lessons South-east Asia could glean from the pressures Ukraine is experiencing from its regional hegemon.
A little background here.
Ukraine emerged from the former Soviet Union as an independent nation in 1991. Its troubles started when it began leaning towards the West, and Nato, a few years after it gained independence.
This raised worries in Moscow that Kiev did not intend to remain the neutral state it had said it wanted to be at the time of its birth.
According to Russian officials, then German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher had separately also promised Moscow that there would be no eastward expansion of Nato, a body set up in 1949 by Western powers with the principal aim of countering Soviet expansionism. Now, it seemed as though the Western alliance was not keeping its word.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who was just consolidating his power, was clearly watching the developments with some dismay but things seemed to ease after an action plan with Nato signed in 2002, when it was decided that the question of joining the Nato alliance would be decided in a future referendum.
As long as pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was in power, this stayed on the back-burner.
But in 2013, Mr Yanukovych came under pressure from a popular uprising after he decided to scrap talks to join the European Union and, instead, build closer ties with Russia. When he was deposed the following year, Russia saw it as an illegal coup backed by the West.
Old insecurities, and fear of encirclement, were aroused.
This set the stage for the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Saying they were invited in by Mr Yanukovych, and that Russians in Ukraine (about 17 per cent of the population is ethnic Russian) needed protection, Moscow's army simply walked in and occupied the peninsula, which is on the northern coast of the Black Sea. A deeply infiltrated Ukrainian military offered no resistance.
NATIONAL INTERESTS, REGIONAL POWER
No South-east Asian nation has been attacked in recent times by a major regional power but even so Ukraine's problems are interesting because they involve several facets that have salience here.
There is the right of an independent nation to decide what is in its best interests, and act accordingly. There is the question of the dominant regional power's insecurities and rights to secure its legitimate security interests.
And of course there is the matter of the limited options a small nation has when the hegemon is willing to ignore international rules, and law, to protect what it sees as its core interests.
On the first, it would be preposterous to imagine that any country should not be able to exercise its right to choose its friends and allies. What would sovereignty mean if this privilege does not exist? In actual fact, though, this often runs counter to the second question.
Indeed, history is replete with instances of the regional hegemon, especially when led by people with grand visions, leaning on smaller neighbours to protect its primacy.
Under President Sukarno in the 1960s, Indonesia inflicted Konfrontasi on its South-east Asian neighbours. Likewise, after Sri Lanka in the early 1980s initiated a pro-West policy, New Delhi fuelled insurgency in the island, setting the smaller neighbour back by a quarter century.
There of course is the question of what to do when these layered interests collide, as they have in recent years in South-east Asia.
That makes a rules-based order all the more vital for the survival of small nations and the preservation of their independence.
If not, says Mr Klimkin, the danger is that some people play with the rules, not by the rules.
This is why Ukraine initiated arbitration proceedings under Unclos. Russia has nominated a judge to the five-member arbitration panel while saying the Ukrainians were neither acting in good faith nor were they sincere about negotiations.
Meanwhile, it has deployed the S-400, its most advanced air defence system, in Crimea.
"I know many Asean nations have been striving for a consensus approach but the Ukrainian experience has been that any kind of solution has to be based on trust and principles of international law," Mr Klimkin says.
What is next? He adds that Ukraine is determined to persist on the path of joining the European project, no matter what Moscow thinks. The experience of fighting Russia itself qualifies Ukraine to be a valuable member of the European Union, he suggests. As for Nato, he concedes there is no consensus yet about admitting Ukraine.
"But I believe that becoming part of security structures which have the same values and principles as us, which is capable of countering various threats, is of fundamental importance to us."
There of course is a final worry.
What if the powers that encouraged you to stand up for yourself, and guaranteed your security, flinch in critical moments or, worse, do deals with your oppressor that leave you twisting in the wind? With Mr Donald Trump, who called Nato "obsolete", poised to enter the White House, nothing can be taken for granted.
As early as three years ago, then Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam had speculated on the possibility, while explaining Singapore's emphasis on a rules-based order.
"When squeezed between two big powers or blocs, a smaller country like Ukraine can become a pawn," he had said in Parliament. "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."
Mr Klimkin was hopeful that the Trump administration would find merit in supporting Ukraine, seeing his country had always enjoyed bipartisan support in the US. Those sentiments were reiterated in Davos this week by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who told Reuters that "promising" statements from Trump nominees give "us a lot more optimism for the future".
Famous last words perhaps.
But only time will tell.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2017, with the headline 'Ukraine and the lessons for Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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