Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on February 21 that Russia recognized the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic”. Immediately after signing the decree, Putin also directed the Russian Ministry of Defense to send peacekeepers to the Donbas and asked the Russian Foreign Ministry to establish diplomatic relations with the countries that have just been recognized as independent states.
After an extraordinary meeting with Russia’s Security Council on February 21, President Vladimir Putin gave a 55-minute televised speech to explain this important geopolitical decision. In his speech, the Russian leader made the following main points: (i) Ukraine has never had a true state tradition and modern Ukraine is “created by Russia“; (ii) The idea of Ukraine joining NATO is not defensive in nature, but will pose a “direct threat to Russian security”; (iii) NATO has disregarded Russia’s security concerns; (iv) Ukraine is just a “puppet” in the hands of the US and the Kiev government is very corrupt; (v) Recognition of breakaway states is something “Russia should have done a long time ago.”
Violations affecting the South China Sea
United Nations Secretary-General Guterres has insisted that the Russian troops entering Ukraine are not “peacekeepers” as Moscow claims. He also said that the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine’s territory without the consent of this country means that Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Such actions of Russia towards Ukraine have clearly set a very dangerous precedent for countries that are not great powers in the world. When a great power is not satisfied with a neighboring country, it will be able to arbitrarily stage a “disguised invasion” by supporting and stirring up a group of people under the guise of “secession” and that will be an excuse for the great powers to invade other countries’ territories. Especially in the context that China is growing stronger and China’s territorial ambitions are worrying the whole world. China has also repeatedly offered its own interpretations of international law, most clearly in the South China Sea (Vietnam calls it the East Sea).
Many experts around the world worry that China could easily apply the way Putin used to deny Ukraine’s sovereignty to make sweeping claims over Southeast Asian territories.
Keith Leong, research director of KRA Group – a public affairs consulting firm focusing on the ASEAN region – thinks that there are too many geopolitical and strategic entanglements that make it difficult to easily solve the crisis between Russia, Ukraine, and the West. “Part of the problem is that people don’t quite understand what Putin really wants,” he said. Assuming Ukraine does not join NATO, whether in the near future or in the more distant future, will Putin stop there because Putin already has evidence to show that the West will provoke his behavior? Even if he allows Ukraine to remain independent, will his successors feel bound by this?” (2). According to Mr. Leong, any war in this age of globalization will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world, even for the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Given Southeast Asia’s connectivity to the wider world, the socio-economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require a measure of global stability, he said. War in Ukraine would be a significant setback in this regard. In addition, the conflict, if not dampened by US efforts to re-engage in the region, would be a distraction. And if Putin’s actions are not deterred, what can stop China from seeking to test the US?”
The US response to Putin’s ambitions in Europe will shape Chinese President Xi Jinping’s next move for Taiwan, said Hugh White, an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. “What Putin is doing in Ukraine right now is exactly the same as what Xi Jinping is doing to Taiwan – just as Putin is using Ukraine as a test to see if the US will be ready to fight to uphold Washington’s vision as a global hegemon.” He argued that if the Ukraine crisis shows that US President Joe Biden is unwilling to wage an all-out military conflict, the bolder Xi will be to act on Taiwan if he is confident enough that Washington will not respond. If Xi is more confident that the Americans understand that they will not be able to win that war, the more likely the Chinese leader will be to take risks.”
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton has warned that an invasion of Taiwan by China would be the first piece in a Domino game that would help Beijing gain hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region.
Is silence golden?
The worrying thing is that at present, before such a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, are still quite silent. In Vietnam, there are many officials and intellectuals who were trained from the (former) Soviet Union, so they still have feelings for Russia, even though Russia is not the Soviet Union. Even many commentators are very “crazy about Russia” and always curse the West. Perhaps, commentators or the Vietnamese public, if they have sympathy for Russia, must first recognize and evaluate the issue from the perspective of Vietnam’s own interests.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told reporters on February 23 that “Vietnam is monitoring recent tense developments surrounding the Ukraine situation and calls on all parties to exercise restraint and increase strengthen dialogue efforts, promote diplomatic measures to peacefully resolve disagreements on the basis of respect for the United Nations Charter and basic principles of international law, contributing to ensuring peace, security, and stability in the region and around the world.”
“Russia is attacking Ukraine, an act of aggression that could upset the global order,” said Professor Zachary Abuza of the US Naval War College. However, governments in Southeast Asia have been largely silent, despite the extremely dangerous precedent that Moscow’s actions set. He also said that “Vietnam, a close partner of Russia, said nothing and state media barely reported it. With its limited economic ties and political involvement as well as its geographical distance, Russia poses little immediate threat to Southeast Asian nations. However, all Southeast Asian countries are subject to international law, which is based on the concept of sovereign equality. Every nation is threatened by a great power that adopts a worldview based on a unilateral interpretation of history, language, and culture at large.
This is not a distant conflict that has little impact on Southeast Asian security. Attempts to reverse the world order directly affect security and prosperity in Southeast Asia. Nor is it a matter of European security or part of Washington’s great power competition.”
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