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Not only for the people of Ukraine, but also for the peoples of Southeast Asia, however distant the region from the scene of Communist Russia’s latest, on-going act of naked aggression. ASEAN governments must share the concern expressed at the Security Council by Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, over Putin’s justification of his assault on Ukraine.
Putin asserts that Lenin “created” Ukraine on Russian territory. Second, he accuses Ukraine of subjecting its minority Russian population seeking to join the Russian Federation to “bullying and genocide.” Similar claims by Hitler to territories in Czechoslovakia and Poland occupied by ethnic Germans contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, a grim reminder of what can happen, by accident or design. Putin’s allusion to the Holocaust to justify the invasion as necessary to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine is ironic. The presumed victims of genocide are Russian-speakers. The leaders branded as Nazis have been elected by the Ukrainian voters. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won 70% of the vote, happens to be Jewish.
The charge of ethnic oppression is equally spurious. The Ukrainians and the Russians both come from the same Slavic stock and many originally born on one side of the border have relatives on the other side. Putin himself has stressed the blood ties between Russians and Ukrainians. Mikhail Gorbachev was of Ukrainian descent. Unfortunately, he is not admired by Putin, who blames him for allowing NATO and democracy to creep to the Russian border. Putin is waging war on family members, a major reason for the protests within Russia of the attack on Ukraine.
Ukraine has its own language and traditions and Kyiv was founded hundreds of years earlier than Moscow. Ukraine, particularly the people in the western part of the country, have a history of resisting Russian rule, the most recent before the First World War and after the Second World War. Ambassador Kimani found alarming Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s right to nationhood. While 18% of the Ukrainian population were ethnic Russians and nearly 30% were primarily Russian-language speakers, over 90% of the population voted in a referendum in 1991 for independence, rather than integration with the Russian Federation. Ukraine has been an independent nation-state for over 30 years.
Kimani noted that the collapse of colonial empires allowed the birth of Kenya and almost every African nation-state: “Our borders…were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.” Southeast Asia has a similar history of colonial subjugation and ASEAN is a collection of countries constituted from multiple ethnic communities. Their claim to independence rests on a world order that guarantees, under international law, respect for minority populations but also for established national borders and the equality of sovereign nations.
Putin champions Russian nationalism as a historical right but will only respect the nationhood of states that can protect it against Russian military power. In one reckless blow, Putin has plunged the world back to the late 18th and 19th centuries, when communities were struggling to carve out of dynastic monarchies their own independent nation states. The Ukraine invasion has now blurred political alignments based along Cold War ideological, Right-Left, communist-democratic, or “clash-of-civilization” divides that have continued to the 21st century. The Ukraine invasion has confounded Putin’s card-carrying colleagues in the club of populist autocrats, who have failed to rally to Russia’s side.
Neither Islamic Turkey’s Erdogan, nor Catholic Hungary’s Orban, nor Hindu India’s Modi has endorsed Putin’s war. The Ukraine invasion has unsettled even firmly entrenched autocratic leaders because Putin has reduced the complexities of international relations to the single measure of coercive power. Populist leaders may be able to control their domestic enemies. Putin’s assault on Ukraine has made them all vulnerable to more powerful states that may seek profit from exploiting their internal ethnic, religious, or ideological divisions.
The smallest ASEAN nation, Singapore, has taken the bravest stand on the Russian war against Ukraine, not choosing sides, but upholding principles. Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan articulated the need to conduct foreign policy in a coherent and consistent manner to become “reliable partners for those who operate on the same principles.” On the principle that “the sovereignty, the political independence, and the territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected,” Singapore has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Our leaders may still be looking for their principles. Duterte has not shared his views on the Ukrainian crisis provoked by Putin, his friend. In 2016, before joining Putin at a meeting of Asia Pacific leaders, Duterte dismissed the UN as useless, declaring that he would be the first to join Russia and China in establishing an alternative world order. China has hinted at its preference for the principle now operating in Ukraine: “There are big states and small states” – and the assumption that big states must prevail.
But even China is not ready to discard the UN Charter. At the Munich Security Dialogue on February 19, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that “the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded,” a principle that “applies equally to Ukraine.” How long China will maintain this policy is uncertain, considering its unilateral redrawing of maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. DFA Secretary Teddyboy Locsin has proclaimed the safety of some 300 Filipinos in Ukraine as the country’s “chief and singular concern,” announcing plans to go to the Ukrainian border “to personally see to the safety of my people.”
With the pain being inflicted on the Ukrainian people, the shocks battering the global economy, and Putin placing Russian nuclear forces on alert, Ukraine surely raises other issues important to a foreign affairs secretary. Or a president. – Rappler.com
Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.