Vladimir Putin's Justification for Ukraine War Makes Asia Feel 'Very Insecure'

Russia's justification for going to war against Ukraine has Asia concerned for its own security, the prime minister of Singapore said during a visit to the United States this week.

President Vladimir Putin laid the groundwork for his invasion using historical narratives that surprised many listeners around the world—not only those in Europe and North America. In the East, where China is the foremost rising power, there are concerns that decades-old territorial disputes could come to a head in a similar manner, Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong suggested.

"It impacts the Asia-Pacific area at many level. First of all, it damaged the international framework for law and order, and peace between countries. It violates the UN Charter; it endangers the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones," Lee said at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday.

On February 21, three days before Putin lunched his full-scale military offensive for regime change in Kyiv, he described Ukraine as "entirely created by Russia." The country lacked a distinct culture or identity of its own, he said, and Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were mistaken to have given the land away.

His argument was built on a lengthy essay penned last summer, when he called Russia and Ukraine "one people." When all-out war broke out last month, Putin's trope echoed across Asia, and most notably in Taiwan, where its people are fighting a similar historical theme employed by the leadership in Beijing.

Condemning the Invasion

Lee's city-state has condemned Russia's invasion in the strongest possible terms, voting to censure it at the United Nations and joining sweeping sanctions on its economy. China, meanwhile, with its own strategic calculations, has done the opposite. It remains the only member of the UN Security Council to provide the Kremlin with significant political cover.

If "crazy decisions and historical errors are the justification for invading somebody else," Lee said, "I think many of us are going to be feeling very insecure in the Asia-Pacific, but also in the rest of the world."

Singapore's leader sees the conflict as threatening the multilateral framework under which rival nations cooperate on global issues including trade, climate change and non-proliferation. He also hinted at a potential arms race in Asia, where countries like Japan and South Korea may seek to guarantee their own security with hard power options that include nuclear capabilities, despite the obvious risk that entails.

"What happens in Ukraine is bound to have a big impact on U.S.-China relations. It will strain them; it has already strained them," said Lee. However, while Beijing's alignment with Moscow may cause a further ideological rift with the West, he doesn't see the same impact in China's immediate neighborhood.

"I do not think that in the region, the fact that China refuses to distance itself from Russia, costs it," the PM said. "All the countries in the region—they worry about sovereignty and the principles of the UN charter—but at the same time, they want their ties with China, and quite a few of them have significant ties with Russia, for example, India."

During the event hosted by the CFR's president, Richard Haass, Lee noted Beijing's refusal to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine conflicts with the country's clearly stated views on sovereignty and territorial integrity.

He said: "I think it presents them with awkward questions. Because on Ukraine, it violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly—territorial integrity, and sovereignty and non-interference. And if you can do that to Ukraine, and if the Donbas can be considered to be enclaves, and maybe republics..."

"What about Taiwan?" Haass asked.

"Or other parts of non-Han China? So, that is a very difficult question," Lee said, his response a likely reference to politically sensitive regions including Xinjiang and Tibet, where the Chinese government has been accused of suppressing the native culture.

Concern Over Taiwan

In Asia, where a collective defense arrangement like NATO doesn't exist, the implications for Taiwan are many, but most revolve around what the U.S. would or wouldn't do in the event of unprovoked aggression on the part of China.

"I think what we will all like to see happen in Taiwan is that the status quo continues, and changes—if there are any changes—they must not take place forcibly or non-peacefully," Lee said.

In recent years, Singapore's PM has spoken at length about what appears to be the principal geopolitical challenge of the post-Cold War period—China's rapid rise and the need to peacefully integrate it into the existing world order. How to accommodate China in a way that isn't "overbearing on the rest of the world" and acceptable to the U.S.—the dominant military power worldwide and the resident power in Asia—is the issue, he said.

Lee is on a five-day visit to the U.S., which included meetings with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. As he and Biden released a joint statement and gave prepared remarks outside the White House, Lee expounded on his country's position regarding Ukraine.

"The sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected. The unprovoked military invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext is unacceptable. We cannot condone any country arguing that another country's independence is the result of historical errors and crazy decisions," he said.

"The war in the Ukraine has implications for the Asia-Pacific. There are potential flashpoints and contentious issues in our region too, which, if not managed well, could escalate to open conflict. Countries with interests in the region need to pursue all efforts to settle disagreements through peaceful means so that we can avoid reaching a point of no return," Lee said.

Russia's War Themes Concern Asia: Singapore PM
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Attending a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 2022, Lee said Russia’s justification for going to war in Ukraine made Asia feel “very insecure.” ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SAUL LOEB/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images