What can Malaysia learn after 51 days of the Ukraine-Russia war?

On Foreign Policy with

18 Apr 2022 02:00pm
 President Zelensky during the elections back in April 2019. (Soruce: AFP File pix)
President Zelensky during the elections back in April 2019. (Soruce: AFP File pix)

The Ukraine-Russia War has been taking place without showing a clear sign that it will be ended soon. Various impact assessments have been done on individual states and industries, particularly Malaysia. There are some implications (mostly economics) that are reasonably worrying which increase the volatility of oil and energy prices, which leads to the rise of commodities.

Malaysia, as a nation that is still struggling to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, has a good ground to worry about what's happening at the Russian borders.

After 68 days of Ukraine-Russian war, there are two lessons worth to be observed.

First, is the undeniable importance of geopolitics. Geopolitics is a discipline within International Relations (IR) that submits foreign policy of a state is very much dependent on factors of geography, politics, economics, and demography.

Stemming from geography, this discipline connotes – that the nearer a country to a home country is the more significance we can generate when constructing the home country’s foreign policies. Ukraine, because of its geographical factor (sharing 77, 888km of border with Russia), poses strategic importance to Russia. A slight movement in Ukraine, be with political, economic, and social matters, could pose risks to its neighbour country.

In addition, historically, Ukraine was under the Soviet Union (which now becomes Russia), where we could see many commonalities between the two. Ukraine and Russia share culture, community, and language, which was once aligned with Moscow.

Related Articles:

As for this reason, Ukraine’s behaviour is critical to Russia.

When President Viktor Yanukovich (2010-2014) won the election on Feb 25, 2010, his political background seems to suggest that he is Pro-Russia, Pro-Soviet culture, Eurosceptic and not very liberal. He was a strong supporter of the Communist Party of Soviet Union.

Yanukovich was succeeded by Petro Poroshenko in 2014 who began to allign with the EU. While this is not welcomed by Russia, Moscow could still accept the political dynamic of its neighbour country.

However, when Volodymyr Zelensky (2019 to present) heralded Ukraine’s presidency as being a pro-western, pro-Nato, pro-EU, and subscribed to Liberal Democracy, Moscow began to sense a threat to its national sovereignty. As argued, much of this is contributed by geopolitics, as a lens for us to understand how change merits in a neighbour country.

Russia would not be concerned whether Malaysia or Singapore embrace Westminster democracy, as the proximity would not suggest an imminent threat to the country.

Liberal democracy proponents argue that the political will of a state is a matter of national sovereignty. This must not be interfered with and be a concern to another country. It is Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent nation to be a NATO or an EU member.

The public sentiment suggests that they want modernisation, a break away from the Soviet culture, which is strongly embedded in Russia. However, there are also who oppose such an idea. In 2013, the Yanukovych administration was in favour to sign the European Union Association Agreement (EUAA).

However, in the same year, the government was suspended from signing on a basis it was a haste decision of the government without taking into account the opinion of Crimea, Luhanks and Donetsk (Donbas region). Not only these areas are Russian-speaking territories, they are pro-Russia when it comes to political alignment.

Even with the Steinmen Formula introduced by President Zelensky in 2019, the formula was not a success. This is due to the deadlock between Zelensky administration and Putin’s. Ukraine demands for a complete ceasefire and the withdrawal of all Russian troops and weapons.

Russia states that elections and autonomy should be preceded first before anything else. Ukraine will not be in good standing if pro-Russia rebels possess weapons that are being sponsored by Russia. In addition, Ukraine would face civil unrest if a special status was awarded to Donbas.

Because of this, Zelensky pulls the trigger by seeking help from Nato. This has been a red flag for Russia from the very beginning. I shall be explaining why this has been a red flag for Russia, analysing from Moscow’s perspective of national interest vis-a-vis Kyiv’s.

Second, a matter of national interest.

Ukraine’s national interest lies in the urgency to suppress domestic instability due to the Donbas region and Crimea's inclination towards Russia. Should this be delayed, it will create a domino effect on the entire country as the rebel movements have been spreading to Donetsk and Luhanks and many other strategic areas since 2014. President Zelensky should find a way out in the most instant and constructive way, failing which, he will end up like Viktor Yanukovich.

From the Russian perspective, Ukraine’s move will create a new form of instability in the region as well as within its own territory. All this while, Ukraine has become a battleground/buffer zone between US/EU and China. In 2016, Nato agrees to reinforce eastern Poland, Baltic states against Russia. Ukraine reported joining the US and seven of Nato members in air exercises in Ukraine.

Nato has been consistent in its eastward expansion toward Russia and one could understand that this is a consistent effort to contain Russia. This triggers Russia’s intervention, based on a game theory.

Game theory tells us, prediction of decision making could lead to a calculation of wins and losses. If we apply this to the Russo-Ukraine conflict, as of February 2022, Russia has two options to deal with Ukraine. First is to attack while Ukraine is yet an EU member and part of Nato.

Second is to attack while Ukraine has full membership in the EU and Nato. In its first option, the implications of an invasion will be sanctions from the EU and US, as well as retaliation from Ukraine. Losses for Russia will be in terms of military deficit and economic sanctions.

For Ukraine, it will also suffer a military deficit, loss of life, and infrastructure demolition in areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Both parties are at loss. However, Russia’s intention to engage in war is to deter Ukraine from becoming a member of the EU and Nato. There is no indication that Ukraine's accession to both clubs is happening soon. Therefore, we can pre-maturely conclude Russia is on the winning side, as long as Ukraine does not accede to EU and Nato.

Russia’s second option would be to attack later or not attacking at all. Assume that Ukraine gains accession to either EU or Nato and there will be an amplification of retaliation (US/Nato and EU) and economic sanctions. Ukraine will have bigger support of military manpower, reducing its military deficit and loss of life. Ukraine, having a membership in the EU and Nato will be a big winner.

Russia on the other hand will result in a greater military deficit and loss of life since the war will also break out in the Russian territory. Engaging in any of the options will result in Russia’s loss. However, by attacking later/not attacking will bring greater loss to Russia’s sovereignty and Putin is avoiding this from taking place under the notion of national interest.

From the international relations perspective, this is a rational behaviour of a state. A state will strike when its national interest is triggered, and in any decision that it will engage, the aim is to reduce loss in every possible way. Quoting Putin, “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist while facing a permanent threat from the territory of today’s Ukraine.”

In the end, the balance of national interest must be weighed. Russia must engage its military action to deter Ukraine from becoming a member of EU and Nato. In its best national interest, Ukraine should be a buffer state between Nato/US and Russia. In Ukraine’s best interest, will its sovereign decision to be part of Nato and EU outweighs stable relationship with its neighbour, Russia?

In conclusion, Malaysia (as well as the rest of the world) should look at the Ukraine-Russia war from the perspectives of Geopolitics and one’s national interest. Applying these to our country, Asean and Malaysia could not accommodate to have a military conflict in the region. It must keep foreign military presence outside of the region, or else the region potentially be a buffer zone, like Ukraine.

Asean and Malaysia must remain to understand (as geopolitics explained) that China is a significant international actor and must not be left out in any calculation. It is an economic power that could affect the economic survival of any state in Asean. In the foreseeable future, Malaysia and ASEAN would enjoy prosperity and growth by not aligning our countries to any world’s superpower but by consistently acknowledging China’s importance to our state’s survival.

Dr Zokhri Idris holds a Ph.D in International Relations from Korea University. He aspires to become a prominent scholar, a strategist, and an influencer of Modern Leadership and Diplomacy in the context of International Relations. His area of interest also includes China’s geo-political behaviourism as a current global shift.

More Like This