What Russian Aggression in Ukraine Means for Southeast Asia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
What Russian Aggression in Ukraine Means for Southeast Asia Smoke billows from a power and heating plant after it was shelled in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, Feb. 22, 2022.

Updated at 8:42 a.m. ET on 2022-02-23

Russia is attacking Ukraine, an act of aggression that could upend the global order. This is a clear violation of the sovereignty of a state, a central principle of international law.

Yet the response from across the capitals of Southeast Asia has been muted, despite the extremely dangerous precedent that it sets.

President Vladimir Putin’s goal is not to take over Ukraine. He wants a compliant government, like Belarus, that does Moscow’s bidding. He wants the political and diplomatic assets of having vassal states, without any of the liabilities of their underperforming economies.

In short, Putin is reviving the old Soviet concept of “limited sovereignty”: Great powers are sovereign, and weaker states have just a little less sovereignty. Should they not comply with the demands of great powers, they open themselves up to military and political intervention.

Where’s the concern in Southeast Asia?

Why have almost all states to date been so reticent on Russia’s buildup of up to 190,000 troops on the Ukrainian border; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement that “Ukraine has no claim to sovereignty”; Putin’s announcement that two breakaway regions of Ukraine are independent states; his preposterous deployment of “peace keepers”; and the waiting for a Ukrainian “provocation” as a pretext for a full-scale invasion?

A reliable weapons supplier

Unlike other countries where Russian dominance of energy markets can often buy diplomatic acquiescence, Russia provides little energy to Southeast Asia. Its economic ties to the region are paltry.

Russia’s total two-way trade with Southeast Asia is an estimated U.S. $25 billion. Russia barely ranks as a top-tier trading partner for any country in the region.

Vietnam – Russia’s largest regional trading partner in absolute value – still trades more annually with Cambodia. Russia has almost no foreign direct investment in the region, the largest being an offshore oilfield in Vietnam. 

Moscow’s main source of leverage is the fact that it dominates the region’s arms markets with reliable and relatively cheap weapons systems that it will sell to any regime, no matter how odious or repressive their policies are.

Russia remains a key supplier to its traditional clients: Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  Russia has been central to Vietnam’s military modernization and has sold advanced submarines, warships, jet-fighters anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. Vietnam produces a range of Russian equipment under license.

And of course, Russia remains a key supplier of weapons to Myanmar.

According to a new report by the United Nations, Russia has been the largest supplier of weapons to the junta since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup d’etat, exporting SU-30MK jets, YAK-130 light-attack jets, armored personnel carriers, and mobile air-defense systems. And they show no signs of letting up, despite the daily human rights abuses and intentional targeting of civilians.

In the early 2000s, Russia began selling fighter-jets to Indonesia and Malaysia, but it was unable to grow those markets. Indeed, perhaps from fear of sanctions, and perhaps because Moscow refused any barter agreement, the Indonesians recently announced two new arms packages worth over $20 billion, including jet imports, from France and the United States.

While Russia promised new weapons factories to the Philippines, which saw a 2016 U.S. Senate hold on weapons exports due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, little has been delivered. Beyond the purchase of a squadron of helicopters, the promise of other weapons sales has not materialized either.

Attempts to enter the Thai arms market, in the midst of two coup d’etats since 2006, have garnered only limited success. Since 2008, Thai imports from Russia have mainly been helicopters. 

Russia has leverage over some Southeast Asian states, but certainly not all.

The MH-17 shootdown

The reticence is not new. Most countries in the region said little during Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and later aggression in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The only reason that Southeast Asia was at all pulled into the situation was the July 17, 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile that killed all 298 passengers and crew.

It defied any plausibility that irregular forces in Donbas had access to advanced missiles. Dutch investigators concluded that the missile was launched by Russian-led forces in rebel-controlled territory. 

Russia continues to deny the allegations, spewing unfounded and baseless accusations that the plane was shot down by Ukrainian government forces. It has never accepted culpability or paid any restitution. 

Tellingly, few in Southeast Asia showed any will to confront Russia over MH-17 or over its aggression against a state that all but Brunei had recognized since between January 1991 and June 1992.


Rules-based order under threat

The lack of a full-throated response from Southeast Asian capitals is striking.

At a G-20 meeting, President Jokowi spoke of the situation in Ukraine only in terms of something that could threaten the economic recovery caused by two years of a global pandemic. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has spoken to Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in the past week, but has not said anything about the conversations.

Singapore issued perhaps the most forceful statement, demanding that “the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected.” Vietnam, a close partner of Russia, has said nothing.

With limited economic ties, limited political engagement, and geographical distance, Russia poses little in the way of an immediate threat to Southeast Asian nations.

Indeed, for the second year in a row, Russia wasnt even mentioned in the well-respected annual ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Center survey of Southeast Asian elites, even as a potential threat to the rules-based order.

Yet, all the countries of Southeast Asia depend on international law, which is based on the concept of sovereign equality. Every country is threatened by a great power adopting a worldview based on a unilateral interpretation of shared history, language and culture.   

This is not some remote conflict that has little bearing on Southeast Asian security. Attempts to upend the world order cut to the core of Southeast Asian security and prosperity. It is not a European security problem or part of Washington’s Great Power Competition.

On the contrary, this is something that creates a very dangerous legal precedent, especially for an assertive country like China that has repeatedly pushed for its own interpretations of international law, most clearly in the South China Sea.

China could easily apply the logic Putin that used to annul Ukrainian sovereignty to make sweeping claims to swaths of Southeast Asia; northern Vietnam was a Chinese province for 1,000 years, and parts of Myanmar, such as the Kokang region, are dominated by ethnic Chinese – just two examples.

We have already seen China publicly warn Southeast Asian states that “there are big states and there are small states,” as they threatened at a 2010 ASEAN meeting in Hanoi. There is clearly a parallel between the doctrine of limited sovereignty and China’s traditional “All Under Heaven” worldview and system of tributary states.

China will deny this. But while Putin’s actions may ultimately work against China’s long-term diplomatic and economic interests, for now, Beijing has clearly tied itself to Russian revisionism.

Sadly, most Southeast Asian states are likely to not take sides, avoiding another conflict that they fear could cause them marginal economic harm. Most of them will not join the European Union, the United States, Australia or Japan in imposing sanctions. They do so at their own peril.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

This commentary has been updated to remove an incorrect assertion that Vietnamese media has almost no coverage of current tensions surrounding Ukraine.


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