I’ve been playing catch-up since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, trying to grasp important context and background that will help me better understand what I’m seeing and reading on social media and in the news. There are, naturally, limits to how much of a crash course I can get in two weeks, but I’ve been aided by a variety of books, articles, news reporting, Twitter threads, etc. I’ve shared some of what I’ve been reading here, but have also received feedback with fair criticism of my recommendations.
The idea for this issue came up as I was looking at comments and reactions from other Singaporeans. I saw lots of confusion, false equivalences, mixed messages, and *sigh* misinformation. So I reached out to friends/readers of We, The Citizens who have much more expertise than I do to put together this piece, covering some of the prominent, yet skewed/false, narratives, as well as more background about sanctions, and what’s happening in Europe and Russia now. I have to especially thank Nurhidayah Hassan, a Singaporean in Europe working for a women’s rights organisation that’s currently involved in advocacy for refugees, and Loretta Marie Perera, a Singaporean who lived and worked in Moscow with The Moscow Times until very recently, for contributing to this issue. Hidayah and Loretta’s comments are labelled; everything else has been put together after consulting with other brainy friends, and also pulling from news reports and other sources.
This isn’t meant to be a definitive overview or exhaustive explainer on Ukraine, Russia, and the ongoing war. Instead, I hope it can be a starting point, or a resource to refer to if you’re encountering confusion and/or misinformation within your social circles.
Is it true that this war was at least partly caused by the United States and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe?
The United States and NATO are no saints, but it’s important to get a clear sense of background at a time of confusion. One prevalent narrative going around claims that a supposed eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance “cornered” Putin into making the decision to invade Ukraine. But NATO deployment to its eastern flank has actually been relatively limited precisely to avoid triggering Russia.
Official sources and declassified documents indicate that the US and NATO made no promises to Russia about who can or can’t join the military alliance. (Russia disputes this claim but has yet to provide evidence to the contrary that can be independently corroborated.) NATO has an “open door policy” that allows sovereign states to apply to join, but acceptance is dependent on certain criteria and unanimous agreement from current NATO members. Ukraine is not a member of NATO; although it had wanted to join since 2014, it did not receive an invitation from the alliance to do so. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on 8 March that he has “cooled down” on the question of Ukrainian membership of NATO, since it is clear that NATO was not prepared to bring Ukraine into the fold.
More importantly, there seems to be little to no discussion of the fact that NATO had been chronically underfunded, with most NATO members not fulfilling their 2% of GDP obligation to defence spending for more than two decades. This is something that led to capability gaps. That is to say, NATO forces are unable to fully perform some of the military tasks for which they are supposed to be responsible.
European NATO members under-investing in security formed the backdrop of Donald Trump calling for European NATO members to pay up more (as well as his threat to withdraw the US from NATO). Then there was Trump's pressure campaign on Zelenskyy — he put US military aid to Ukraine on hold before urging Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of his political rival Joe Biden — which probably underscored NATO weakness and division to Vladimir Putin.
NATO's opposition to explicit guarantees to Russia about Ukrainian membership may have less to do with Ukraine and more to do with the principle of not giving Moscow or any non-member a formal veto over its membership decisions.
In a nutshell: while NATO recognises the right of sovereign countries to choose their own security arrangements, they were not prepared to allow Ukraine to join their alliance. There are also serious flaws with NATO. But Putin’s decision to invade a neighbouring country is still an act of aggression and a disproportionate response to any unhappiness he has about NATO.
Vladimir Putin claimed that he had to launch a “special military operation” in Ukraine because Russian speakers were being oppressed and even killed by the Ukrainian state. Is this true?
On the claims about Neo-Nazis running Ukraine, it may be helpful to recall that while there are right-wing parties and dangerous street gangs in the country, they received less than 2.3% of the votes in Ukraine's last major elections in 2019. That is far less than the far-right receives in more consolidated democracies in Western Europe, such as Germany and France. In other words, the most recent evidence available suggests that Ukrainian voters overwhelmingly reject the far-right.
Narratives about Ukrainian forces initiating hostilities by attacking Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine (which includes the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk) seem to dovetail with Russian claims. However, there is no evidence to independently corroborate these claims as yet.
There are cases of sporadic violence against pro-Russian groups and ethnic Russians by far-right Ukrainian groups, sometimes as a result of clashes between the two. However, there is no available evidence about any systematic or state-backed violence against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, much less any pogroms or genocide. There is suspicion that such claims are part of an effort by Putin to legitimise the annexation of Crimea, the separation of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as the invasion of Ukraine.
What about the claims that there are labs, funded by the United States, working on biological weapons in Ukraine?
Claims of US-run or funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine have been circulating in a big way. Even Singapore’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo has shared a Tucker Carlson video promoting this narrative. Russia organised a special meeting at the UN to discuss the allegation of US-funded Ukrainian bioweapons labs, but other countries are highly sceptical of Russian claims. The United Nations stated that it is unaware of any biological weapons programmes in Ukraine.
One document being touted as “proof” of the claim — currently being touted by Putin, as well as Chinese state media — that there are US-run bioweapons labs in Ukraine is a 2005 agreement between the United States and Ukraine. However, Article 2 of this agreement actually says (emphasis mine):
"The Ministry of Health of Ukraine shall use all material (including equipment, instruments, and other supplies), training of personnel and services provided in accordance with this Agreement exclusively for the purpose of preventing the proliferation of technology, pathogens and expertise that are located at facilities in Ukraine and that could be used in the development of biological weapons."
It does not actually prove the thing that some claim it does. Reporting by The Washington Post back in 2005 described this agreement as cooperation between the US and Ukraine “to prevent the spread of biological weapons” and one that “clears the way for Ukraine's government to receive U.S. aid to improve security at facilities where dangerous microbes are kept.” Many of the labs receiving this funding were part of the old Soviet bioweapons programme, which is why the agreement talks about the prevention of proliferation.
Another piece of “evidence” the proponents of the #USBiolabs conspiracy theory point to is testimony by Victoria Nuland, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs. During a Senate hearing, Nuland confirmed that there were biological research facilities in Ukraine, and that the US was now working with the Ukrainians to make sure that dangerous materials from these labs did not fall into Russian hands. Nuland’s testimony has now been spun by various US right-wing outlets and media personalities — including Tucker Carlson — as an admission of US-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine. But that wasn’t what Nuland said. She said that there were biological research facilities, which we actually already know because, well, see the agreement above. She did not say that they were manufacturing weapons for biowarfare.
The World Health Organisation has said that it has also worked with Ukrainian public health labs for years to ensure that pathogens won’t be accidentally or deliberately released. The WHO has since advised Ukraine to destroy any high-threat pathogens to avoid any unintentional release due to the ongoing conflict.
The established fact-checking platform Snopes has looked into this and come to the conclusion that the claim about US bioweapons labs in Ukraine is false. However, chemical weapons — munitions that carry toxins or chemical substances that attack the body — are very bad news, and there are fears that Russia might use them. Chemical weapons were used in Syria. The former Russian spy Sergei Skripal almost died after he and his daughter were poisoned by a Russian-developed nerve agent called Novichok. Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was also poisoned with Novichok in August 2020 — UN human rights experts said that Russia is the only country known to have developed, stored and used Novichok, and believed that it was used to send a "sinister warning" to critics of the Russian government.
Ukraine's president Zelenskyy brought up his fear that Russia was laying the ground for the use of bioweapons in a recent address.
Singapore has unilaterally imposed sanctions on Russia. What do sanctions do? How effective are they?
Sanctions, in principle, can work if:
- they have a clear objective,
- are well designed to target specific pain points with clear commitments to withdraw once there is compliance, and
- are sufficiently comprehensive.
These conditions create incentive structures to change discernable behaviour, while making it difficult for the target of sanctions to find substitutes that reduce the cost of sanctions. Targets must also know that if they comply they will no longer be punished, or else compliance makes no difference. Depending on the economic structure of the target and its dependence on the type of economic activity being hit by sanctions, the full effect of sanctions may take some time to be felt by the target.
In practice, sanctions might seem ineffective. Often it is because some of the above conditions are not met. This tends to happen because the states imposing the sanctions are doing so for symbolic, rather than practical reasons. For instance, smaller states that have less economic interaction with the target of sanctions may choose to engage in symbolic sanctions to demonstrate displeasure. Governments can use sanctions to satisfy domestic demands to “do something” in a crisis without incurring heavier costs or to limit retaliation by the target of the sanctions.
Sanctions can be useful signals of resolve, as sanctioners need to pay a cost as well. The application of sanctions can provide an option for punishing a target state without resorting to force, hence reducing — but not removing — the risks of escalation. Every sanctioner and target state is different, so sanctions that work in one instance may not work in another. Over time, targets can also find workarounds, adjustments, or substitutes that reduce the effectiveness of the original sanctions. This means sanctions need revision and updating to remain effective.
Sanctions should be specially designed for maximum effect. Overuse of sanctions, especially as a symbolic gesture, have diminished their effectiveness as an instrument of coercive diplomacy.
Some further reading on sanctions you might want to check out (as recommended by a friend who is much more well-informed about this stuff than I am):
- The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War by Nicholas Mulder
- Russia's Response to Sanctions: How Western Economic Statecraft is Reshaping Political Economy in Russia by Richard Connolly
- Sanctions, Statecraft, and Nuclear Proliferation by Etel Solingen
Loretta: Following the 2014 Crimea sanctions, there were a lot of things that simply weren’t available in Russia — like cheese and agricultural products. Russia did a good job of providing alternatives and importing from countries that would trade with them, but things are completely different now. The biggest names are pulling out.
Walking through Moscow, it’s hard to imagine a city without Starbucks or McDonald’s — like any modern city, they’re everywhere and incredibly popular. Moscow is a highly developed place packed with more than 17 million people who live in this huge metropolis that is more modern than many other cities in developed countries. Up until now, Russians enjoyed easy access to many western household names and products, the absence of which will leave a huge mark on how people live and consume — and how they connect (or don’t) to the rest of the world.
On Friday, the news broke that Instagram, and all Meta apps, would be blocked in Russia. The social media company Napoleon Cat reported that, as of January 2021, Russia had 55,000,000 Instagram users. The app is a big part of daily life in the country; when asking or exchanging contact details, you ask for someone's IG username. My entire feed is now full of Russians desperately sharing other means of contact before they lose Instagram. I see art galleries, NGOs and other organisations sharing their Telegram links or mobile numbers. I think everyone is afraid of being cut off completely. I am, too — this was my main way of staying in touch with Russian friends and colleagues who have been unable to leave the country. This isolation cannot be overstated.
Singapore’s position seems quite different from that of other ASEAN countries. Why is this the case?
Singapore is in a bit of a different position from its ASEAN neighbours. As a smaller country, Singapore tends to rely more on international law to provide a platform for formal/legal equality with larger actors. Sovereignty — where states have clear political boundaries within which there is a single authority — is a key cornerstone of contemporary international law. So Singapore's strong statement about respect for sovereignty and the use of international law, rather than violence or capability, to resolve differences reflects a longstanding position. Singapore also articulated such a position in relation to the arbitral tribunal process surrounding the South China Sea.
As an international hub for finance, trade, and oil refining, Singapore tends to have more extensive global economic links compared with its neighbours. This means that Singapore may be more at risk of secondary sanctions if it chooses not to comply with the sanctions imposed by its top investors and trading partners. Singapore's financial sector is particularly exposed.
Singapore's top bilateral trading partner in merchandise is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Singapore is also the top foreign investor in the PRC. However, Europe, the United States, and Japan are by far the largest foreign direct investors in Singapore and are more prominent than China as Singapore's trading partner in services. Continuing to do business with Russia in light of the invasion and sanctions may as well hurt Singapore's reputation for an entity that supports international rule of law. Hence, it is difficult to rule out such considerations in Singapore's actions. (Note that as a Renminbi offshore clearing centre and major financial hub, Singapore can probably help Russia get around sanctions if it wanted.)
Several of Singapore's neighbours are more dependent on Russia in key ways. Russian military equipment tends to remain important for Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, for instance. Myanmar's military junta is able to repress other groups in the country on the basis of Russian and Chinese military equipment it continues to procure. This means that other than the equipment, Russian spare parts and maintenance support is important as well. Indonesia also uses Russian equipment, but last December abandoned plans to buy Russian fighter jets. Outside of ASEAN, India's military depends heavily on Russian equipment and technology.
What is the situation with Ukrainian refugees like now?
Nurhidayah: It’s first important to note that the EU has made the unprecedented decision to offer Temporary Protection to Refugees fleeing Ukraine, immediate protection to Ukrainians and third country nationals (non-Ukrainians coming from other countries with visas for staying in Ukraine only). This mechanism has never been used before. Temporary protection will last for at least one year; this may be extended depending on the situation in Ukraine. Rights under the Temporary Protection Directive include a residence permit, access to the labour market and housing, medical assistance, and access to education for children in any EU country.
The Temporary Protection Directive is an exceptional scheme that grants immediate and temporary protection to displaced people from non-EU countries who have been forced to leave their homes due to an armed conflict, endemic violence or systematic violations of their human rights.
The mechanism is intended to work when the traditional asylum system is overwhelmed by a mass and unexpected arrival of migrants. It’s designed to strike a "balance of efforts" between member states: the allocation of refugees is done according to the accommodation capacities of each country.
Over 2.5 million people have fled the country, with Poland taking in most of the refugees for now. They will likely move to other EU countries as the war progresses.
While many human rights groups applaud the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainian refugees, they have also criticised the double standards, arguing that this directive was not invoked in 2011–2012 during the Arab Spring, nor in 2015 during the Syrian conflict, when Syrians were detained for up to 18 months for trying to reach EU countries. This directive has never been used before to manage different migration waves. The answer as to why there is a differentiated response is a complex one, and cannot just be viewed through a racialised lens (although race/religion/ethnicity play a huge role in EU’s response).
Last year, both Poland and Belarus, two countries which are now openly accepting Ukrainian refugees, meted out brutal and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan. The situation of these migrants are unknown at the moment, especially with the escalating situation in Ukraine.
What is the situation in Russia like now? Is there popular support for the invasion of Ukraine?
I was just reading this piece by independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, in which she talks to members of the Russian elite about the invasion. tl;dr It's not good.
Loretta: The invasion of Ukraine was very hard for most to wrap their heads around. Up until the moment it happened, no one thought this was a possibility. In my office and on the streets, in the metro and in bars, there was an air of anxiety and tension. A lot of tears. Especially that first week, it wasn’t unusual to see people in tears, and no one would need to ask why. No one could really process that this was actually happening, not to mention many Russians have Ukranian family, roots, last names — they’re tied together in many ways. Shame and regret were the dominating responses.
From all the people I know and have spoken to — friends, colleagues, strangers — I encountered only one person who supports this war. That’s not to say that my encounters are representative of all of Russia. There’s certainly support for the war, and if you leave Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two biggest and most developed cities, things change fast.
There is widespread resistance to this war, and protests continue not only in big cities but in smaller towns, too. But the Kremlin propaganda machine is a powerful one, and being able to control what people see and hear directly impacts what they believe, and this is a weapon that works in Putin’s favour.
What can I do to help?
A good source of information on what Singaporeans can do to help would be the Ukrainian embassy here. They have been directing people to donate to the Red Cross.
Here is a Google sheet of grassroots organisations working on the ground in Ukraine who welcome donations:
Thank you for reading — I hope this was helpful to you! Feel free to forward or share it.