How Should Malaysia React to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?

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How Should Malaysia React to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?

Three recommendations for how Kuala Lumpur should respond to the war in Europe.

How Should Malaysia React to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?

Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armored transporter driving through a Russian position overrun by Ukrainian forces outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 31, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

It has been just over a month since Russia has launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine following a months-long build-up of forces on the Ukrainian border. The unprovoked and unjustified invasion has prompted a firestorm of international condemnation. With the support of 141 of its 193 member states, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted overwhelmingly in early March  to adopt a nonbinding resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding an immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops.

The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have imposed a series of increasingly severe political and economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Some key Asian countries, such as Australia, Japan, and Singapore, have even joined the international sanctions campaign against Moscow. However, Malaysia, like many Southeast Asian nations, is yet to take a strong and clear diplomatic stance on the situation. As a middle power in Asia, Malaysia must maintain its middle-power image. It is also in the country’s national and diplomatic interests to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as this war could have negative effects on the average Malaysian and the regional stability of Southeast Asia as a whole. Below are three recommendations on how the Malaysian government should respond to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Take a Firmer Stance on the Russian Invasion

On February 26, two days after the invasion, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on behalf of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, stating that Malaysia was “seriously concerned” over the escalation of conflict in Ukraine and strongly urges “all parties involved” to immediately take steps to de-escalate and prevent loss of lives and devastation. From a diplomatic perspective, it was a relatively weak statement that neither condemned the unprovoked and flagrant invasion of a sovereign nation by another nor upheld Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

It is good that Malaysia supported and voted in favor of the UNGA resolution on “Aggression Against Ukraine.” However, the statement delivered by Syed Mohamad Hasrin, Malaysia’s permanent representative to the U.N., did not specifically describe the situation in Ukraine as a “war” or an “invasion,” unlike the positions taken by key ASEAN countries such as Singapore and the Philippines.

Despite being a relatively small power, Malaysia should take a strong and clear position against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as this war, despite its long-distance from Kuala Lumpur, could have many negative impacts on the Malaysian citizens, consumers, and businesses. These include increased prices in oil, energy and commodities, lower economic growth, and pressure on global and domestic interest rates. Refusing to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine would also fail to demonstrate Malaysia’s long-standing foreign policy position on the need to consistently uphold the principles of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states.

Review Economic Ties With Russia and Impose Appropriate Restrictions

While Wisma Putra recently announced that Malaysia will not impose unilateral sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, there are certain things that the Malaysian government can do in order to impose “appropriate restrictions” and not to violate any international sanctions against Russia. A recent example was Malaysia’s decision to refuse a request for entry by a Russian-flagged oil tanker, which was sanctioned by the U.S. It was a judicious move that avoided upsetting both the U.S. and Russia since the Russian tanker was targeted by U.S. sanctions.

As Malaysia has few economic links to Russia, the Malaysian government can further consider reviewing these ties and imposing certain restrictions on Russian financial transactions in the country. Such actions will not have a significant impact on Malaysia’s trade performance and economy as the country has a relatively low level of trade with Russia: the combined size of exports to both Ukraine and Russia covered just 0.4 percent of Malaysia’s total exports in 2021. The government can also impose export controls on items such as dual-use goods that can be directly used as weapons for Russia’s military purposes. While the restrictions imposed by Malaysia may not have a big impact on Russia given Malaysia’s limited influence, it will help put pressure on the Kremlin and limit its capacity to continue carrying out military operations against Ukraine.

Work With ASEAN to Forge a Unified Position

The individual ASEAN countries’ different responses and reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have reflected divisions in the regional bloc in confronting a pressing security challenge. The ASEAN foreign ministers’ collective statement on March 3 called for an immediate ceasefire without naming Russia or using the word “invasion.” While most ASEAN governments have struggled to find a forceful and unified voice over the situation, the Ukraine war creates a very dangerous precedent for the Southeast Asian region, including the disputed South China Sea (SCS).

Several ASEAN countries (including Malaysia) are still in competition with China over the territorial disputes in the SCS. Staying mum on the Ukraine crisis does not suit Southeast Asia’s regional security interests as there may be a follow-up or similar conflict involving Beijing and the region due to irredentist claims.

Malaysia should lead and work closely with its ASEAN partners to send a strong and forceful response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and pursue more dialogues through diplomatic means to contain the situation. If the international response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is not strong enough, it would create new security risks in Asia, particularly in the Taiwan Strait and SCS, which may harm Malaysia’s maritime and territorial interests.

Not the Time to Stay ‘Neutral’

It is undeniable that there are negative consequences arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine that could eventually hurt Malaysia’s domestic and diplomatic interests. The Malaysian government should take a strong stance against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Such a stance does not come at a price for Malaysia due to its limited trade and economic ties with Russia. Rather, taking a strong position against the Russian invasion of Ukraine will help enhance the country’s international reputation as a principled sovereign state and maintain its middle-power image. The greater the international pressure against Russia, the higher the likelihood of bringing Moscow to the negotiating table and ending its aggression in Ukraine.