11 July 2024

Thailand, notably its divided society, must act on principles rather than taking sides or remaining neutral over a Russia-Ukraine conflict that is set to develop into a new cold war and reshape global geo-politics, scholars say.

The war, which broke out on Feb 24 when Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine, also involves the security of Western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For this reason, it signals the beginning of a new dynamic of the old cold war, they said.

Speaking at a seminar hosted by Thammasat University’s Pridi Banomyong International College (PBIC) on Mar 4, eminent historian Thanet Apornsuwan said the war is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to restore the influence of the Russian Empire over Eurasia and Eastern Europe that dates back to the 18th century.

He said Putin wants Russia to regain the territorial control it enjoyed before the 1917 Russian Revolution and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

“Historically speaking, wars between empires in those areas never really ended. They have just changed their form,” he said, adding that this war between Moscow and Kyiv is part of this ongoing struggle.

The war was sparked by Moscow’s rising insecurity as the US-dominated military alliance continued expanding into Eastern Europe after USSR collapsed in 1990 and Ukraine, run by a pro-West government, expressed its will to join the European Union and NATO.

People, mostly women and children, try to get onto a train bound for Lviv, at the Kyiv railway station, Ukraine, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Dubchak)

Cold war with a difference

The situation appears to be a global confrontation between two camps again if China is taken into the geopolitical equation, PBIC lecturer Ornthicha Duangrattana said. It looks like a cold war but with a different dynamic, since the countries are not lined up in direct opposition to each other, she told the seminar.

China is challenging the US and Europe, but Beijing also has close ties with Russia as well as economic links with Ukraine, she pointed out. She said these ties make the system of international relations more complicated than in previous eras.

Kitti Prasirtsuk, professor of international relations at Thammasat University, agreed that a new cold war has already started but under different conditions.

This cold war is not between communist countries and the free world, but between liberalism and authoritarianism. Russia and China may look like they are sitting in the same camp as in the last cold war, but this time things are different – Russia is smaller and less dependent on the world economy when compared to China.

“Therefore, Putin can wage this war easily, but China’s Xi Jinping has to be more careful when making a move,” Kitti said.

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Use of propaganda

The professor also said that Russia and China are using “sharp power” – aggressive and subversive policies to manage and manipulate information to shape public perception for the purpose of their propaganda.

This sharp-power policy contains a lot of misinformation, distortion, and fake news, he said, warning the public to use and consume social media with caution.

In the local context, he said, there is no reason for Thais to choose either side in the Russia-Ukraine war. “Many people may dislike the United States, but that does not mean we have to justify Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country,” he said.

Theerarat Samrejvanich, secretary to the House of Representative’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the Thai government should take a strong position and be ready to provide humanitarian aid not just to Thais in Ukraine, but also to Ukrainians suffering from the war.

“The government should take a clear stance to show that we disagree with the use of military hostility against other countries and apply all means to stop the war,” said Theerarat, who is a member of the opposition Pheu Thai Party.

She praised moves made by Thailand at the United Nations, after the country voted in favor of a General Assembly resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. She said this made Thailand look better than simply saying it is neutral.

Like Theerarat, Ornthicha concluded that there was nothing wrong with Thailand and its people taking a strong stance against the invasion.

People trying to flee Ukraine wait for trains inside Lviv railway station in Lviv, western Ukraine, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Russian justification?

In a separate online seminar, hosted by Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Study (ISIS Thailand), Russian scholar Victor Sumsky and Ukrainian academic Volodymyr Solovian were invited to provide their perspectives on the war.

Sumsky, founding director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations), said Putin’s actions in Ukraine can be considered in the Western narrative as “responsibility to protect” since the Russian leader said he wants to demilitarize and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

Solovian, a research fellow at the New Geo-politics Research Center in Kyiv, rejected his Russian colleague’s narrative, saying the war was unprovoked and lacked justification. The Russian army, which is now suffering its greatest losses since World War II, has targeted civilians, he said.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk