In this webinar, Ms Munira Mustaffa, Dr Aries Arugay, Ms Hoang Thi Ha and Ms Lee Sue-Ann explored the roots of pro-Russian sentiments and narratives in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Southeast Asia in general.
REGIONAL STRATEGIC AND POLITICAL STUDIES PROGRAMME & MEDIA, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY PROGRAMME
Friday, 22 April 2022 – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated intense public debates in Southeast Asian countries in which pro-Russian sentiments and narratives have vigorously competed with pro-Ukrainian, pro-Western attitudes. In Southeast Asia, country-specific domestic socio-political factors have fed into these pro-Russia narratives. Four panelists spoke at the webinar. A Malaysian perspective was outlined by Ms Munira Mustaffa, Founder and Executive Director of Chasseur Group; and non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute of Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. A Philippine view was given by Dr Aries Arugay, Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. A Vietnamese view was articulated by Ms Hoang Thi Ha, Fellow and Co-coordinator of ISEAS’ Regional Strategic and Political Studies programme. Ms Lee Sue-Ann, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of ISEAS’ Media, Technology and Society Programme, contextualised these pro-Russian narratives within broader underlying trends such as great power rivalry and the fraying liberal international order.
Ms Munira Mustaffa noted that Malaysian public sentiments on the Russia-Ukraine war need to be set against the backdrop of Malaysia’s ties with Russia. Malaysia has generally had friendly relations with Russia and considers itself a non-aligned country. It is also a frequent purchaser of Russian arms. There is also a low threat perception of Russia, given that it has not been embroiled in any territorial disputes in the region.
While many have argued that the resonance of pro-Russian falsehoods might be a symptom of blind ignorance or a broken education system, the phenomenon is better explained as a symptom of eroded trust in West. This is especially so after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, which have contributed to the perception that the West is free to intervene in other countries without repercussions. Russia has also been able to successfully cultivate a positive image in the Muslim world through its opposition to the invasion of Iraq, its humanitarian operations in Syria and its garnering of support in majority Muslim Chechnya. This has had the effect of positioning Russia as a palatable alternative to the Western-led world order and deep mistrust in media reports of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine.
There are also deficiencies in Malaysia’s digital media environment that amplify the problem of online falsehoods. Ms Mustaffa noted that there has been a policy failure in providing people with the right tools to navigate the online information environment. People need the tools to verify news they consume without allowing their prior beliefs to affect their due diligence in doing so. There needs to be a pro-active effort to inculcate such a norm on the part of various stakeholders in society, starting with policymakers.
Dr Aries Arugay framed his presentation along three main points. First, current public sentiments about the war in Ukraine have been heavily shaped by the polarising 2022 presidential elections. Opinions on the war tend to be defined by one’s candidate of choice and by extension, their main foreign policy positions. Supporters of the Marcos-Duterte ticket tend to have views that espouse neutrality or support for Russia. On the other hand, supporters of the contending Robredo-Pangilinan ticket lean towards a more pro-Western/pro-Ukrainian position. Second, pro-Russian narratives are not a particularly new phenomenon and have been sowed over the years through online misinformation, academic malware and Russian-linked policy entrepreneurs. Third, even though pro-Russian views are somewhat pervasive, and President Duterte himself has articulated a pro-Russian stance, there has been some pushback from the Philippines’ military and foreign policy establishment, which explains why the country has officially opposed Russia’s invasion.
The appeal of pro-Russian narratives stems from the portrayal of President Putin as a desirable, politically savvy strongman leader on social media. This image and likeness have in turned been utilised in viral videos on platforms such as TikTok to promote the candidacy of Marcos Jr., who similarly tries to project a strongman image. Under the umbrella of this social media messaging, Marcos Jr.’s leading opponent, Leni Robredo, has also been portrayed as a danger to the Philippines because of her friendlier views towards the West and the U.S.
Ms Hoang Thi Ha described the Vietnamese debate on the Russia-Ukraine war as one of parallel worlds – one that vigorously defends and supports Russia and the other empathetic towards Ukraine and its resistance against the Russian invasion. Both camps have different worldviews and political leanings, and subscribe to different sets of news. Pro-Russian Vietnamese netizens justify Russia’s invasion along three lines: first, Russia’s military action is a legitimate response to Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi” government that aligns with the West at the expense of Russia’s security interests; second, they echo anti-American, anti-imperialist worldviews by holding that the U.S. has double standards in its criticism of Russia’s invasion, given its past involvement in other wars in the Middle East; and third, they glorify Russia and Putin’s leadership while demonsing Ukraine and its leader Zelensky as a clown and a puppet of the West.
Pro-Russian Vietnamese netizens exist in a large ‘echo chamber’ that only interacts with information or opinions of like-minded peers. They also actively seek to debunk news from Western sources and often peddle narratives directly from Russian state media. One of the main reasons for this reservoir of pro-Russian sentiments lies in Vietnam’s deep links with Russia that date back to the Soviet era, especially among older generations. This romanticised idea of Russia clouds their ability to judge the war with a dose of objectivity and realism. Sentimental attachment aside, Ms Hoang argued that there are political and ideological factors underlying pro-Russia sentiments/narratives in Vietnam. These sentiments/narratives are especially prevalent on the self-proclaimed patriotic, conservative and pro-regime pages/groups which view anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian sentiments as hostile, anti-regime, reactionary, pro-democracy and even treasonous. While these views may not necessarily reflect the position of the Vietnamese government, they can be seen as being a constituent part of the more conservative segments of the Vietnamese society and state.
Ms Lee Sue-Ann concluded the seminar by delving into some of the deeper drivers that make pro-Russian narratives appealing in their respective countries. Online disinformation narratives have resonance in the region because they connect with the deep stories that people believe in. Narratives that revolve around anti-imperialist and by extension anti-Western worldviews have strong purchase outside of the West and in regions such as Southeast Asia. These ideals are brought to the fore with the perception that liberal values have been decaying and are on the decline. Going forward, it may not be enough to simply clamp down on disinformation through censorship; there needs to be some effort towards helping people avoid falling into reductionist thinking. Those who sympathise with criticisms of the West should be able to separate issues, be circumspect about their individual biases and be equally critical of the side they support.
During the Q&A session, the panelists answered questions related to China’s role in supporting Russia’s disinformation narratives, the foreign policy challenges that President Jokowi faces as chair of the G20 summit as well as the impact these narratives have in the South China Sea territorial dispute, the extent to which these pro-Russian views are amplified by Russia’s propaganda campaign, including in local languages, and whether the anti-Western hegemony discourse on social media suggest a generally rising trend in the public. Around 170 participants attended the webinar.