Lessons from the crisis in Ukraine

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Lessons from the crisis in Ukraine

The capital city of the autonomous republic of Crimea, Simferopol, is located about 1,270 kilometers (789 miles) southwest of Moscow and takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes to get there by air. The southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula looks like a cape jutting out into the Black Sea. Yalta is located about 60 kilometers southeast of Simferopol, and Sebastopol is located also another 60 kilometers southwest from the capital city. Yalta is the home of the Yalta Conference, in which postwar global order was re-established after World War II by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin. Yalta is a renowned resort city, and tourists often flock to the white Chekhov house, where Anton Chekhov is said to have written “The Cherry Orchard.”

Sebastopol is located about 96 kilometers west of Yalta around the cape. Russia has been using the military port as its base for the Black Sea Fleet. Sebastopol was the fierce battleground of the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France and Turkey. Based on his experiences during the Crimean War, Leo Tolstoy wrote “The Sebastopol Sketches,” three short stories published in 1855. Today, Sebastopol, of which 72 percent of its 350,000 population is Russian, has become the frontline of a war in which the United States and the European Union are having a face-to-face confrontation with Russia over the fate of Ukraine and the power balance on the European continent.

The crisis in Ukraine has become the greatest crisis in Europe in the post-cold war era that neither America and Europe nor Russia can concede. The confrontation has three dimensions. First is the economy. Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to stop Ukraine from joining the economy of the European Union and is building the Customs Union. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already joined his scheme and Ukraine’s participation is necessary. For the European Union, the potential demands of Ukraine’s 45 million population will resolve its current economic slowdown. Second is security. The United States and Western Europe want to invite Ukraine, following Poland, to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to hold Russia in check. From the perspective of Russia, NATO’s Eastern expansion is an insulting ambition unfolding in its own front yard.

Third is ideology. According to a guest post by Maria Snegovaya, a Columbia University doctoral candidate in political science, in the Washington Post’s March 2 edition, Putin’s literary favorites include works by Russian nationalist philosophers such as Vladimir Solovyev, Michael Yuriev and Nikolai Berdyaev. He also demanded Russia’s regional governors read those works during their holidays. Among them, Putin was deeply impressed by Yuriev’s “The Third Empire: Russia that Ought to Be,” a Utopian fantasy. Published in 2006, the book depicts a world in 2054. According to the book, residents of eastern and southern Ukraine rebel against the West-organized Orange Revolution, and Vladimir II of the Third Empire passes a referendum to incorporate the Eastern territories of Ukraine into Russia. Because of its striking resemblance with Putin’s Ukraine strategy, Russian readers were thrilled, while non-Russian readers shuddered.

On March 4, Putin made a conceding gesture before the press that military action against Ukraine was the last resort and that he is not thinking of East-West separation of Ukraine right now. But he will take the Crimean Peninsula — which Russia took control of with minimum force — hostage and made no concession about Ukraine’s joining of the West and keeping it under Russia’s influence. The United States, reluctant to use force, is seriously contemplating economic sanctions against Russia, but Western Europe, heavily dependent upon Russia in terms of its economy, is cold on the U.S. plan. They believe keeping the newly created “status quo” from this crisis will be the only way to stop Putin’s ambitions from growing any further. They hold the cold political view of giving the Crimean Peninsula as a decoy in order to suppress Putin’s desire to incorporate the Eastern territories of Ukraine into Russia.

We need to interpret the Ukraine crisis from the context of Korea. First, the U.S. policy of a “pivot” to Asia will suffer if the crisis drags on. The United States is unable to engage in two fronts that are militarily and economically equal. Second, the choice that Ukraine will make between the two forces in the future will be a precursor to the choice that a unified Korea will make. Will a unified Korea be able to maintain its current relations with the United States and China? Is it really possible to achieve unification within the current trilateral framework of Korea, the United States and China? This is something we must deeply contemplate when we talk about unification. This is why the Ukraine crisis poses a serious challenge for us. Korea and Ukraine are both countries with high geopolitical strategic values for superpowers, and because of the commonality of their fates, our perception watching the crisis in Europe can be nothing but from the Korean context.

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