The international community, however, reacted with outrage. The Western world denounced Russia’s move as a clear violation of international law and a challenge to democracy and international order. Strong sanctions against Russian individuals were started. After being expelled from the Group of 8, Russia’s isolation in the international community has become a serious concern. U.S. President Barack Obama urged NATO to take unified action against Russia. As the prospect of confrontation between the West and Russia appeared, some analysts quickly predicted a revival of the Cold War.
The comparison is catchy, but it has a clear limit. The Cold War was a worldwide ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union based on their nuclear capacities, and also their nuclear deterrence. The latest moves by Putin are closer to the geopolitics of Nazi Germany as it tried to expand its empire under the justification of “Lebensraum.” For the Nazis, national boundaries were not fixed lines. They were changeable lines that could be erased at any time to secure the land, maritime routes and strategic resources needed for the country’s survival and prosperity.
When Adolf Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Nazi Germany justified its actions by claiming it was to protect ethnic Germans in the country and restore its territory. Behind the move was a geopolitical motive to occupy the heart of Europe as a stepping stone for even more territorial expansion.
Putin’s justification is no different. The argument that he will protect ethnic Russian residents of the Crimean Peninsula is almost identical to that of Hitler. Furthermore, Putin’s hidden purpose of denying Ukraine, which is increasingly friendly to the West, the ability to control the peninsula, the gateway to the Mediterranean and the home of the Black Sea Fleet, also resembles that of Hitler.
The peninsula’s enormous oil and gas reserves were another factor. Russia annexed Crimea for the sake of Lebensraum and to secure its influence over the region.
What’s more worrisome is the looming shadow of nationalism. The key to the Cold War was an ideological confrontation. In the latest crisis, nationalism is a far more important factor than ideology. A nationalist group in Ukraine toppled its pro-Russian government with the intention of escaping Russian influence and strengthening its ties with Europe. As a result, the majority of the ethnic Russian population on the peninsula responded with their own spasm of Russian nationalism.
Putin deliberately appealed to their nationalist sentiments and chose to use a trick to justify the annexation of Crimea. Geopolitical calculations and the lust of nationalism are the driving forces behind Putin’s extremely ambitious and daring move.
During the Cold War period, it was rare for the Soviet Union, not to mention the United States, to use a national security matter for domestic politics. And yet, behind the curtains in the Crimean crisis one can easily spy the domestic politics of the countries involved.
The authoritarian, incompetent and corrupt rule of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych triggered the crisis in the country. Putin’s intervention was also based on calculations of Russian domestic politics to strengthen his control. His approval rating was below 30 percent, but after his aggressive moves, it went over 70 percent. Evidence of political intent doesn’t get much stronger than that.
As we can see, the latest Crimean crisis is far from a rebirth of the Cold War. But the situation is actually more dangerous than the Cold War. We must remember that a vicious cycle of expansive geopolitics, nationalism and crude attempts to control domestic politics won’t be restricted to Russia. There are signs that the traps of geopolitics and nationalism are returning to Asia at large, which suffered devastation by the wars touched off by Japan’s concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The United States is responding to China’s rise with its so-called “pivot” to Asia, recognizing and trying to contain China’s geopolitical expansion. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likened China’s recent moves to Nazi Germany’s Lebensraum strategy.
Because of parallel rises of nationalism and inflammatory domestic politics, the geopolitical situation in the region is moving toward a more unpredictable place.
The future order of Northeast Asia, where geopolitics, nationalism and domestic politics are entangled, can be far more unstable and threatening than the Cold War period. Therefore, attempts to handle the situation based on Cold War-era thinking can actually complicate the situation even further and make things worse. It is not something that can be resolved by strengthening the Korea-U.S. alliance and improving Korea-Japan relations to reinforce the cooperation among Korea, the United States and Japan. That’s the old approach.
It is time for a new resolution to stop policy makers from being blinded by geopolitical aspirations and to prevent nationalism from being abused in domestic politics. We desperately need creative, out-of-the-box diplomacy.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 31, Page 31
*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
By Moon Chung-in