The Ukraine crisis could rattle the world
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Few modern leaders have played a weak hand with such impact as Russia’s Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. The late U.S. Senator John McCain once dismissed Russia as a “gas station with nuclear weapons” in reference to that country’s complete dependence on oil and gas exports for economic sustenance and on nuclear weapons for international influence. Russia’s economy is smaller than Korea’s and only one-tenth the size of China’s, but unlike Korea or even China, Putin is completely willing and almost eager to risk global order and stability to restore Russia’s former empire and weaken the West. George W. Bush once said he looked into Putin’s eyes and “saw his soul.” McCain later said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw three letters — “K” “G” and “B.” McCain was right.
As Putin masses over 100,000 troops to invade Ukraine from the North and the East, he risks massive isolation and sanctions, but he must also be enjoying the debates and divisions within NATO as pacifist Germany waffles and the Biden administration scrambles to preserve its focus on both the Indo-Pacific and Europe. The Biden administration has managed its diplomatic approach reasonably well, threatening major sanctions and spotlighting Putin’s tactics — such as faking a Ukrainian attack on Russian-speaking civilians — before the Russian leader can implement them. Nevertheless, there is a growing sense of dread in both Kiev and Washington that Putin will attack after the Beijing Winter Olympics end and before the wet season slows his massive armored columns’ ability to cut Ukraine in two. That means late February to early March will be a perilous time — not just for peaceful Ukrainians, but for the world at large. For the most violent ground war in Europe since 1945 would send geopolitical shock waves as far as Korea.
One can already see how Kim Jong-un is seeking to use the renewal of Cold War animosity to strengthen Pyongyang’s strategic position after the damage caused by the Covid pandemic. Xi Jinping’s joint statement with Putin last week before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics was unprecedented in its strategic sweep. Western experts on China and Russia have been focusing on the differences between Moscow and Beijing over influence in Central Asia and historic territorial issues in the Russian Far East and missing the geopolitical advantage to Putin and Xi of undermining American alliances. In their joint statement in Beijing the two authoritarian leaders ironically claimed that they were the true defenders of democracy and condemned U.S. alliances in both Europe and the Pacific. Russia and China are working together in the United Nations Security Council to block sanctions enforcement against North Korea. China experts in the United States are concluding that Beijing increasingly views North as more of a tool to use against the United States than a liability for China’s own international position. Russian diplomats who once shared common cause with the United States in preventing new entrants to the nuclear weapons club now back North Korean demands for U.S. concessions.
The Biden administration had hoped that China might urge caution on Putin, but when Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Dan Krittenbrink warned on Feb. 5 that China will be embarrassed by a Russian invasion of Ukraine, it suggested that the State Department is not confident Beijing will do anything to be helpful. If Beijing buys Russian gas and oil to support Putin against the impact of sanctions, that would be a particularly dangerous sign of China’s new alignment with Russia. The odds of that kind of Chinese support now seem more likely than not.
North Korea test-fires an alleged supersonic ballistic missile on Jan. 11 while its leader Kim Jong-un watches. [KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY]
These dynamics explain Kim Jong-un’s effusive praise of both China and Russia in recent months. A war in Ukraine would open even more opportunities for Pyongyang. Solidarity on the UN Security Council would be completely broken, reducing the costs to Pyongyang of renewed provocations — including as many fear, a resumption of nuclear or ICBM tests around the time Putin may invade Ukraine. The demands from NATO for greater security cooperation would tax U.S. military capabilities as more U.S. Army troops deploy to NATO’s eastern borders and U.S. satellite assets shift from the Middle East to Europe instead of to Asia. I suspect somewhere in the Ministry of Defense or NIS experts will have a speech by Kim Il Sung I remember reading in graduate school that declared a conflict in Europe or the Middle East would present Pyongyang’s best opportunity to reunify the peninsula. That was the late 1980s and North Korea no longer has the ability to invade the South. On the other hand, the United States at that time had the forces necessary to conduct a two front war plus a smaller contingency simultaneously, and that is no longer the case either.
The next President of the Republic of Korea could face a dramatically different international system than the one we know today. The temptation might be to continue “strategic ambiguity” on broader geopolitical competition and seek a softer approach with both Moscow and Beijing in order to woo support for diplomatic movement with North Korea. That would be a mistake. Moscow and Beijing have far greater interest now in weakening U.S. alliances than they do in slowing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Early gestures of reconciliation would be manipulated by Putin and Xi to suggest Seoul is breaking away from the U.S. alliance system.
The new occupants of the Blue House would be better positioned to make diplomatic gains on the peninsula after first reinforcing Korea’s central position in the U.S. alliance network. This means not only reconfirming and strengthening the U.S.-ROK alliance and deterrence capabilities, but also Korea’s connection across other alliances in Asia — particularly with Japan and Australia. The new government will also have to consider how to strengthen Korea’s ties with NATO and with the European Union. Putin and Xi have linked their strategies against U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia. U.S. allies must now also deepen their own commitments to democratic norms and security cooperation on different sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This is precisely the time for a return of global Korea.
Diplomacy on the Korean peninsula must resume at some point, but Putin’s adventurism risks dramatically exacerbating the geopolitical tensions that have emerged in recent years. We are not in a new Cold War with China and Russia because we do still share economic interests and common purpose on climate change and other global challenges. But power and alignment matter more today than they have in decades. Korea’s next President will find that decisions on alignment will ultimately be decisions about how much power Korea really has to manage its increasingly complicated external environment.