Russia’s attack on Europe’s buffer

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Russia’s attack on Europe’s buffer

The author is the head of the international news team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The most unforgettable city that I have traveled to in Europe is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. It is especially memorable not because of the spectacular scenery, but because of the unusual shabbiness. After being a regular city in Czechoslovakia, it became the capital when Slovakia gained independence as a sovereign state in 1993.

What left a deep impression was that a local tour guide pointed out the imprint of a shell on a fortress wall and said, “It is a mark from Napoleon’s invasion.” I intuitively realized that the future they dream of was to be one with Western Europe. The capital is located on the western side of the country close to Austria.

Slovakia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Eastern European countries joined the EU to ride on the Western free economy. Austria, which borders Slovakia, was already an EU member, and the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary joined the EU together in 2004. Ukraine, to the east of Slovakia, was the only country not to join. After a pro-Russian group was ousted in the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine made desperate attempts to join the EU and NATO to no avail. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is making a move on Ukraine, Slovakia may feel secretly thankful to the country for acting as a buffer between itself and Russia.

After losing the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, Ukraine is on the verge of losing the entire eastern Donbas region. There is a little possibility for Donetsk and Luhansk — two republics dominated by pro-Russian rebels — to realistically function as independent states. After invading Georgia in 2008, Russia has been using two self-proclaimed republics — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — as its own military bases. Russia has set up another buffer within the buffer state of Ukraine.

The name Ukraine originates from a Slavic word for borderland. When it was Kievan Rus in the 12th century, the area bordering Poland was referred to as Ukraine. In the nearly 60-minute-long televised “speech of madness,” Putin repeated the initial claim that Ukraine was “historically Russian territory,” and criticized the “manipulation of the West to tear Russia away.”

Is it really the reason that Ukraine turned to the West? Did Putin forget the country’s history? Ukraine’s sense of deprivation for being treated as part of the “periphery” by Moscow during the Soviet era led to over 90 percent support for independence in a referendum. I find the sad reality of a powerful state abusing the sovereignty of a small and weak country in the 21st century goes directly against all of the norms of the international community. 

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