Ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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Ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Yoon Young-kwan
The author is an emeritus professor at Seoul National University and a former foreign minister.
 Russia’s all-out invasion last Thursday of Ukraine by land, air and sea has shocked the world. Why couldn’t the United States prevent it? That’s probably because Washington’s will to block an aggression was even weaker than Moscow’s determination to change the status quo. The U.S. and NATO member countries have failed to demonstrate strong deterrence based on the use of force since last April, when Russia started to deploy massive troops along the border. While Western countries were bent on resolving the crisis through diplomatic means, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught them off guard after affirming their lack of resoluteness to defend Ukraine.

For starters, America’s reluctance to use military force resulted from the imperial hubris of the George W. Bush administration two decades ago. Since Barack Obama’s administration tried to avoid excessive military engagement overseas in the aftermath of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. showed a weak image as a superpower instead of playing its due role as a major trouble shooter on international disputes. For instance, the Obama administration threatened a military strike on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime if it were to use chemical weapons on civilians in a civil war. But after Syria crossed a red line America drew in 2013, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to the act. It dealt a critical blow to U.S. leadership. As a result, Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, changed the course of the war, and reinforced its influence in the region after helping revive the al-Assad regime.

The invasion last Thursday by Russia will mark a significant inflection point in the history of Europe and world politics. Europe will be divided into “before the invasion” and “after the invasion.” Above all, politics in Europe will center on militarization after the aggression. So far, European countries have managed to live without serious security concerns thanks to the collective defense system of U.S.-led NATO and the economic and political apparatus of the European Union. In the meantime, each European country maintained relations with Russia on its own while clashing with Uncle Sam over policies toward Russia. For example, Germany insisted on building the Nord Stream — a natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea — whereas France stressed Europe’s self-sustainability on energy.

With the Russian invasion, Europe cannot afford such composure anymore. Putin brazenly violated international law and used his military power. To him, the existence of a neighboring country as a successful democracy is itself a serious threat. Therefore, Putin will try to turn Ukraine into a failed state by neutralizing its military capability, government functions and economic infrastructure all at once. The West also needs to pay heed to his latest call for NATO expansion to return to its pre-1997 level and to his bragging about nuclear weapons Russia still has. That suggests Putin’s crusade to revive the glory of the Soviet era will probably extend to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and further into Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

For the U.S. and other NATO members, how to ensure their security has become a big challenge. What matters now is twofold: America’s own dilemma and China’s reaction. The United States will certainly be pressed to shift to “Pivot to Europe” from “Pivot to Asia” — just a few years after it focused on China to help curb its fast rise on global theaters. But if America fails to help Europe get united and draw it to its side further, Washington will likely have trouble standing up against a Sino-Russian strategic alliance.

Would China aggressively support and sponsor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? As China has backed Russia over NATO’s expansion to the east, Moscow would expect Beijing to mitigate a negative impact from Western sanctions by a considerable degree. But China has reservations about Russia’s foray into Ukraine. Yet some security analysts express concerns that China may take an offensive action on Taiwan, while the United States focuses on Ukraine. The biggest diplomatic challenge for America is how to bring China to its side to cooperate with EU.

What position should Koreans take? Since Korea has been a victim to the neighboring powers’ violation of international law and norms to pursue their imperial projects and power games, as evidenced in Japan’s colonization in the late Joseon Dynasty, the 1950-53 Korean War, and China’s participation in the war. As a result, Koreans cannot but be critical of Russia’s assault of one of its sovereign neighbors.

In 1966, Lee Kuan Yew famously said, “In a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimp, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp.” A poisonous shrimp could be a problem, but Korea should be wise enough to engage in diplomacy befitting its status as the 10th largest global economy. The government’s decision to participate in international sanctions on Russia is worth a compliment though it was belated. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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