Ukraine war for nations betwixt giants
The author is a professor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
Diplomacy was in full swing to avert a war in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Scholz of Germany engaged in separate missions to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, he invaded. For observers from the other side of Eurasia, the tragic development in Ukraine does not look foreign at all.
For one, it is a repeat of a sad history of small and mid-sized countries being victimized by global powers for their own security interests. Secondly, Ukraine was barely included in negotiations trying to decide its fate. Northeast Asia has seen this kind of historical development before here on the Korean Peninsula. Seven decades after it was violently bifurcated, South Korea has found itself back in the crossfire of a strategic competition between America and China that reaches all realms including defense, security, economy, trade, science and tech.
The geopolitical tensions engulfing South Korea and Northeast Asia are nearly as alarming as the developments in Eastern Europe. Multiple risk factors involving the two Koreas, Northeast Asian countries and the rest of the world are building to a perfect storm. South Korea is sandwiched between two superpowers — the U.S. and China — and the pressure is growing.
The rule of the jungle defines international politics and smaller states are forced to oblige the demands of global powers. In his “History of Peloponnesian War,” which described the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens, Athenian historian Thucydides exemplified the nature of international politics in the Melian Dialogue section through a fictional debate between Melian and Athenian representatives over the sovereignty of Melos, a small island located east of Sparta. Melos, a colony of Sparta, asked Athenians to respect its right to remain neutral when it was presented with an ultimatum — to come under Athens or be utterly destroyed. When the Melians argued for fairness, the Athenians replied that questions of justice do not arise between unequal powers. “Justice is what is decided when equal forces are opposed, while possibilities are what superiors impose and the weak acquiesce to,” was the famous Athenian argument.
Athens eventually made Melos one of its colonies and the atrocities it committed were both signs of control and a deliberate example to other smaller states. Melos had counted on aid from Sparta, which did not come. Melos represents the woes of a small nation sandwiched between bigger powers. In today’s world, a state does not easily lose its sovereignty through invasion and war. But as the Ukraine crisis suggests, any plea for international justice may be in vain.
The smaller states across the Eurasian continent could feel threatened by the Ukraine crisis. Many in northeast Europe, the Baltic region, east and central Europe, the Caucasus region, central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia stand on the seismic landscape of geopolitical risks. According to the 1997 book “Grand Chessboard” by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who found Eurasia a chessboard on which the struggle for global competition continued, five states — Ukraine, Azerbaijan, South Korea, Turkey and Iran — were referred to as geographical pivots with strategic and economic importance.
Ukraine is particularly vulnerable to geopolitical risks. It faces Russia without any geographical barriers. That is why Russia cannot let Ukraine fall into the Western orbit. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine became a sovereign nation. But standing alone was not easy. Reforms were delayed, and leadership shifted from pro-Moscow figures to pro-West. As a result, its joining of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was stalled.
Putin envisions the rebirth of the Russian empire. He used political confusion in Ukraine to extend Russia’s “strategic depth.” Bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s jurisdiction cannot be possible from current Russian standing, but Moscow vehemently wants to prevent the country from joining the West-led NATO. It is going to war to stop it. Russia interfered in the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late Joseon period and China did in the Korean War on the same grounds.
What can South Korea — as geopolitically squeezed as Ukraine — learn from the crisis?
First of all, a state must establish a grand strategy relevant to its geopolitical and historical identity, national capabilities, and environment. Small countries surrounded by big powers — like Ukraine and South Korea — cannot afford even a small slip. There are plenty of examples of countries in Eurasia being invaded, divided and occupied by global powers due to poor judgment in foreign policy.
They too have some options available. They can muster diplomatic brinkmanship through compliance, balance, neutrality, distance, collective alliance, nonalignment, or regional cooperation depending on their capacity and environment. Ukraine could either choose to join NATO or emulate Finland’s neutral policy under the influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. South Korea also must devise an effective foreign policy strategy reflecting its pivotal status, trade power, divided national identity and role as a middle-income country amid strategic competition between the U.S. and China.
Second, self-sufficiency is important. It can be built by mustering all available national capabilities to strengthen defense and foreign vigilance. A small country cannot match a big country in resources. But history shows that invasions without a strong cause failed against the resistance of the people of a small country united in the cause of defending their sovereignty. Finland, with a population of 4 million, countered and defeated a Soviet Army of 450,000. Ukraine, with a population of 42 million, could fight off Russia’s totally cynical invasion. South Korea too must build up self-sufficiency in defense, economics, and tech capacity.
Third, foreign policy must have some consistency based on a national consensus. A united people can add agility to the defense of a home turf. When opinions are divided, the capabilities of a small country shrink even more, as was the case of the Joseon Dynasty, which failed to stand up to global powers.
Ukraine has been divided between its Russian and indigenous identities, its pro-Russia and pro-Europe sentiments and longings, and the underdevelopment of its democracy. It wavered from Russia and the West whenever the ruling power changed and lost an opportunity to join the Western side. Due to its domestic weakness, the U.S. and the EU hesitated with military assistance. What is urgent for Ukraine now is to unite internally. South Korea has been divided on foreign policy. Without overcoming such a tendency, Korea’s external policy can be muddled forever.
Korea must pay special attention to Ukraine and offer assistance. It shares its innate geopolitical fate as a squeezed nation and its principle of opposing interference and invasion by bigger powers. Since Eurasia is one big extended continent, the Ukraine crisis can impact Northeast Asia.
The independence and territorial sovereignty of Ukraine are shared aspirations of all mid and small-sized countries. South Korea can contribute to easing competition among global powers in Eurasia and safeguarding peace and stability. South Korea also has a geopolitical duty to share the experience of democratization and modernization with Ukraine.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.