Russia and the West: Power versus values

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Russia and the West: Power versus values

Yeh Young-june

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in its second month. To the chagrin of the world’s second biggest military power, Ukraine has bravely fought against the aggression through dignified solidarity. Moscow’s confidence that it could occupy the capital city of Kyiv within days and most of Ukraine in two to three weeks has been shattered. The prolonging of the war is expected to bring disastrous consequences to Russia like the Soviet Union’s 10-year engagement in Afghanistan in 1979.

One of the biggest setbacks to Russia was the united condemnation of most of the world. Sanctions on Russia are stronger than ever seen before. Much of the world sees the war as a contest between free democracy and authoritarianism. The war could bring about significant changes in the international order. The JoongAng Ilbo solicited the views of the current and former Korean ambassadors to Ukraine, well versed in the geopolitics of that part of the world.

Lee Yang-gu served as South Korea’s envoy to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019 and Kwon Ki-chang from 2019 to 2021. Current Ambassador Kim Hyung-tae, temporarily relocated to Chernivtsi, a city close to the border with Romania, participated via a phone interview.

Q. What is the situation like in the country?
A. Kim Hyung-tae: It is heart-breaking and awe-inspiring to watch unarmed civilians stand before Russian tanks in total disregard of the danger to their own lives. These courageous scenes have already been reported. But what is most striking is the maturity of the citizenship. Despite the war, there are no crimes or chaotic confusion. Instead, the Ukrainian people are helping one another. There is no hoarding. They patiently wait long hours for their turn in grocery stores or at gas stations.

Ukraine lost Crimea when Russia annexed it through military force in 2014. What has made Ukraine change in eight years?
Kim: Leadership has played a part. When I met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky last year to submit my letter of credentials, the first thing he said was that his country has been in a war for eight years. The president declared himself a wartime leader although combat and aggressions had not taken place since the annexation. When the United States offered to help him escape after the invasion, he said he needed “more ammunition, not a ride” as his place was with the people where the fight was taking place.
Kwon Ki-chang: Although Ukraine and Russia share historical roots, Ukrainians distrust Russia after its invasion and forced annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Many have come to refer to Russia as their enemy. Ukraine has been strengthening its military by purchasing arms from the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. has been supplying $400 to 500 million worth of weapons for free annually. It is rare for Uncle Sam to provide military assistance to a country beyond traditional allies. When Crimea was annexed, the number of Ukrainian troops was a mere 5,000 and they had poor equipment. Now, permanent soldiers total 200,000.
From left to right: Current Ambassador to Ukraine Kim Hyung-tae, former Ambassadors Lee Yang-gu (2016-2019) and Kwon Ki-chang (2019-2021). 

Lee Yang-gu: The aspirations for freedom and independence by Ukrainians run deep. A wall in Maidan (Independence) Square in Kyiv bears the slogan, “Freedom Is Our Religion.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea stoked anger and a sense of betrayal with Russia and helped cement the sovereign identity of Ukrainians. They have come to share the belief that their biggest revenge against Russia is to walk a different path and build a better and richer country than Russia. They have turned more decisively towards the West or Europe. The pro-West and pro-Russia ratio among Ukrainians has dramatically changed from 6:4 to 8:2.
Does that mean Russian President Vladimir Putin misjudged the war?
Kwon: Putin is said to have misjudged three areas. First, he underestimated Ukraine’s resistance power. Second, he overrated Russia military force. Third, he did not imagine the Western world would become so united against Russia.
Lee: To Putin, the war may be about power. But to Western society, it is a war over values. The U.S. and Europe see Putin attempting to topple the core values of a free democracy — justice, fairness, honesty, freedom and humanity. They think Putin is trying to upset the international order since World War II or the Cold War. His first target was Ukraine and the West could not stand it. Under Putin’s rule, Russia had quickly succeeded in military operations in other Soviet bloc members like Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea. That was stopped at Ukraine.
From the perspective of a contest of values and a threat to the international order, the Ukraine debacle feels close to home for South Korea. Should South Korea become more actively involved? The government responded passively in the early stage of the war in consideration of its relationship with Russia, including trade.
Kwon: South Korea undeniably has become a developed country and free democracy. It has offered humanitarian aid of $10 million to Ukraine. Japan is offering another $100 million on top of an earlier pledge of the same amount. Given Korea’s economic size, it should increase its assistance. Economic interests have usually overruled other factors in foreign policy in Korea. But this must change. Even at the risk of immediate economic damage, a foreign policy that uphold values can help the national interests in the longer run. It’s time for Korea to change.
There’s another thing. The United Nations annually votes on a resolution condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea. South Korea has been abstaining from the vote each year. It is the sole abstainer among advanced countries. Seoul must vote for the resolution if it really respects the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine and opposes outside aggression. Zelensky has been sending video pleas for support to each legislature of other countries. Our National Assembly has received one. The legislature must consider issuing a resolution on its own.
Kim: To Ukrainians, South Korea is nearly regarded as one of the G7 members. Many Ukrainians find South Korea as a role model for surviving threats from global powers to become a rich economy. We have been receiving many pleas for help since the outbreak of the war. Since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, many foreign missions have moved out of the capital to Poland and other neighboring countries. We relocated our embassy to Chernivtsi, the southern area Ukraine, and are one of a select few who maintains a mission in Ukrainian territory. The governor has thanked us for being with them in their hardship. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Lee: I agree with the opinion that Korea should expand aid to Ukraine. Helping the country could help Russia in the end. Russia’s weakness in political and economic standards compared to its defense power have been exposed by the war. A rightful resolution could help speed up political development in Russia.
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