The elephants are fighting again

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The elephants are fighting again

Chae Byung-gun
The author is an international, diplomatic and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Ukraine war has been bewildering in many ways. It’s shocking that an invasion by land, sea and air has panned out in Europe in the 21st century, so long after the continent left behind totalitarianism and feudalism in favor of either capitalism or socialism. The escalation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is even more stunning. Despite the atrocities Russians were committing — public execution of Ukrainian citizens and rapes by Russian soldiers — Putin’s popularity has shot above 80 percent in Russia.

According to the independent Moscow-based Levada Center, Putin’s approval rating jumped to 82 percent from 69 percent in January. Respondents who said Russia is going in the right direction jumped to 66 percent in April from 50 percent in January.

The mention of Putin as a reliable politician increased to 44 percent in March from 34 percent in February. Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, who is commanding the war, also saw his approval rating rise to 16 percent from 12 percent.

Like all wars, the Ukraine war has been brutal. Cities have been wrecked by Russian bombardment and bodies are scattered everywhere. The sight reminds us of the ruthless Mongol conquest of the Khwarazmian Empire and invasion of Europe.

Foreign media has been making various interpretations about Putin’s popularity. The word war is currently prohibited in Russia. The media instead refers to it as a special military operation. Independent outlets that reported uncensored war scenes have been forced to shut down or move overseas. Russian people’s eyes and ears have been covered through strict media control. But censorship alone cannot explain the astonishing 80 percent approval rating for Puntin. The Levada Center believes the clash with the West has united Russians. The negative response towards the U.S. shot up to 72 percent in March from 42 percent in November, according to the Levada poll, while positive responses sank to 17 percent from 45 percent.

Judgment can be impaired if one mixes the world one wishes to see with the world as it is. The world had hoped Russians would be enraged and rise up against the war, but they have done the opposite. The Ukraine war is not Putin’s war but has become Russia’s war. Putin’s extreme action has been condoned at home.

The war underscores changes in the international order. Major countries leading international society have lowered trade and capital barriers and enhanced exchanges in promotion of globalization. But nationalism has taken the upper hand in Russia.

The United States started the phenomenon with the choice the nation made in 2016 by electing Donald Trump as president in support of his “Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump’s America chucked away the U.S. role as global police and instead went out to collect charges for its assistance. It demanded higher cost-sharing from allies and built walls around the border to create an America for the Americans’ sake.

China’s President Xi Jinping’s nationalist campaign intimidated others to follow the Chinese order. Sino-centrism shows no tolerance for incompliance to the world order evolving around China whether it be for “new relationship with global powers” or for “core interests” of China. The Chinese media cheers the doctrine. Russia nostalgic towards its past Soviet glory has turned to military aggression. It threatens the use of nuclear weapons.

Nationalistic contests by global powers endanger Korea’s security and economy. South Korea has 50 million people in a land one fifth the size of Spain and generates a per capita income of more than $30,000. South Korea has built its economic power through earnings from overseas.

But the rise of a Great America, Sino-centrism, and the dream of resurrecting the Soviet empire each demanding global orders led by their power is raising the price for Korea. The Korean Peninsula and East Asia are where the U.S., China, and Russia exercise their muscles. Korea was a victim of their power struggle during the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). We cannot go through the same pain. The leadership and people must be fully awake and build an independent power so as not to repeat that disgraceful history.
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