Russian invasion to Ukraine has just started. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of troops to Luhansk and Donetsk, two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine. Putin defends his action, saying that the situation in Donbas, where the two regions are located, is becoming critical as the hostilities between Ukrainians and proRussian separatist groups have gone out of hand. He said Russian forces would act in a peacekeeping role. Certainly, the deployment of Russian forces into the dispute areas would grant Russia a stronger grip over the regions and hand Putin advantages in negotiations in his current standoff with the West.
Major European powers and the United States spent months to find diplomatic solutions to the crisis. Diplomacy failed. Russia’s list of demands was expansive. The list included Moscow’s call for no membership of Ukraine in NATO, no military exercise of NATO in Ukraine and other former Soviet nations, and pullback of NATO forces from its eastern member states. Washington and its allies in Europe rejected Moscow’s demands. Instead, Washington has avowed that it would enact a barrage of strong economic sanctions against Moscow, hitting major banks, state companies, and key imports, though the targets have yet to be confirmed. However, Moscow responded to the threat with disdain. It is aware of leverage it owns against the West: Europe’s dependence on natural gas from Russia.
Why is Ukraine important to Russia? Ukraine is an inherent part of Russia’s own history and culture. However, important strategic interests are also at stake in Moscow’s aggressive stance toward Kyiv. Its paramount goal is to keep Ukraine from turning to the West. NATO has expanded eastward gradually since the end of the Cold War, adding former Soviet satellites to its members. Ukraine is a partner country of the organization with its membership still pending. But Russia has been well known for its pushback toward its neighbors’ leaning toward the West. The invasion to Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 are all good examples in point. What drives Moscow’s invasion to the eastern border of Ukraine is quite simple: Russia wants to reassert its influence over its neighbors. Putin’s goal is to force Ukraine to give Russia a say in Ukraine’s future and send a message to other former Soviet states that the West cannot guarantee their security.
The crisis in the eastern border of Ukraine leaves two very important lessons for Korea. One is that agreement of cease-fire or peace is inherently fragile. The Minsk Agreement of February 2015 signed by Russia and Ukraine along with Germany and France ended the exchange of fires between Ukrainians and the pro-Russian separatist groups in Luhansk and Donetsk. The agreement became short-lived. The Russian invasion reminds us of a simple truth in international politics. That is, the agreement made among states is no more than a piece of paper. Blind trust in it is dangerous. The second lesson is that Korea needs to treasure its ally. Once Winston Churchill said, “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.” Korea is surrounded by China, Russia, and Japan. Korea needs an ally to protect itself from any threats its neighboring great powers may pose. US-ROK has been instrumental in preventing another invasion by the north. Critics of the ally argue that US-ROK alliance is outdated and exposes Seoul to unnecessary conflict with Beijing and Pyongyang. However, we need to question whether the end of the alliance would promise no harassment from regional powers. The crisis in Ukraine reminds us that it is dangerous to stand alone against a neighboring great power.