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[Hwang’s China and the World] Eurasia’s vulnerable geopolitical points: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North Korea

Eurasia’s vulnerable geopolitical points: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and North Korea

By Choi He-suk

Published : Feb. 9, 2022 - 15:02

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For the last two years, people the world over have lived with the invisible fear of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now used to applying sanitizer to our hands and repeatedly lifting up our masks to keep them above our noses. Now the world is somewhat getting used to the pandemic situation. With the number of omicron cases in South Korea going into the tens of thousands a day, and while people are now screened with quarantine passes on their way into restaurants and malls without concern, the traditional security fears that had been forgotten have suddenly returned to the forefront of our minds.

Two countries in Eurasia have been subject to boisterous military moves and reports of casualties in the international news since the beginning of this year. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization deployed troops to Kazakhstan in the name of an anti-terrorist operation. Following what happened in Kazakhstan, Russian troops have been busy at the border between Russia and Ukraine, preparing to invade when the time comes. The US and some countries from the West were preparing for military intervention, but are in standby mode under the “Olympic Truce” for the Beijing Winter Olympics. North Korea has also raised tension by launching missiles seven times leading up to the Olympic opening ceremony.

During the first month of this year, security flames successively sparked from the far east of Eurasia, crossed the middle of the continent and reached westward.

These discussions invited three experts of the respective countries to foresee if the recent fires would spread all over or if they can be extinguished. Discussing the tension in Ukraine is Dean Hong Wan-suk from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who is an expert in Russian diplomacy and security. For Kazakhstan, we were joined by Dr. Stanislav Pritchin, senior research fellow of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Li Kaisheng, director of the research division of International Relations theories of Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Science, contributed to the discussion on the rising tension coming from North Korea. 

Dean Hong Wan-suk from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Dean Hong Wan-suk from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

Hong Wan-suk (Dean, College of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies)

Hwang: How do you assess the recent tension in Ukraine?

Hong: The US is still the representative power in the West. In these circumstances, embracing Ukraine basically means restraining Russia’s imperial revival and guaranteeing NATO’s power expansion. Moreover, it allows a smoother approach to the Caspian coastal area, which is a massive repository of energy resources. On the other hand, from Russia’s perspective, preventing Ukraine’s further pro-Westernization, having it stay neutral and attracting it to the Slavic community is a defense against NATO’s stretch toward the east. At the same time, it is a stepping stone for Russia in extending its influence over Central and Eastern Europe, as well as anq essential precondition for hegemonic domination over the Black Sea and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) region. In short, Ukraine is the cornerstone of the Kremlin’s efforts to restore a great and strong Russia. This explains why Ukraine is the substantial battlefield between the US and Russia in terms of seizing the hegemony in Eurasia.

Hwang: What would the intervention in Ukraine present to Russia? Would it be a gain or loss?

Hong: The reason Russia struck Ukraine as the lever must be seen in a multilayered and complex way. The strike itself is not the main purpose. It seems Russia has achieved its own strategic goals in certain areas and various levels through forming a strength-to-strength confrontation with NATO by setting Ukraine as the partition line. In terms of issues such as raising the Russian people’s overall pride, distracting its people from the domestic exhaustion that comes from a prolonged Putin administration with external affairs, roping the US into diplomatic talks and occupying the high ground in negotiations, showing off Russia’s geopolitical presence as the great and strong power -- which has been overshadowed by China -- cleaving Europe, examining Russian military readiness posture in case war breaks out and strengthening its operation capacity, and containing Ukraine from making rash decisions, we can evaluate that Kremlin’s move to raise the tension in Ukraine succeeded in accomplishing at least half of its strategic goals. The fact is that the other half is the core. That would be Russia’s leverage to demand a security guarantee at either official talks or under-the–table negotiations in the near future.

Hwang: If the US does not accept Russia’s demands, would Russia invade Ukraine?

Hong: If Russia’s troops enter the sovereign state of Ukraine, Putin will lose his justification, since he has criticized the US in international society for unilaterally and militarily abusing its power.

It will eventually stigmatize Russia for being not only the invading country, but also one that points out others’ shady practices when it has done the same. Then the Kremlin’s authority and international status will be diminished. Moreover, the concern in losing the Slavic community’s human and material sources, and destroying historical heritage would make Russia hesitate before taking military action against Ukrainian territory.

Though Russia does not really show it, the West’s highly intensified sanctions have also been quite influential in preventing Russia from making armed provocations toward Ukraine. Above all, Russia’s fear in overusing its power without sufficient economic backup -- in other words “overstretching” -- is the main reason for Russia’s hesitation. This arouses trauma from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin defined as a geopolitical disaster. Considering these perspectives, Russia has too much to lose by invading Ukraine, including strategic aspects.

Even if Russia finally decides to take military action, the possibility of striking Ukraine first and directly is very low under various circumstances. To Russia, Ukraine is the “core interest,” the geopolitical vital point, which is never a matter that can be given up or negotiated over. Therefore, Russia’s actual invasion will only be possible when Ukraine’s admission to NATO is almost at the final stage.

Hwang: At what level or circumstance do you expect the Ukraine tension to settle down?

Hong: I guess we can specify three scenarios. The first is when both the US and Russia cannot find a satisfying point. Especially if the US rejects Russia’s red line, which is on Ukraine and Georgia to joining NATO. If the US pushes ahead with their admission, then direct armed conflict between the US and Russia will be inevitable.

The second scenario is the status quo. If the US and Russia go through negotiations behind the curtains and find some negotiation point which is neither’s maximum but an acceptable point, in other words, meeting the equilibrium at Pareto optimum in terms of exchanging security interests, the status quo scenario is feasible.

The third is breaking the status quo by promoting US-Russia relations, if the US largely accommodates Russia’s demand, in contrast its diplomatic rhetoric. Going a bit deeper, in such a case as the US admits Ukraine’s Crimea as Russian “territory” and lifts the sanctions on Russia, we might see the flare of new diastrophism of the international order in the 21st century.

Hwang: If the tension in Ukraine resolves as Russia desires in some aspects, how do you see Russia’s next moves?

Hong: At the security guarantee negotiation table, I assume the legal document that contains two agendas is necessary. First, the promise that Ukraine would not further proceed joining NATO, which is Russia’s Maginot Line, and second, that NATO would not further deploy troops and military equipment in Ukraine territory. In this case, Ukraine would endure as the buffer zone between “East” and “West.” Also, continuously maintaining Donbass as a “disputed area” is critical, just in case the US changes its promise, because a country with a disputed area cannot be accepted as a member of NATO, according to its admission requirement.

Hwang: Both Ukraine and Kazakhstan are geographically distant from Korea. Nevertheless, do you see any strategic implication that Korea should keep in mind in terms of security?

Hong: The geopolitical implications that Korea must glean from the Ukraine of 2021 can be explained at various levels, however, I would like to emphasize “self-strength.” Although we are watching a national crisis of Ukraine, what we only see are the strategies and confrontations between the US and Russia, not Ukraine.

In this context, what I would like to require of Korea with urgency is first, the sustainable strengthening of national defense power, and second, the transfer of wartime operational control authority as soon as possible in order to lower its dependency on its alliance. A balance of power without one’s own strength heads toward subordination to foreign influence in the end.

Korea’s geopolitical fate is to struggle for survival in the tight crack among the world-ranking strong countries, such as the US, China, Russia and Japan. This is the reason Korea must constantly advance its economy, modernize its military and globalize its culture. 

Dr. Stanislav Pritchin, senior research fellow of Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences Dr. Stanislav Pritchin, senior research fellow of Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Stanislav Pritchin Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Hwang: What are the reasons for the recent unrest taking place in Kazakhstan?

Pritchin: From the economic point of view, Kazakhstan seems to be the leader in the region of the post-Soviet space by many indicators, such as investment and resources. However, it should be noted that there is a significant gap in the distribution of income between regions and different social strata. Naturally, there were serious protests and clashes taking place from year to year. In addition, Kazakhstan is experiencing rapid population growth, especially in rural areas in the southern part of the republic. The state is not able to provide normal education, health care and jobs to the people in these areas.

Hwang: Would there be any possibility of a “Color Revolution”?

Pritchin: The term “Color Revolution” is hardly applicable to Kazakhstan events for a whole range of reasons. Color Revolution is an attempt to change the governing elite of the country through a coup supported from the outside. Such revolutions include the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. The events in Kazakhstan, as I mentioned in the question, are primarily due to internal reasons, none of the external players was the initiator or operator of destabilization with the aim of changing power.

Hwang: Do you think Russia is able to control both situations in Kazakhstan and Ukraine at the same time?

Pritchin: In the case of Ukraine, I see it is a tension or the buildup of armed groups along the border against the background of Russian-American negotiations on deterrence measures in Europe. Russia is not interested in escalating the conflict with Ukraine. Firstly, it would cause a diversion of resources without the possibility of winning something from this conflict. Secondly, it is an automatic deterioration of already difficult relations with Western countries. That is why Russia is committed to the implementation of the Minsk agreements in the Normandy format. Note that it is Ukraine that is not interested in returning Donetsk and Lugansk to its responsibility, because it will immediately lose the instrument of involving the West against Russia and will be forced to restore the infrastructure destroyed during the conflict. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s situation is not man-made and no one expected it to come. Russia contributed to the stabilization of the situation in the republic with limited resources with the support of CSTO partners, and it did not become something overly costly for Moscow.

Hwang: What would be Russia’s reason for being “assertive” wiht the former Soviet Union countries?

Pritchin: I would not call Russian policy in the post-Soviet space assertive. It is quite predictable.

Due to the fact that the former republics of the USSR are neighbors of Russia, respectively, they are part of a common regional security system. In the case of a change in foreign policy priorities from a constructive point, neighbors’ approach to creating threats, such as the cases of Georgia and Ukraine seeking to join NATO, which is initially viewed by Moscow as a hostile organization, problems in relations begin. In other cases, we see constructive cooperation, integration and joint responses to security challenges.

Hwang: The world is concerned about worsened relations between the US and Russia. I would like to hear how you see the situation.

Pritchin: Russian-American relations are overshadowed by the unilateral withdrawal of the US from a whole range of important regional security and stability agreements, which were reached after months of difficult negotiations. In such circumstances, it is difficult to expect a noticeable improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington. We can only count on the formation of a conditional nonaggression format that would allow us to insure the current level of relations from further decline.

Hwang: When we look from a geographical point of view, both Kazakhstan and Ukraine are quite distant from Korea. Even so, what strategic implications could Korea learn from the recent happenings in terms of Korea’s security?

Pritchin: A comparison of the model of foreign and domestic policy of Ukraine and Kazakhstan provides an excellent demonstration of how to build relations with a large and powerful neighbor. Kazakhstan pursues a fairly free, multivector policy, but gives priority to constructive and mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia and China, with which it has a long border and a high level of interdependence in security and economic issues. On the other hand, instead of pragmatic cooperation with Russia, Kyiv has taken a course toward nationalism and the displacement of all (things) Russian in domestic politics, integration into NATO in foreign (politics), and curtailing all economic and political projects with Russia. Thereby, it became a source of threats for Moscow rather than a partner. 

Dr. Li Kaisheng, director of the research division of International Relations theories of Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Science Dr. Li Kaisheng, director of the research division of International Relations theories of Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Science

North Korea
Li Kaisheng currently serves as director of the research division of International Relations theories of Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Science in China.

Hwang: On Jan. 30, North Korea tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile. It was the seventh launch in a month. Do you think North Korea’s intention is to sway South Korea’s upcoming presidential election or to pressure the US? In case of neither, what could be North Korea’s real message hidden in the provocation?

Li: There could be a few purposes in North Korea’s recent moves. First, North Korea seems to test, update and develop its missile system to prove its national defense capacity and to strengthen it. Second, North Korea is seriously unsatisfied with the Moon administration for just cautiously reading the US’ intentions until today and only paying lip service to North Korea. Third, since Biden was inaugurated, the fact that North Korea’s position in the US foreign agenda is largely downgraded is never a positive signal to North Korea.

Hwang: What is China’s stance on North Korea’s recent moves? Does China see any necessity for additional sanctions?

Li: From China’s perspective, North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests are a problem for sure. However, the US and Korea’s sanctions or the international sanctions from the UN are also causing complexity. China believes that practical measures are needed for the US to solve the North Korean issue. The US is a way stronger actor as well as the core actor in resolving the current North Korean issue, therefore, it should do its best and duty in implementation rather than requiring additional reckless sanctions.

Hwang: What do you expect as to North Korea’s further actions?

Li: The Olympics is the festival for peace. Last December, the UN General Assembly adopted the Olympic Truce for the Winter Olympics in Beijing unanimously and 173 countries co-sponsored. Therefore, North Korea does not seem to initiate force during this period. This does not necessarily mean that the possibility for North Korea to violate UN sanction clauses is completely out of the question. However, in any circumstances, we should take diplomatic measures that positively respond rather than unquestioningly criticizing North Korea’s “provocation.” We should not miss the timing to solve the problem.

Hwang: Regarding North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missile tests, South Korea had some degree of justification for deploying additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile systems. South Korea considers THAAD as a measure to respond to North Korea’s threats.

Li: The deployment of THAAD might be able to plant some psychological comfort to the South Korean people, nevertheless, it will not be able to practically root out the threat from North Korea’s missiles. In fact, the main role of THAAD is simply tightening the military ties between the US (which deploys THAAD) and Korea. In case an extra THAAD (battery) is deployed, it will cause not only the concern from North Korea, but also doubts from China. In particular, considering that North Korea is out of the top priority in the US foreign agenda, the reason the US wants an additional THAAD deployment is not to target North Korea but as the strategic and security frame to fully compete with China. Regarding the issue, China’s opposition is largely a normal response.

Hwang: Can the Korean Peninsula issue be the turning point for the US and China to cooperate? Or would it be one that worsens the competition?

Li: I see that it depends on the US’ attitude. If the US adheres to diplomatic solutions and simultaneously makes a flexible and practical approach with negotiation to North Korea’s nuclear problem, the Korean Peninsula can be the common field for cooperation between the US and China. On the other hand, if the US does not attempt to change its policies and nothing changes in the peninsula, it will only aggravate US-China relations, which are already vulnerable.

Hwang: South Korea and China have maintained cooperative relations when it comes to the North Korea issue so far. Regarding the North Korea issue, what kind of stance from South Korea would bring problems in its relations with China?

Li: I guess there could be trouble in the South Korea-China relations if South Korea implements the following two approaches regarding the North Korean issue.

First is imposing additional sanctions or excessively intensive policies toward North Korea. As China has emphasized policies to solve the problems through dialogue, Beijing would not support any kind of assertive or forceful policies, and South Korea is not an exception. Secondly, Korea is strengthening its cooperation with the US, using North Korea as an excuse. These steps are influential in the US-China relations, which go beyond the North Korea issue, and especially will weaken China’s strategic trust toward Korea and sway the foundation of the two countries’ relations.


Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah, Shin Eui-chan and Min Rui.