2 August 2015
The North Korea of Eastern Europe
When considering the relationship Poroshenko’s Ukraine has with the rest of the world, one has to keep in mind he, too, has a political objective of his own (i.e., survival) and certain strategy at his disposal that he can use to pursue that objective. A strategy which is rather at odds with what people in Washington or Brussels or Berlin anticipated when they greenlighted Poroshenko’s Nazi-spearheaded coup as a “democratic transformation.” If you were to try to imagine what US cables from Kiev to Washington contain these days, I’d hazard a guess that phrases like “Poroshenko is a swell guy who’s doing exactly what we wanted him to do” might be hard to find.
As to Poroshenko’s strategy, it’s not exactly original, although it may seem that way given that Ukraine is relatively unique. Just as North Korea is relatively unique in Asia. But the strategies of the two sets of leaders are pretty identical.
North Korea’s prescription of survival is pretty simple but very effective. It has only two mutually reinforcing components: “poison pill” and “buffer zone.” The fact that nobody in their right mind so much as contemplates taking over or annexing or promoting a “color revolution” in North Korea is largely due to the fact that the “winner” of the struggle would be stuck with an intractable problem of epic proportions. I mean, who on Earth actually wants to reform North Korea’s economy or politics at this stage? In economic terms (which are paramount from the West’s perspective) there is nothing to gain but plenty to lose by attempting to bring North Korea into its sphere of influence.
The second component relies on the fact that Korean reunification would instantly destabilize the entire region. There would suddenly be a far bigger Korea (one distracted by the problem of its North, but which would be dealt with eventually) bordering both China and Russia and with US military bases on its soil. Literally nobody in the region wants that, including Japan.
The North Korean leadership appears to be perfectly aware of that, which enables it to extract tribute (!) from its far more powerful neighbors who are all keenly interested in preserving the status quo and preventing a sudden power vacuum on the Korean peninsula that would appear in the event the regime in Pyonyang collapses.
Kiev has adopted a very similar stance. Not immediately–they were hoping for a privileged Category I vassaldom, and only when disappointed did they embrace this new approach. But when looking at Ukraine, it’s clear that it’s a country that resembles North Korea in a growing number of areas, including even its national ideology of exceptionalism, insularism, ethnic nationalism, the air perpetually threatening invasion, and a big fence along the border ostensibly to keep out the invader…
The “poison pill” aspect of the strategy was not something that Kiev necessarily embraced voluntarily. What Kiev really wanted was to become the Israel of Eastern Europe, with billions of dollars of aid a year and access to the most modern NATO weapons. The fact it is now forced to embrace the North Korea strategy is a consequence of Russia’s de-facto “scorched earth” delaying action in Ukraine through economic warfare so as to make Ukraine less palatable to its “Western partners.” And that policy succeeded–today’s Ukraine bears scarcely any resemblance to the pre-Maidan Ukraine. But Poroshenko et al. can also use it to his advantage. Because it turns out Ukraine can extract more tribute from its neighbors (East and West) by threatening to implode, succumb to a civil war, and pollute the region with refugees and weapons than by offering economic concessions. And as North Korea’s example tells us, that game can continue for decades.
Though arguably the most important reason nobody wants Ukraine to implode is the fear each side has another major power would fill the vacuum. Maintaining Ukraine as a buffer zone has long been Russia’s priority–now it looks like the West has joined the game in the sense that it too would rather see Ukraine as a geopolitical no-man’s land rather than part of its empire.
Can this strategy work as well as it has for North Korea? Probably not, though it may be years before it fails. In contrast to Ukraine, North Korea has a homogeneous population and, even more importantly, a homogeneous and cohesive elite which runs the country as a centralized, militarized garrison state, something that Poroshenko might aspire to but has no tools or ability to implement. Furthermore, North Korea is located on a geographically peripheral peninsula while Ukraine has a far more central location. Not to mention Ukraine is much bigger in every respect.
Which means that there is a dimension here that’s absent in the case of North Korea. The major powers in question have a shared interest to coming to a mutually acceptable agreement over how to manage the power vacuum that will ultimately appear in Ukraine. That interest is all the greater because the cost of Ukraine’s upkeep is much larger than North Korea’s upkeep. For that reason it’s also in Poroshenko’s interest to foster conflict between Russia and NATO/EU, because as soon as the two sides come to a spoils agreement, Poroshenko’s ability to exact tribute will wither away and his country will wither away with it…