[Column] Korea’s predicament in the wake of Nuland’s retirement

Posted on : 2024-03-20 17:05 KST Modified on : 2024-03-20 17:34 KST
With its appointment of Kurt Campbell as deputy secretary of state, the US is signaling that the main front is shifting to the Indo-Pacific region
Russian President Vladimir Putin declares victory at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2024, while meeting with reporters. (EPA/Yonhap)
Russian President Vladimir Putin declares victory at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2024, while meeting with reporters. (EPA/Yonhap)

By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer

Victoria Nuland’s retirement from her position as the US under secretary of state for political affairs, which was announced on March 5, illustrates the predicament of US foreign policy as it reckons with simultaneous wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said while announcing Nuland’s retirement, her “efforts have been indispensable to confronting Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” given her status as the hardest of hard-liners on Russia in the US diplomatic establishment.

Nuland played a key role in the US’ shifting relationship with Russia which ultimately led to the war in Ukraine. Her government career began with a stint as chief of staff for Strobe Talbott, a well-known hard-liner on Russia who served as deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, and she has held key positions in the foreign policy establishment during the 30 years since then.

The retiring diplomat is known for her unflattering and candid remarks about both allied countries and rivals such as Russia. In Washington, she is regarded as the most senior official to retain the “neocon” worldview.

Nuland’s family, as it happens, is renowned in neoconservative circles. Her husband is Robert Kagan, the preeminent neocon ideologue and a prominent advocate of liberal interventionism. Kagan’s younger brother Frederick, a conservative military historian, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is itself a leading conservative think tank in the US. And Frederick’s wife Kimberly Kagan is the founder and president of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which the Western media often quotes on the course of the war in Ukraine.

Both Nuland and Kagan are of Jewish descent, which is also true of many people holding key positions in American foreign policy.

The war in Ukraine would be almost inexplicable if not for Nuland’s role. While serving first as principal deputy national security adviser for Vice President Dick Cheney and then as ambassador to NATO in the Bush administration, she was a fiery advocate of the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan and the expansion of NATO.

In the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, Nuland, who was then ambassador to NATO, pushed through membership action plans defining the protocol and timeframe for Ukraine and Georgia’s admission to NATO over objections from Germany and France.

That was the spark that eventually led to the conflagration of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In a backlash to these moves, Russia soon went to war against Georgia, which set off an ongoing deterioration in its relationship with the US and culminated in the current war.

While serving as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under President Barack Obama, Nuland was closely involved in the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that brought down the pro-Russian government in 2014, which was the starting point of Russia’s hostilities against Ukraine. She personally encouraged Ukrainian demonstrators by handing out sandwiches at a protest.

Recordings have also been leaked of Nuland’s phone calls with the then-US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, in which she heaped vulgar invectives on the EU for its tepid stance and mulled who ought to be Ukraine’s next president. That’s why Russia denounced Nuland as the “princess of darkness” and accused the US of engineering a coup in Ukraine.

After the retirement of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Nuland became acting deputy secretary and was considered a strong candidate for permanent deputy secretary. But Nuland was shunted aside in favor of Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council.

Nuland’s retirement is especially provocative since it comes as the war in Ukraine is tilting in Russia’s favor and as Putin was decisively elected to a fifth term as Russian president.

At the end of last year, Russia focused on consolidating its territorial gains, and since the New Year, it has been unleashing an offensive to gain more ground. We’re looking at the prospect of a “frozen conflict” in which Russia works to solidify control over the territory it has conquered.

That gives the US reason to seek an exit strategy. Campbell’s appointment as deputy secretary can be understood in the same context, given his ardent support for Washington’s so-called Indo-Pacific strategy and its alliances with South Korea and Japan.

The war in Ukraine is already having serious ramifications for the Korean Peninsula. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has provided artillery shells and other weapons to Ukraine, which has spurred Russia to upgrade its strategic relationship with North Korea.

With its appointment of Campbell as deputy secretary of state, the US is signaling that the main front is shifting to the Indo-Pacific region and that it will push South Korea even harder to align with that strategy. The deterioration of relations with Russia further restricts the options available to South Korea, which has already lost all contact with North Korea.

The Summit for Democracy, which the Biden administration is using in an attempt to galvanize its allies for a confrontation against China and Russia, kicked off in Seoul on Monday, the first time the summit has been held outside the US. That is a testament to how South Korea is being incorporated into Washington’s foreign policy.

Inside South Korea, even the main opposition Democratic Party has forced a farming community activist off its list of proportional representatives for the upcoming general elections because she had participated in protests against the deployment of American THAAD missile defense systems in Korea.

South Koreans can’t take their eyes off the US as it struggles with the prospect of Russia gaining momentum in the war against Ukraine and the dilemma of having to support Israel despite intense public criticism over the war in the Gaza Strip.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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