Ukraine Is the Korean War Redux

Russia’s invasion heralds the transition to a new global order—but it will be less stable than the Cold War.

By , a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
United Nations troops fight in the streets of Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 20, 1950.
United Nations troops fight in the streets of Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 20, 1950.
United Nations troops fight in the streets of Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 20, 1950. NATIONAL ARCHIVES/AFP via Getty Images

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Which conflict in history offers the greatest parallels to Russia’s war in Ukraine? The answer is undoubtedly the Korean War. Although different in origin and scale, both conflicts are regional wars with worldwide implications—heralding, accelerating, and solidifying the transition to a new bipolar global order. These parallels, and a few key differences, offer important lessons for the future.

When the Korean War started in 1950, the international system was just beginning to settle into a bipolar power structure, with the United States and the Soviet Union as the two dominant powers. Having just begun, the Cold War was still in an early, dangerous phase—not the highly stable Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s many people still remember. Today, as Russian troops ravage Ukraine, the international system is once again in the middle of an unstable transition to a new bipolar power structure—this time with the United States and China as near-peer competitors and rivals. The Korean War had a lasting impact on the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry and shaped many of the rules of the Cold War. Today, it is already obvious that the war in Ukraine strongly informs the new era of Sino-U.S. rivalry, even if the West’s main antagonist in this war is Moscow, not Beijing.

North Korean troops crossed the border into South Korea in June 1950. The three years of war that followed not only sealed the fate of the Korean nation as divided for decades to come, but it also had long-term implications for the world order. The signals of change had been present for some time already. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had famously announced in 1946 that an “iron curtain” had descended across the European continent; after the Chinese communists took control of the mainland in 1949, then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong traveled to Moscow to sign a friendship treaty with his Soviet counterpart, Joseph Stalin. However, the Korean War strongly contributed to moving world politics toward a U.S.-Soviet divide. The war played a major role intensifying the Cold War on a global scale. It also consolidated NATO as an alliance.

Which conflict in history offers the greatest parallels to Russia’s war in Ukraine? The answer is undoubtedly the Korean War. Although different in origin and scale, both conflicts are regional wars with worldwide implications—heralding, accelerating, and solidifying the transition to a new bipolar global order. These parallels, and a few key differences, offer important lessons for the future.

When the Korean War started in 1950, the international system was just beginning to settle into a bipolar power structure, with the United States and the Soviet Union as the two dominant powers. Having just begun, the Cold War was still in an early, dangerous phase—not the highly stable Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s many people still remember. Today, as Russian troops ravage Ukraine, the international system is once again in the middle of an unstable transition to a new bipolar power structure—this time with the United States and China as near-peer competitors and rivals. The Korean War had a lasting impact on the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry and shaped many of the rules of the Cold War. Today, it is already obvious that the war in Ukraine strongly informs the new era of Sino-U.S. rivalry, even if the West’s main antagonist in this war is Moscow, not Beijing.

North Korean troops crossed the border into South Korea in June 1950. The three years of war that followed not only sealed the fate of the Korean nation as divided for decades to come, but it also had long-term implications for the world order. The signals of change had been present for some time already. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had famously announced in 1946 that an “iron curtain” had descended across the European continent; after the Chinese communists took control of the mainland in 1949, then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong traveled to Moscow to sign a friendship treaty with his Soviet counterpart, Joseph Stalin. However, the Korean War strongly contributed to moving world politics toward a U.S.-Soviet divide. The war played a major role intensifying the Cold War on a global scale. It also consolidated NATO as an alliance.

The war in Ukraine heralds the start of another such geopolitical reorganization. During the last three to four years, the rise of China has triggered a vocal debate about whether the Sino-U.S. rivalry will turn into a new cold war, where the United States seeks to contain China. All signs were already pointing toward the return of a bipolar power structure in the international system. Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine is both accelerating and consolidating the geopolitical divide between the United States and its allies on one side and a Sino-Russian axis on the other—much as the Korean War did for the original Cold War. It does so in four major ways.

The war in Ukraine is both accelerating and consolidating the geopolitical divide between the West and a Sino-Russian axis.

First, the war in Ukraine increases Russia’s dependency on China. The Sino-Russian partnership has steadily improved during the last decade, including by expanding economic cooperation, creating an energy partnership, conducting military exercises, practicing high-tech collaboration, and attending regular high-level meetings. There has even been a tourism boom. China is Russia’s No. 1 trading partner, and China now imports more crude oil from Russia than from any other country, with natural gas deliveries expected to grow quickly through newly constructed pipelines. Strong ties between Beijing and Moscow are a growing concern in Washington and European capitals, but with Russia now largely isolated from the West, the war in Ukraine strengthens China’s sway over a weakened Russia.

Second, the war in Ukraine solidifies a hardened European view of China as a potential security threat. Security issues have traditionally occupied a very minor role in Europe’s outlook on China, but this has recently started to change. The European Union declared China a “systemic rival” in 2019, reflecting a realization in Europe that its partnership with China was offering more challenges and fewer opportunities. European countries set new limits on their economic interactions with China—for example, by largely excluding Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies from building 5G infrastructure. Last year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg claimed that “China is coming closer to us”—and China’s unqualified support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further strengthened this view in many European capitals. In particular, the Sino-Russian declaration of an unlimited partnership just 20 days before Moscow launched its invasion, caused unease in Europe. In the statement, released when tens of thousands of Russian troops were already assembling on the Ukrainian border, the two countries called on NATO to rule out its expansion into Eastern Europe. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, called the statement an “act of defiance.” That China has emerged as a security challenge for Europe is reflected in NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which the bloc’s leaders are expected to endorse at the NATO summit this week in Madrid.

Third, the war in Ukraine intensifies the Sino-U.S. economic divide and will accelerate efforts to limit interdependency. In a bipolar rivalry, the two dominant great powers will view economic interdependency as making them mutually vulnerable. This is why, over the past three or four years, the United States and China have taken the first modest steps to decouple their close economic ties. In Beijing, the swift and strong Western response sanctioning the Russian economy has further escalated Chinese concerns about its dependency on Western technology and markets, motivating China to increase its self-sufficiency. Similarly, Europe’s dependence on Russia for its energy security is not an example Washington wants to duplicate in its relations with Beijing.

Finally, the war in Ukraine has given NATO and the trans-Atlantic community a revived sense of unity. After a few years of growing concerns in Europe and the United States about a growing rift between the two, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reversed the trend. The United States is now increasing its military presence in Europe while European NATO members are expanding their defense expenditures. Europe is finally responding to numerous calls by a long series of U.S. presidents for more balanced burden-sharing within the alliance.

The new era of Sino-U.S. rivalry will resemble the Cold War in many ways but also have unique features. The U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry was dangerously unstable in its early phases. The Korean War informed U.S. strategy in three specific ways: Korea and other regions once viewed as being of peripheral interest now became vital, and a perimeter defense strategy was implemented to contain the Soviet bloc across all of Eurasia. After Korea, Washington prepared for additional proxy wars and focused on its arms race with Moscow by increasing conventional and nuclear forces in close cooperation with its allies. Eventually, the Cold War’s main focus on the European land theater allowed the strategy of massive retaliation to emerge—which had a strong deterring effect on any attempts to cross the fixed line dividing continental Europe. As a result of these emerging strategies, the Cold War after Korea turned out to be highly polarized but relatively static and stable.

The Sino-U.S. rivalry, as it is now emerging, is likely to be less polarized—but also less stable. It will be less polarized due to the high level of interdependence that preceded it. China has risen within the U.S.-led liberal international order ever since then-U.S. President Richard Nixon played the “China card” against the Soviet Union in 1971. China’s economic interdependence with the United States and Europe today will likely lessen the polarizing effect of bipolarity. Furthermore, the Cold War predominantly remained a rivalry between the Soviet Union as a quasi-autarkic continental power and the United States as a sea power—a distinct role division that contributed to polarization. China, on the other hand, is now both a land and sea power, a situation that favors trade and connectivity.

Moreover, China’s geography reduces the U.S.-China geopolitical divide. From its position in the Eurasian heartland, the Soviet Union posed a threat to all Eurasian rimlands from Europe to the Far East. China’s location in the East Asian rimlands, on the other hand, limits its military reach beyond the Indo-Pacific, which will mitigate the effect of China’s rise This may also lead to diverging threat perceptions among the United States and various allies less directly affected by it—reducing balancing efforts against China. Over the long term, China’s limited geographic reach may represent a challenge to trans-Atlantic unity.

Geography is also the very reason why the U.S.-China rivalry is likely to be more unstable than the Cold War. In contrast to the land-focused Cold War, the main theater of U.S.-Chinese rivalry will be naval, with the vast expanse of the Indo-Pacific a potentially less predictable environment. Competing for command of the oceans increases the likelihood for incidents at sea, and contesting the influence over island states, naval bases, and partners in the region may make it tempting to start a limited war at sea with uncertain escalatory mechanisms. In addition, the unraveling and decoupling that is already underway will create more friction than the world saw at the time of the Korean War, where a system that was already divided and polarized was merely frozen in place. The past three decades of globalization have seduced many into thinking that great-power conflict is obsolete and belongs to a dark past. The war in Ukraine has awakened the world to a different reality.

Jo Inge Bekkevold is a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and a former Norwegian diplomat.

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