Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press conference with the European Council president in Kiev on March 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sergey Dolzhenko / Pool

Many around the world are wondering why Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, and what to make of the West’s response or reaction to the conflict so far.

These are difficult questions to answer, not only because of the complex nature of global power relationships that have brought about a geopolitical arena that is in structural crisis, but also because of the range of perspectives from which such conflicts, and the reactions they elicit, might be viewed and explained.

With this in mind, a brief, non-exhaustive review of the literature is in order, which might assist us in further understanding the present crisis. 

Setting the stage

Theories surrounding the roots of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have so far centered on some key state actors: the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and Ukraine, each with varying degrees of direct or indirect involvement.

Undoubtedly, a number of non-state actors have also played a role in this catastrophic situation, the cost of which, especially in terms of human lives and dislocation, fortunately has not yet reached levels previously seen in, say, Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. 

In their accounts of the conflict, while a number of pundits have come to see Russia’s military operation in Ukraine as an indication of President Vladimir Putin’s state of mental health (not a plausible explanation, as it can be argued that any other Russian president would have behaved the same way under the circumstances), more seasoned analysts have focused on Russia’s national-security and strategic concerns, especially as they relate to the gradual post-Cold War expansion of the NATO alliance to include the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet Union. 

Here it is important to take into account what some analysts have viewed as Ukraine’s own role in the conflict.

In 2019, on the heels of the 2014 coup or uprising that led to the ouster of the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s parliament approved certain amendments to the constitution that were designed to “obtain Ukraine’s full membership of NATO and the European Union,” a desire that was confirmed by none other than the current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, himself on February 19 this year, thereby adding to the intensity of tensions between Russia, on one side, and the West and Ukraine on the other. 

The fact that the Minsk II agreement of 2015 (reached after the failure of the Minsk I agreement of 2014 and named after the Belarusian capital, where it was reached) failed to end the war in the country’s Donbas region has also been discussed by commentators as a factor contributing to Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. 

To the list of theories and speculations surrounding the invasion, one must add those that tend to explain it in terms of a presumed Russian interest in territorial expansion or imperial domination (reminiscent of the Russian or Soviet Empire), which might eventually become a reality, if the West, led by the US, insists on intensifying its presence in the Eurasia region, especially in competition with China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Western response

The West’s response or reaction to Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has also produced various theories and speculations as to its potential short- and long-term ramifications for Russia and the rest of the world, each from a particular perspective. 

Some analysts, for example, have come to see the myriad sanctions that the US and the EU have imposed on Russia as a way of weakening the country’s economy, so as to force it to cease its military intervention in Ukraine, while a number of other analysts have suggested the possibility of the gradual emergence of a more resilient and independent Russia as a result of such sanctions. 

Related to the above is the United States’ warning to China against providing any kind of assistance to Russia that might allow it to circumvent Western sanctions, a warning that seems to be part of a larger strategy aimed at not only breaking up the China-Russia relationship, which has actually intensified over time, but also slowing down the advancement of China’s BRI. 

It is worth noting, however, that Western sanctions have often failed to achieve their desired foreign-policy objectives, only managing instead to punish ordinary citizens of the targeted countries or their trade partners.

Russia itself is a good case in point here, as the initial wave of sanctions that the United States imposed on the country in 2014 failed to prevent it from invading Ukraine in 2022, but did succeed in making life harder for the average Russian. 

A number of analysts have tried to draw a distinction between the United States’ strategic interests, especially in light of its declining global hegemony circa 1970, and those of Western Europe (especially France and Germany), thus arriving at the conclusion that the US reaction to the invasion is not just designed to teach Russia a lesson, but also to make sure that Western Europe remains firmly in the grip of the US, instead of moving closer to Russia and China for purposes related to investment, trade and energy needs. 

Dollar weaponization

The United States’ efforts in preventing Western Europe from leaving its orbit have also been linked to its increasing anxiety over the latter’s energy dependence on Russia, as well as Russia’s (and some other countries’) de-dollarization efforts, which have historically been aimed at decreasing the United States’ ability to use the dollar as a weapon of coercive diplomacy. 

As limited as de-dollarization efforts have been in scope so far, there is no doubt that they have had a global impact, especially as countries advance in their attempts to make less use of the SWIFT payment messaging network, which the West has also used on occasion as a weapon of coercive diplomacy. 

Though theories abound and further speculations will surely arise as to the ramifications and reverberations of this new round of great-power rivalry, one thing is certain: The United States’ declining hegemony.

This is increasingly apparent by its lack of ability to force other nations to follow its rules-based order or shape global conditions and outcomes to its own advantage, which has paved the way for an era of multipolarity, with China, Russia, Iran, India, Brazil and a number of other countries and blocs emerging as major players, both regionally and on the world stage. 

Acknowledging this new geopolitical reality and partaking in it in ways that involve respect, dialogue, and genuine cooperation, rather than bullying, unequal treatment, and double standards, is what the US and the EU should be considering, therefore, when it comes to dealing with other nations.

Additionally, they need to realize that this sort of constructive behavior will not be possible unless they have a proper perception not just of other nations’ security concerns, but also of their own limitations. 

Had they arrived at such an important realization years ago, when George Kennan, the architect of the United States’ containment strategy during the Cold War, said in relation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion, “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way,” Russia and Ukraine would have perhaps found it much easier today to be good neighbors. 

Ramin Mirfakhraie is a sociologist based in the U.S. His research interests include capitalist globalization and international politics. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick in the U.K.