Ukraine and Russia are at war, but it is not for the reasons you have been told. The issue is not Vladimir Putin being the second coming of Hitler and wanting to conquer all of Eastern Europe, nor is the problem a western backed cabal of capitalists and neofascists pushing Ukraine into a symbiotic relationship with the West. Both those things may be, and probably are, true to one degree or another, but both are SYMPTOMS of a larger, deeper, and more profound problem: Nationalism.
Nationalism is the irrational belief that the geography of a region has something to do with the moral and existential merit of a people or group of people. It is represented in superstitious worship of national symbols like flags and songs, irrational hatred for those deemed by the leadership to be “enemies”, a paranoid belief that other nations and groups are “out to get us”. Oftentimes this nationalism leads a population to follow its leaders blindly into misguided military (and social/economic) adventures that lead to death, destruction, and privation for the population itself and for victims in other nations. Nationalism is a disease that in its metastasized state can become Imperialism, the complete subordination of the economic, cultural, military, and intellectual engines of the state to the whims of a power structure that wishes to expand its power, and its markets, over as much of the world as possible. The chief imperial states today consist of the United States, Russia, the European Union and China, with many regional “great powers” who dominate others on a smaller geographic or demographic scale. Each Imperial state was born of a certain strain of nationalism, each has its own national mythology and belief in its own exceptionalism, and each wishes to extend and expand its power and reach over other nations and peoples. The Ukrainian-Russian War is not a war of “democracy” vs “tyranny” or “right” vs “left” or “capitalism” vs “socialism”, it is a war between an imperial state, Russia, trying to reclaim a territory on its borders that it sees as part of its cultural, economic, and political “manifest destiny”, and the emerging nation state of Ukraine, which wishes to join the imperial sphere of the US/EU alliance and to assert itself as a regional power in its own right.
The war in eastern Ukraine is like all wars since the advent of the nation state: a bloody conflict declared by powers that be of two (or more) nations and executed by the people of those respective nations. The aim is national expansion or at least national preservation. By “national” read the state, its mechanisms and markets, and its conception of the people living within its borders. The people fight the war not because it is in their direct interest to do so, but because the powers that be have made an argument, or a declaration, that the “other” is the existential enemy of the people of “our” nation, and that to let them win would be to destroy all that is loved and cherished by the people. It is a sort of emotional blackmail that leads people who otherwise would have no stake in such a foolish conflict to give their lives for the national “cause”.
The powers that be in nation states are themselves guided by the powers that be within the power structure of the larger imperial states and the corporations and interests who depend on them and who support them. In this case Russia, under a nationalistic and paranoid leader, wishes to expand his power base and sphere of influence and to make himself look like a conquering hero to the people and the elites of his nation. This is also based in an all too Russian fear of being invaded and dominated by other powers. They are pitted against an pragmatic alliance of the US and EU Imperial systems, who are attempting to absorb Ukraine into the Neoliberal economic sphere and the Neoconservative military and cultural paradigm. Stuck in the middle is the smaller, but no less nationalistically driven, state of Ukraine, which after being dominated by Russia for centuries is now taking tentative steps towards creating its own national mythology and mission. There is no “right side” in this conflict, and there is no “winner” possible; the outcome will be one Imperial State or another gaining temporary advantage in the great chess game that is international affairs, while the people will suffer the consequences. There is nothing “radical” or “new” or “21st Century” about this war. Imperial states have always used proxies to fight, they have always stoked ethnic and national tensions in target nations, and they have always tried to manipulate the media message in their favor. The only thing that is different now is the technology involved and the paranoia and anxiety of a world that is slowly beginning to realize that nationalism and free market capitalism are the two evils that are turning the world into a hell-scape for most of its residents.
The ambitions of Imperial states often culminate in world wide, or region wide, conflict. This has happened ever since the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and continues to the present day. We have not seen a calamitous, world wide conflict since the end of the Second World War, but that does not mean it cannot, or will not, happen. Events such as those transpiring in Ukraine point to the fact that the world is still in thrall to the religion that is nationalism. Until we realize that we must unite as PEOPLE and not as NATIONS in order to reject the idea of separateness and profit over people we will never be able to “solve” or “win” conflicts like that in Ukraine. There are no winners in the great game of nationalism, only profiteers and power brokers.