The Ukraine crisis involves several important and influential theories regarding international relations and world politics. When examining any event in world affairs there are always several important factors to consider. Who are the parties involved? What do they want? What is motivating them? It is this third question that involves questions of theory and ideology. The way people think affects how they perceive and react to a crisis, and the situation in Ukraine is no different. There are three theories that are particularly influential in terms of defining the Ukraine crisis.
The first is the concept of nationalism. This refers to the tendency of racial and ethnic groups to profess a sense of identity and to pursue political goals in the name of that identity. Nationalism is operating on both sides of the Ukraine crisis. It was nationalism, in part, that precipitated the protests in Ukraine that led to the downfall of the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych. His embrace of Russia in favor of the European Union (EU) enflamed Ukrainian nationalism. Many in Ukraine became fearful that a renewed relationship with Russia would threaten Ukrainian sovereignty and identity. This fear led, in part, to the protests that overthrew Yanukovych.
Nationalism is also operating in Russia as well. There is a large population of ethnic Russians living in the Crimean region of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is claiming to protect the interests of these ethnic Russians against violent Ukrainian extremists. There is also a very strong nationalist sentiment within Russia itself. There are many in the country that want to see Russia strong and powerful again, and gaining control over the Crimea, or even Ukraine as a whole, could be seen as a step in reestablishing Russian power in the world. Nationalism is only one theory influencing the Ukraine crisis.
Political realism is another theory operating in the Ukraine crisis. Political realism places a large emphasis on power. International relations are a contest of power for a political realist and the goal is to acquire as much power as possible and to expend it in the most efficient way possible. This is the theory that Putin is primarily operating under. He has calculated that he possesses superior power to Ukraine and thus can act as he chooses in relation to that country. He has also calculated that he has superior power to those countries that might be opposed to his action.
While it can be debated whether Russia actually possesses superior power to either the EU or the United States, one component of the power equation is the willingness to use that power. Putin was already successful in Syria in preventing the U.S. and its allies from deploying military force and thus using the power at their disposal. He may believe that the population of the U.S. is not interested in participating in another war and therefore will not use the power at their disposal to assist in the Ukraine.
There are two other important aspects of political realism. The first is that issues of morality are not of importance to a realist. Morality is only a question between actors of equal power and influence. An actor with superior power does not consider the moral objections of an actor with inferior power. That is why, in the case of Ukraine, issues of sovereignty or self-determination in Ukraine are not an issue to Putin and Russia.
The other important factor to consider is that while political realism is often associated with a preference for war, this is not necessarily true. War is one means by which power can be both used and obtained, but it can also be lost as well. A political realist will balance the potential cost of war against what can be gained. If the losses are more significant, than a realist will not pursue war as it would be contrary to the goal of gaining power. So while Putin is acting aggressively in Ukraine, an actual war may not prove to be in his interest.
One final theory to consider in the Ukraine crisis is that of liberalism and internationalism. This is the theory that is currently guiding the world response to the crisis. Under this theory, issues of security are to be addressed collectively by the community of nations. Collaboration and negotiation are the preferred methods to deal with a crisis. This can be seen in the current preference for tactics such as economic sanctions and other actions against Russia instead of a military response.
Just as political realists are often perceived as pro-war, liberals are perceived as anti-war, but this generalization is equally untrue. Liberals have often embraced aggressive solutions to international crises. Armed conflict remains an option for liberals, particularly if human rights are threatened, but it is typically a last resort after other means have failed. This can be seen in situations like the numerous conflicts on the Balkan Peninsula and the response from then President Bill Clinton.
There are many factors to consider when looking at an event in international relations. Theory and ideology are one of the tools that can be used to explain an issue like the current crisis in Ukraine.
By Christopher V. Spencer
Ozkirimli, U. (2010). Theories of nationalism: A critical introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.
Thompson, K. (1996). Schools of thought in international relations. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, LA.
Weber, C. (2005). International relations theory: A critical introduction. Routledge: New York, NY.