The war should be viewed, I argue, as a clash of empires–the US on the one hand, which has been moving toward a confrontation with Russia since 1999 and the first push of NATO east that year. A weakened president Clinton at the time, barely avoiding impeaching, effectively turned over US foreign policy to US Neocons (who then drove their policies further under George W. Bush). NATO moved into northern tier of east Europe in 1999, thereafter as well in early 2000s into the southern tier of that region under Bush.
The first attempted coup in Ukraine followed in 2005 but resulted in a stalemate-both Western and Russian political forces began contending for control of the Ukrainian state, a contest that lasted another decade, culminating in the US financed coup in Ukraine in 2014-15. In the interim, the US encouraged the former USSR republic of Georgia to invade south Russia. That effort failed, but the US, behind the facade of NATO, thereafter quickly pushed further by promising NATO membership to the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Ukraine. It thereafter engineered a second, now successful coup in Ukraine in 2014, after which it repeatedly promised Ukraine NATO membership as well.
Russia was economically debilitated in 1998 due to a recession throughout most of the 1990s and a financial collapse in 1998 and could not respond to the first or second waves of NATO encroachment into northern and southern east Europe. It successfully thwarted the Georgian invasion of 2008 but its political supporters in Ukraine could not prevent the coup of 2014 even though they formally won the presidential election that year. Russia did, however, successfully block the Ukraine nationalist (and fascist battalion) forces that attacked Ukraine’s eastern provinces in 2015-16.
A stalemate thereafter ensued during the Trump administration. But soon after 2020 and the departure of Trump the US renewed its efforts in summer 2021 to turn Ukraine into another NATO member, sending military advisers, arms, conducting joint military exercises with Ukraine, training Ukraine’s military, and providing economic support and accelerating US corporate integration into Ukraine’s economy.
From 1999 to 2021 Russia has been trying to re-establish the former USSR geographical spheres of interest as a response to that US/NATO expansion. It has not been very successful by and large. Except for the case of Georgian war of 2008 and the checking of the attack on the Russian speaking east Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Lughansk, Russia has been in retreat as the US/NATO forces have steadily pushed east. The current Ukraine-Russia war is but the most recent effort by Russia to reverse the decades long penetration of the US empire into its former western ‘states’.
To sum up: One empire (US) is thus moving aggressively into former Russian spheres of interest, driven by Neocon and war hawk influences in the US now for two decades; the other (Russia) is in retreat and drawing a red line to the former’s advance in the current clash in the Ukraine.
It is important to note that the clash of empires is in effect a clash between capitalists as well. A clash that has elements of a repeat of August 1914; of the onset of a new cold war that may not prove so ‘cold’; and of a reordering of the global capitalist system as China and Russia attempt to end the US hegemonic unipolar world and replace it with a multipolar (US/EU & allies vs. Russia/China & allies).
History will show the Russia-Ukraine war is likely just the opening event of these changes. A settlement will be reached in the current Ukraine War, I predict, but one that neither satisfies Russia or Ukraine or its US ally. We are entering a most dangerous moment in the evolution of global capitalism.
As the American empire in the 21st century confronts these forces of evolution and change, it resorts to more aggressive responses. First in the middle east. Now in East Europe/Russia landmass. Tomorrow in China/South Seas. In the globalized, financialized world of the 21st century, dominated by the US, the American empire uses all the tools at hand–financial as well as political and military–to maintain its hegemony and debilitate its challengers. These financial weapons include the dollar as world trading and reserve currency, the international payments system, US de facto control over the global money supply and currencies, dominance over the global private banking system, and control of institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and terms of trade in general via free trade treaties.
The recent financial sanctions against Russia reveal the full scope and magnitude of the US empire’s financial weapons. The current first complete deployment of these financial weapons in the Russian sanctions are not, however, without their contradictions and feedback negative consequences for the US and EU economies. Time will tell how severe the contradictions and the ‘blowback’ become. One thing is certain: the global capitalist economy, and its financial system, will be significantly impacted in ways not yet foreseen.