The ongoing crisis in Ukraine provides an opportunity to gain some insight into international relations theories. The conflict is rooted in history, in particular with respect to cultural identity. Ukraine has for much of its history been under imperial rule, either the Hapsburgs or the Russians, and as such has an emerging national identity. The nation of Ukraine, however, was created from the Ukrainian SSR when the Soviet Union collapsed. Much of its territory was occupied by ethnic Russians, not ethnic Ukrainians, creating internal political conflict since independence. The Crimean Peninsula was especially contentious because it had only been ceded to Ukraine in the 1950s, having been Russian for a couple of centuries prior to that (Thompson, 2014). In the wake of a political crisis in Ukraine, Russia moved its troops into Crimea and annexed the peninsula. Russia had already had a naval base at Sebastopol the entire time, having leased it from Ukraine. The conflict is ongoing, with Russian troops agitating in the Russian-dominated east of the country and there existing an ongoing threat to move Russian territory through the south via Odessa to the unrecognized breakaway republic of Transnistria (The Economist, 2014). Further backdrop to this issue is that ethnic Ukrainians have long wanted closer ties to the West, rather than to Moscow, and are considered Western allies. The EU, however, is dependent on Russian natural gas, so when it should be playing a lead role in the conflict is instead has preferred to be silent. Thus, the conflict continues with the Ukrainian government being given basically no support for its territorial integrity. Some analysts have also noted NATO's conflict in Serbia against Russian-backed Slobodan Milosevic as a possible contributor to the group's inaction in Ukraine to this point (Schlesinger, 2014).
There are several key issues that inform this problem. The first issue is the overt conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has included the annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia. This is the key surface issue, not only because of Crimea but because of current agitation by Russian forces in the east, the threat of further territory seizures in the south and the threat that this conflict will become much worse before it becomes better.
The second issue with respect to the power dynamic between the West and Russia. This has long been a backdrop for conflict in Europe, with the current conflict being essentially an extension of the Cold War. The West has a large sphere of influence, as was drawing Ukraine into this sphere of influence, in particular with the pro-Western leadership overthrew the pro-Russian leadership a few months before the Crimea intervention. Ukraine was basically moving in the direction of falling fully under Western influence, joining the EU and possibly NATO. This comes at a time when Russia is seeking to expand its sphere of influence in the world, leveraging its hydrocarbon wealth. The bargaining power of Russia is at a high at present, because of European dependence on Russian natural gas in particular. Not only is Europe's bargaining power weak, but a pair of pointless wars in the middle of nowhere has weakened American appetite for a fight, making intervention from the U.S. -- which doesn't have economic dependence of any type of Russia -- minimal. Ukraine is basically being torn apart along the lines of the two spheres of influence, the Russian intervention motivated by Ukraine's turn to the West.
The third issue at work here is that of national identity. Ukrainians are among the European groups who did not have a strong national identity for much of their history -- under the Hapsburgs they were Ruthenians and their cultural homeland did not extend much past Kiev. It also did not extend much to the south either, meaning that the internal conflict in Ukraine is mostly about ethnic identity. Russians living in the country were pro-Russia, while Ukrainians wanted to assert their own national identity and were staunchly pro-Ukrainian, with most favoring a turn to the West. The national identity issue has inflamed tensions significantly during this conflict.
The fourth issue at play here is the role of international intervention. Intervention is often used in conflict situations by the international community. One of the key tenets of intervention is that internal issues should remain as such, but in this case there has been significant intervention by Russia in contravention of international law. In particular, the annexation of Crimea is a direct violation of Ukraine's sovereignty under law, even in violation of treaties that Russia itself had signed. The structure and integrity of the international legal system -- and the ability of the international community to enforce this system -- is at play in this conflict, having much wider implications than just for Ukraine.
Research Analysis and Questions / Complicating Issues
This conflict illustrates how two different theories of international relations collide. Russia has always been a realist, while Europe has become strongly neoliberal through the second half of the 20th century, and these competing ideologies inform our understanding of how this conflict came to be and what might happen going forward. Realist ideology is based on the idea that the international system is define by anarchy, that there is no central authority. Relations between states are governed by coercion and consent between them. The only variable of interest is state power. States can use their power to gain their objectives (Slaughter, 2011).
In this instance, Russia has seen that the West is generally weak, whereas it is relatively strong. A nuclear power, Russia has always had some measure of strength. Its natural resources, and Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas in particular, also serves to increase its bargaining power. The conflict in Syria, where Russian support has been enough to keep the West from intervening on behalf of rebels, provided evidence to Russia that it has a high level of strength and that the West has little interest in open conflict. Knowing all of this, Russia saw weakness in Ukraine and the West, and was able to retake Crimea. Realist theory easily predicts this. Russia's bargaining power is very high and it has a specific stake in Crimea, where it has its major naval base on the Black Sea. Sevastopol in particular is of critical strategic importance because it is the best harbor in the region, and because it gives Russian its best access to the Mediterranean, barring a blockade as the Bosporus. Crimea is also 70% ethnic Russians. The West was likely to, in consideration of that reality, avoid intervention on the Crimea issue. The bigger issue comes now when the questions of Eastern Ukraine and Transnistria are on the table. Transnistria in particular is adjacent to the EU at Romania, the thin sliver of farmland that is Moldova standing in between as a green line.
Realism also informs the American position on Ukraine. Strategically, it would be nice to have the Ukraine as a member of the EU and NATO, but the U.S. realizes that going to war over the country makes little sense. The big picture of Eastern Europe is that the West wants to gain strategic influence. It may, for example, be willing to see Ukraine split, so that the pro-Western half can join the EU and NATO, essentially expanding their sphere of influence as far as would have been possible anyway. The United States sees little value in open conflict, because it simply does not have enough at risk in the region. Even with territorial expansion, Russia would not be expanding its sphere of influence or increasing its power.
The EU, for its part, is an embodiment of neoliberal ideology. States are important actors, but there is room for overarching government. States can be, however, collections of different individual interests. Europe's response therefore is predictable: it is willing to sacrifice Ukraine to maintain its peace and its supply of hydrocarbons from Russia. The individual actors that drive European policy have far more use of the status quo than they do of Ukraine. This leaves the conflict to the Ukrainians only, since they are the only ones with direct interest in conflict with Russia. The EU may also view the Russian-majority regions of Ukraine as not interested in a move to the West, so that protecting the sovereignty of these areas under a pro-Western government is Kiev ultimately makes little sense -- it would be fighting a losing fight. Liberalist views also support internationalism, such that international law is governed by supranational bodies. The United Nations Security Council, for example, would have some sway over the events in Ukraine. That the UNSC is toothless to address conflicts between the interests of member states is lost in the discussion.
Three complicating factors have already been identified. First, the EU is dependent on Russia's natural gas. Second, the U.S. has no reason to fight for Ukraine. Third, the political worldviews of the these three main actors predict their current behaviors accurately -- none has motivation…