Home > News > The conflict over Ukraine is a conflict over international order. That makes it nearly impossible to resolve.
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The conflict over Ukraine is a conflict over international order. That makes it nearly impossible to resolve.

Why are two world powers so intent on controlling Ukraine?

- January 31, 2022

At first blush, the conflict between Russia and the United States over Ukraine seems puzzling. A Russian invasion, which seems increasingly plausible, would spark the most serious diplomatic and military crisis since the end of the Cold War. It would raise the specter of conventional war between two nuclear-armed countries.

American support for the use of force in Ukraine has risen steadily since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. As of December 2021, most Americans with opinions on the matter support protecting Ukraine militarily in the event of a Russian invasion. Yet as political scientist Barry Posen has argued, it is far from clear that Ukraine’s independence represents a vital U.S. interest. Indeed, a survey at the start of the 2014 crisis showed that only about 16 percent of Americans could find Ukraine on a map.

How have we arrived at this point? Understanding the Ukraine crisis requires that we move beyond narrow calculations of national self-interest and focus instead on major powers’ attempts to shape their diplomatic and political environments. International relations scholar Arnold Wolfers called such objectives “milieu goals.” Ukraine is not important to the United States and Russia because of its strategic resources or military capabilities. It is important because it figures in each country’s preferred international order.

When orders clash, conflict is likely

“International order” is a broad concept, less concrete than an alliance or an international organization. In its most widely accepted definition, international order refers to patterns of behavior that uphold the rules and norms of an international society.

These patterns of behavior promote valued norms, like democracy and the rule of law. They also allow countries to avoid conflict by accurately anticipating one another’s reactions and taking competing interests into account. Examples of international orders include the 19th century Concert of Europe, the so-called “tribute system” in early modern East Asia, and the liberal international order of today — the post-World War II complex of military, economic, and human rights institutions that coordinate behavior and promote Western rules and norms.

My research has shown that members of the same international order rarely fight one another, but frictions between international orders are a common source of conflict. During the Cold War, for example, conflicts like the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis arose directly from frictions along the boundaries of the Western and Soviet spheres. Proxy wars in places like Central America and the Middle East were also fueled by the U.S.-Soviet rivalry.

When orders change, so do patterns of conflict across the international system. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet communist order coincided with an abrupt decrease in international conflicts started and a sharp decline in the number of new and ongoing civil wars.

Why would Putin invade Ukraine?

Ukraine is a contest for order

While the post-Cold War lull has persisted for decades, the United States once again faces conflicts at the intersection of the Western rules-based order and smaller, regional orders defended by other major powers, such as Russia and China.

Clearly, support for international order, rather than specific, narrowly defined national interests such as keeping strategic territory in friendly hands, is driving American policy in Ukraine. Last November’s U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, for example, emphasizes support for “shared values and common interests, including a commitment to a Europe that is whole, free, democratic, and at peace,” despite Russia’s attempt to “destroy the rule-based international order.”

Russia’s response to the crisis suggests a similar concern about order. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in December published a draft treaty proposal calling on the United States to limit its political and military influence in the region. Because NATO is explicitly organized as an alliance for defense, it poses no threat to Russia’s territorial integrity, especially given Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But Russia, whose ambitions for international order are limited to maintaining de facto political control over the states that once made up the Soviet Union, perceives the expansion of Western political, military, and economic institutions as threatening its sphere of influence in its own backyard.

If Russia does invade Ukraine, what happens next?

Friction at the peripheries will continue

Because this is a clash that arises from frictions among international orders, even military victory by one side or the other would merely shift the line of contestation east or west rather than settling it. The dispute can probably only be managed, not fully resolved, as long as the international orders that produced it persist.

And they are very likely to persist. New international orders are generally founded in the wake of major wars. As my colleague political scientist Randy Schweller has pointed out, the Cold War’s peaceful end, while obviously preferable to war, has left us without a new “ordering moment.”

Russia seems unlikely to give up its influence in the former Soviet states. Indeed, Putin has recently demanded that the West roll back its influence in Central Europe by ceasing all military activity in the region — even activity on the territory of current NATO members. For its part, NATO has been called the most successful alliance in history, and it’s hard to argue with success.

At the same time, the persistence of current international orders has very real costs. It creates standing tensions in places like Ukraine and Taiwan, which could become shockingly deadly were they to escalate. The liberal international order faces growing opposition from increasingly vocal populist factions in NATO countries Hungary, Poland and Turkey, with democratic backsliding within the alliance.

And today’s global rules-based order is built on foundations that increasingly seem archaic. Critics point out that it has never been truly global. When 50 states signed the United Nations charter in San Francisco in September 1945, laying out the rules and principles of postwar international order, those nations’ colonies and their successor states in the developing world were flatly excluded.

There are no easy answers, of course. The considerable risks associated with “frozen” conflicts like the one in Ukraine may, in the end, be better than wholesale reconsideration of something as established and pervasive as international order. At a minimum, though, President Biden and his counterparts may wish to discuss whether they want to craft a new approach to global relationships — or whether they are committed to enduring different iterations of this standoff indefinitely.

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Bear F. Braumoeller (@Prof_BearB) is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and holds the Baronov and Timashev Chair at Ohio State University, where he is a professor in the department of political science and director of the MESO Lab (Modeling Emergent Social Order).