The conflict in Ukraine has been raging since 2014. However, it did not enter the consciousness of most people until the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation in February 2022. Western media and governments portray the conflict in simple terms. They repeat that Russia is an aggressor state, and all those who support freedom and democracy must oppose her. This simple reduction satisfies many within their daily routines while leaving a comprehensive explanation for the cause of the conflict unfulfilled. Today, we see disrupted economies, weapons transfers, thousands of deaths, heightened global tensions, and a stalemate.

Real-world events are more complex than sound bites. By coming to a deeper understanding of the causes of the war, political elites, the public, and peacemakers can have a stronger foundation to resolve the conflict. Then, we can build a new future with a common destiny for everyone involved. Here, I go deeper by presenting concise explanations of the causes of the Russo-Ukraine conflict by using several international relations theories to guide different arguments.

Liberal international relations theory is the most familiar to Western readers. The current dominant world order arose from the ashes of World War II. It operates on a rules-based system with governing bodies of regional and international scope. Familiar geopolitical and economic institutions include the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Relationships between states are collaborative and interdependent. Consensus facilitates the progress of shared national interests at institutions like the European Union. Peace is likely between nations within a liberal order. Still, conflict can arise between nation-states inside and outside of the order because of a contest between differing cultural value systems like individual freedom, national sovereignty, and democracy.

Liberalism blames the Russian Federation for the conflict in Ukraine. It portrays the nation as an illiberal, rogue state that seeks to conquer territory, kill civilians, and disregard the established norms and standards of modern international law. The response of the liberal states is to isolate Russia through sanctions and arm Ukraine with weapons to defend against an unprovoked attack. According to liberalism, the way out of the conflict is to join resources to defeat Russia and force a return to Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders, including Donbas and Crimea. The citizens of the NATO and EU nation-states, the core of the post-WW2 liberal world order, are familiar with this mantra.

Realism is another way to view the dynamics of international relations. Here, nations compete in a chaotic worldview of fear and self-preservation. National interests prevail over international collaboration. Large and powerful states dominate global power dynamics as small, weak states seek protection and association with powerful states to ensure survival. In realism, trust in a global system is lacking. Balances of power result in spheres of influence and actions of opportunity in the effort to seek an upper hand against an adversary. Realism works well to explain the power dynamics between the historical European monarchies before World War II.

Realists like Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago blame NATO and the West for the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Mearsheimer faults the expansion of NATO on Russia’s borders since the reunification of Germany. Here, NATO and the West provoked the conflict. Mearsheimer points to the broken informal agreement not to expand NATO eastward while ignoring repeated warnings from Russia for NATO to stop eastward expansion. In realism, Russia perceives NATO expansion as a security threat like the United States felt during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The realist perspective recognizes the need to address the security fears of both Russia and Ukraine by rethinking how NATO both preserves peace and provocatively agitates.

Constructivism looks at international relations through the lenses of culture and identities. Presidents Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, and other elites stir up nationalist sentiments in the population to stoke fears and motivate. This results in othering and widening divisions. As a result, social relationships between groups break down, from economic trade to the sharing of the arts. Language use becomes a battleground in the contest for ethnic loyalties. Different historical narratives drive divergent understandings of national thought. Regions of mixed ethnolinguistic and cultural identity become flashpoints of conflict.

After the right-leaning, pro-western 2014 coup in Ukraine, President Yanukovych fled the country with an exit negotiated by the Obama administration. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) removed the democratically elected Yanukovych from power with a vote outside of constitutional impeachment norms. The prevailing Ukrainian political elites began instituting a right-wing nationalist Ukrainian agenda with policies to de-Russify cultural and civic life. The nationalists passed a series of laws to restrict the use of the Russian language in media and education, alarming neighboring Hungary, Human Rights Watch, and the Council of Europe. All three actors warned Ukraine against implementing such measures. Kyiv assigned new Ukrainian language names to previously Russian-language-named cities and streets.

These changes to accepted language usage in Ukraine were troubling for the 30% of the population in the east and south who speak Russian as their first-choice language. Many in these regions have identities tied to history affiliated with the idea of “Mother Russia.” The surge in right-wing Ukrainian nationalism and Russian language persecution drove separatist movements by creating resistance to cultural assimilation. In this framework, domestic Russian-speaking affiliated Ukrainians can blame minority persecution by Kyiv for stoking conflict.

Critical thought borrows from Marxism. World Systems Theory analyzes the economic and power dynamics between states in international relationships. Nation-states fall into three categories: core, semi-periphery, and peripheral. It explains the actions of nation-states as a struggle within the economic forces of capitalism. Core nations like the United States and the Russian Federation are economically strong with powerful militaries. Through competitive capitalism, they seek to dominate, control, and exploit the resources and labor of weaker and surrounding semi-periphery and peripheral states like Mexico and Ukraine for their own benefit. The weak peripheral nation-states become a battleground for economic control of markets by the core states. With time, nations can switch places of classification. In this model, even China, with its “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” classified as a core nation, can draw in peripheral states in Africa and elsewhere through its Belt and Road Initiative.

This left perspective provides insight into the days before the 2014 Ukrainian coup. Ukraine sought economic development with a choice between two paths. The Western economic development package from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund leaned to an affiliation with the United States and the European Union. Like previous neoliberal offerings to Argentina, the financial deals were contingent on painful restructuring with privatization, forced open markets, and domestic budget cutting of social services. The development package from the Russian Federation to Ukraine did not require painful structural adjustments. In 2014, Ukrainian President Yanukovych selected the Russian development package.

The choice made by Yanukovych infuriated many in the Ukrainian-speaking western and central regions who sought to break free from historical Russian domination. They preferred to turn west and join the European Union and NATO to create a stronger Ukrainian national identity. The stage for the Maidan Revolution is now set. The economic tensions created by competing capitalist Core States ignited the Euromaidan protests and split the Periphery State of Ukraine into pieces with different loyalties.

What followed was a seven-year civil war as the Russian-speaking majority of Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk all declared independence from Ukraine. Crimea voted to reunite with Russia as it had been before 1954. Luhansk and Donetsk worked towards independence, with reliance on Russia for support. Ukraine turned off the water to Crimea as Russia built a new bridge to connect it to Russian transportation networks. Ukraine and the rebels in Donbas exchanged shelling for years, resulting in the deaths of thousands. In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his Special Operation to address the Russian Federation’s grievances against Ukraine.

The four theoretical frameworks for international relations offer a different insight into the cause of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. They provide the "why." Neither framework is complete alone, but they can be simultaneously correct. Viewing these separate insights as part of a complex system now permits us to think about how to address prospects for peace in ways that looking at one perspective alone, such as the liberal view, cannot satisfy on its own. Besides the liberal view, realism, constructivism, and world systems theory can now help us think of solutions for each to move forward for peace.