Major wars can be considered on two quite different levels: a manifest, or nominal, level and a structural, or geopolitical, level.
The nominal level of warfare concerns the immediate objects of contention: the things which the combatants think they are fighting about. The geopolitical level of warfare concerns the consequences of the conflict for the exercise of power over some geographic region.
The ethical evaluation of a war usually revolves around the nominal level of combat. However, the historical meaning of a war derives mainly from the geopolitical consequences of the battle.
For example, at the nominal level, the (possibly mythical) Trojan War was about possession of the beautiful Helen who had been abducted from Sparta and taken to Troy. However, at the geopolitical level, the Trojan War concerned whether Greek city states or cities of Asia Minor would dominate the eastern Mediterranean and the lands surrounding it.
Or consider the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in which as many as 8 million people perished. At the nominal level, this was a militarized combat between advocates of the Catholic and the Protestant versions of Christianity. But at the geopolitical level, it was an extended battle about whether France or Austria and Spain would control western Europe.
The American Civil War can also be fruitfully analyzed at nominal and geopolitical levels. At the nominal level, the Civil War concerned whether the Confederate states would be permitted to secede from the Union. Yet at the geopolitical level, the Civil War focused on whether chattel slavery capitalism or wage slavery capitalism would organize the American West and dominate American society.
At the nominal level, World War II was a struggle between fascist and anti-fascist forces. However, the principal geopolitical outcome of the war was to define U.S. corporate capitalist and Soviet state socialist spheres of influence.
It is important to consider the ongoing Ukraine War at both the nominal and the geopolitical levels. At the nominal level, the Ukraine War is combat between Russia and Ukraine over control of Ukrainian territory and the political orientation of the Ukrainian state. At the nominal level, the Russian invasion must be condemned as aggression against a sovereign state, violation of the United Nations Charter, and wanton destruction of human life.
But the Ukraine War must also be studied at the geopolitical level. And at the geopolitical level most observers — both conservative and progressive — consider the conflict to be a proxy war between Russia and the United States in which the Ukrainian people are the main victims, but not the principal protagonists.
The principal issue in the proxy war is whether the United States will remain the unitary global hegemonic power (as it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union), or whether the world will approach a more pluralist political structure with several great powers whose interests and security must be honored.
Exploring the Ukraine War at the geopolitical level certainly does not exonerate Russian aggression and the killing that has resulted. Moreover, the Russian attack is a ridiculous way of countering U.S. global hegemony and has instead considerably strengthened the latter. Yet the United States must be deemed the aggressor in its ongoing proxy war with Russia.
The U.S. has expanded NATO to the very borders of Russia, conspired to make Ukraine antagonistic to Russia, militarized Ukrainian society, undermined the Minsk 2 accords, supported attacks on the Donbas separatist regions and ignored potent fascist elements within Ukrainian social structure. Emphasis on Ukraine in the global power struggle is by no means accidental. Important geopolitical theorists, including Cold War ideolog Zbigniew Brzezinski, identify Ukraine as key to domination of Eurasia and subsequently to global hegemony.
Awareness of the geopolitical level of the Ukraine conflict and the proxy war that it entails explains why many countries victimized by colonialism are reluctant to condemn the Russian attack. Leaders of these countries may disapprove of Russian aggression, but they consider United States imperialism a much greater danger. After all, the U.S. is far stronger — militarily, economically and politically — than Russia and far more inclined to repress any significant anti-capitalist movement by martial violence.
The suffering of the Ukrainian people, formerly colonized publics observe, elicits much more sympathy in Europe and the United States than the even greater travails of non-white human beings in Yemen, Ethiopia and Palestine.