The withdrawal of Moscow's communist empire from east-central Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia after 1989 has re-defined the west's strategic priorities under NATO's security umbrella and America's primacy.
First, the power-vacuum created by communist withdrawal had to be filled; second, the new socio-economic space had to become available for penetration by western transnational corporations (TNCs) and new financial interests that had already dominated key OECD countries in the 1980s; third, a new ideational scheme had to be envisaged by the west, replacing the old binary, "Communist barbarism versus western liberal democracy".
The first task was to be accomplished with NATO's eastward expansion and the strategic rationale of "deter forward"; the second task, acting under Germany’s primacy, was up to Europe's eastward enlargement and Jeffrey Sachs’ ‘shock therapy’ programme, which justified and imposed a neoliberal policy on all former communist states in the 1990s, while Russia was under Yeltsin’s leadership; and the third task turned out to be a mixture of upholding ‘human rights’ and pursuing ‘humanitarian interventions’. In the latter task the so-called "war on terror" proved to be an ideational imperative that would become prominent after 9/11.
The west did not entrench itself in Europe after the collapse of communism: quite the opposite. It moved in to fill political and economic spaces (provisionally) abandoned by the collapsing communist empire, often using the pretext of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (notably, for example, NATO's war with Serbia over Kosovo) or the terrorist threat (Afghanistan).
But the collapse of the communist empire did not, and could not mean the collapse of Russia as an important Eurasian player, a point well grasped by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his The Grand Chessboard (1997). The social system that generates empire does not have to be socialist, or communist, a kingdom or a city-state as in ancient Rome. Capitalism is an empire-generator par excellence. In other words, the "Cold War conflict" was not so much between two opposing socio-economic and ideological systems, as between two geopolitical blocs defined by geography, space and diverse imperial and historical symbolisms - blocs that have had a propensity to expand, each one of them for its own reasons.
Watch, for example, how America does it. America uses a combination of soft and hard power in dealing with its friends on each end of Eurasia (Europe and Japan/Australasia); it can force its policy upon its allies via economic means (the dependency of global financial markets upon the dollar as the key world money, ie, reserve currency) and security/military means (the role of NATO in Europe, and bilateral security treaties with Japan and other Pacific states). It maintains large military bases virtually all over the planet, which are not financed by the American taxpayer but by the recycling of surpluses of Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern producers via its Treasury Bills system (the global financial crisis momentarily halted this, causing serious problems in the US's global hegemony).
Thus, through its territorialised military power and security arrangements, the US can influence decision-making in key states across the globe (the main feature of America's informal imperialism alongside the importance of the dollar as world money). The US also reigns in military interventions and her social system has for a long time had a propensity for expansion (read, for example, the notorious "Open Door" argument, which was first put forth systematically by the work of William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 1959). Moreover, America has the luxury of using soft power extensively to undermine the power its opponents extend over other states. It can support ethnic pluralism in every state in order to sap the influence exercised by its opponents, and it can use proxies to carry out its policy (e.g. Germany in eastern Europe and Japan in south-east Asia). Indeed, this is how America does it in Ukraine today, operating under Obama's new "East Asian pivot" doctrine, designed to counter China's rise.
Now look how Russia, whether communist or capitalist, does it. It has the size - in fact it still is the largest real estate on earth - the history and the symbols to claim empire. It also has vast resources, albeit a shrinking population, but this should not be seen as a problem (large Russian minorities exist all over east Europe and central Asia). It always had a love-hate relationship with China, but over the last year they have cooperated well in the Shanghai and BRICs structures. Russia also exercises vast influence over the Assad regime in Damascus and the Islamic theocracy ruling Tehran.
Also, a big chunk of its bargaining power lies in the fact that it is the largest gas power in the world, which means that the energy security of the EU is dependent on Russia. The complicated network of oil and gas pipelines that criss-cross Belarus, the Ukraine and the Baltic states is the lifeblood of Germany's industrial locomotive.
Also, Russia's integration into global financial markets and trade create conditions of inter-dependency that the west can hardly ignore in weighing up the risks of confrontation with Moscow. Globalisation and financialization do not work only one way.
But Russia fails to use soft power. It keeps failing to create hub and spoke security alliances or use human rights discourses effectively to defend and expand its interests peacefully. The Warsaw Pact was perhaps the closest Moscow-led alliance to NATO's and the US's hub and spoke arrangements. Whereas Europe prospered under America's security umbrella and American economic aid and investment after 1945, the Soviet Union/Russia failed to create similar levels of prosperity and used tanks and sheer military power to defend its interests in Hungary (1956), Chechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979), Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014), to name but a few.
Her Eurasian customs union in which Russia wants to incorporate Ukraine is not doing that well. Thus, its imperialism appears formal and territorial rather than informal and de-territorialised. This, of course, gives the impression that Russia is the bad guy and the USA the good guy.
However, the drama that is under way is none other than the shifting fault-lines of the contemporary imperial system in which we live and the relative power-shift in Eurasia in which powers like China, Russia and India, at least economically, are beginning to persuade people that they represent the new, rising powers, whereas the west represents the declining ones.
This is the broader context for the Ukraine crisis. Having said that, the solution over the fate of Ukraine, as indeed of Eurasia and the world, depends very much on the wisdom of each side to use restraint in the exercise of force as against the foolishness of expanding formal and informal empires on the altar of redressing the balance of power.