EMPIRES are often challenged by other powers hoping to build their own empires. If this competition rises to a certain intensity, it can turn into war. Human history is full of such scenarios. Indeed, the twentieth century featured two such conflagrations—one that began in July 1914 and another that began in 1939.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington D.C.’s empire had been fairly successful in keeping Moscow at bay. However, with the events in the Ukraine, that equation is being refigured. The Ukrainian government now in Kiev was installed with the support of US intelligence agencies and capital. Like other similar “revolutions,” it replaced a corrupt regime that opposed the western poles of neoliberal capitalism and preferred the Russian version. There were overt fascist individuals and parties involved in the overthrow of the previous government. Some of the individuals and groups are involved in the new Kiev government. Like most nationalist movements, the Ukrainian nationalist movement is composed of a multiplicity of political philosophies, even some that could be considered leftist. Given each nation’s history, whenever Russia and Ukraine are discussed charges of anti-Semitism and fascism are bound to arise. However, the history of Ukrainian nationalism, with a few exceptions (Nestor Makhno perhaps), is a history of rightwing, even fascist movements, all tinged with a fair amount of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism, not to mention anti-Vatican [sic] and anti-protestant religiosity.

The government in Moscow led by Putin as the second and fourth Russian president since the fall of the Soviet Union continues the tradition of the previous post-Gorbachev governments. It is extremely nationalistic, ridden with corruption and crony capitalism. Putin’s government also seems intent on restoring Russia to its former glory, calling up the ghosts of its Tsarist past and Empire [sic], especially that prior to World War One. That history, like the Ukraine’s, is tinged with a fair amount of anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, and anti-Romanism [sic].

In 1991, after the Soviet Union collapsed, Washington told Moscow that it would not expand its agent of empire called NATO eastward. [But] [t]hen, it did so. As numerous commentators have pointed out, one of the biggest prizes in the struggle for control of Europe is the Ukraine. Up to this point, Washington and its NATO bulwark have been unable to take that prize. Through a series of economic and political manipulations Kiev had remained in Moscow’s orbit until the events in Maidan Square resulted in the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in February 2014. This overthrow of the elected government in Kiev by nationalist forces, supported by Washington and western capital, precipitated a desperate response from Moscow resulting in the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the occupation of Ukrainian government buildings by pro-Russian Ukrainians (aided by Russian agencies) across Ukraine’s eastern portion. That is where things seem to be on the ground right now.

The western media are having a ball breaking out anti-Russian propaganda that was mothballed since the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s evil empire obsession. Liberals and conservatives alike are calling out Russia for its bellicosity and prejudices. Like other conflicts in the current era of humanitarian interventions, Putin (who was once a friend of the power structure in Washington, D.C.) is made into the new bogeyman. To be sure, his government’s homophobic legislation and persecution of various opponents is reprehensible and deserving of censure, but in all honesty is not that different from similar reactionary policies practiced by some of Washington’s biggest clients and even in the United States itself. Gross human rights violations of the Putin government, like the invasion of and destruction of major Chechnyan cities, are being pointed to by liberal hawks and even some western leftists, as proof of Putin’s bloodthirstiness. Meanwhile, the most recent US version of Putin — former president George W. Bush — is given positive airtime on major media outlets while his new found painting hobby becomes the subject of front page human interest stories in newspapers across the nation.

After the flurry of articles regarding fascists in the Kiev government diminished, most likely because such news makes the US and EU look bad, an anonymous leaflet calling for Jews to register themselves with the anti-Kiev occupiers of the Donetsk city government received an excessive amount of airtime in anti-Russian media despite its legitimacy being challenged by almost everyone. As was pointed out to me shortly after the story about the leaflet appeared, however, certain media outlets in Russia were playing the anti-Semitic card in some of their broadcasts regarding the current Kiev government. The broadcast I was shown was a crude attempt to paint some of the female Maidan protesters as “Jewish whores.” Reprehensible in every which way, this broadcast is obviously representative of a certain element of the Russian polity, just like the racism, sexism, anti-Islamism, and homophobia on Fox News and similar outlets represents a segment of the US polity.

Now, to the meat of the matter. Other writers and analysts continue to do a fairly complete job of examining the economic and geopolitical reasons informing the current situation. These perspectives offer a variety of possibilities and raise multiple questions if one has the time to read them. The simplest reasoning I can come up with (and it is far from complete) is this: Washington wants a client (or at least very friendly) regime in Kiev. This has been the case since at least the 1990s. Currently, the map of European countries that are part of NATO shows Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Lithuania [sic], Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the UK.

The goal of every empire in Europe has been to have every nation in its alliance. Three other nations are in the process of joining NATO (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro). The Ukraine was in the process of becoming part of the alliance until 2010, when the recently overthrown government stopped the process, preferring to keep open the possibility of continued Russian aid and trade. With Ukraine in its alliance, Washington, through NATO, will have essentially surrounded Russia with military and commercial foes. Such an encirclement has been one of the understood keys to a European empire since at least Napoleon’s time.

Reading the news about the Ukraine and the response to events there is a bit like watching a show when one really doesn’t know how it will end. Unlike the US build up to war in Iraq in 1990 and 2002, when everyone knew war was inevitable, it is difficult to guess what exactly will happen in Europe. Among other things, the takeover of municipal buildings in eastern Ukraine by separatist forces, the massacre of anti-coup protesters in the trade unions building in Odessa by pro-coup forces, and the military strikes by both sides, are all symptoms of a potential greater conflict. Naturally, one hopes that the groups and nations involved back off and reconsider their positions some. However, as the events of that August one hundred years ago prove, such hopes can be bloodily destroyed.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.