Far from altering Europe's geopolitical landscape, the Ukraine crisis has only reconfirmed the continent's old order.
Has the Ukraine crisis changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe? Instinctively, most people would answer yes, given the grave nature of Russia's breach of rules, its annexation of another country's territory, and its continued attack on Ukrainian sovereignty in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
But has the continent's geopolitical landscape really changed, in the sense that a new order or a new power balance has emerged that was not already in existence beforehand? My feeling is that the answer is no. In reality, it is the old order that has been brutally reconfirmed. Western pain comes from the fact that many in Europe and the United States believed that the old order had been obsolete for a while, when in fact it was not.
That old order was established after the Eastern enlargements of NATO and the EU had come to an end, and when Russia made clear that it was unwilling to accept countries in its immediate neighborhood slipping too far toward the West. Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan had to learn the hard way that for Russia, keeping its neighborhood under control was more important than Russian closeness to the West. Moscow created frozen conflicts on its neighbors' territories to grant it a maximum of political influence with a minimum of power projection.
The West did not do much about it because it couldn't. The same is now happening in Ukraine, only more so, because more is at stake.
When the Ukraine crisis broke, the West indirectly confirmed this established order by refusing to defend the country against intrusion and annexation. Of course, nobody would have put it that way in Berlin or Washington or London. That is the tragic element in the Western position. The West could not possibly have gone to war over Ukraine, but nor could it morally accept the reshuffling of European territory by force.
In the end, Russian hard power prevailed over Western principle. This confirmed that the European security architecture ends where the guarantee of NATO's Article 5 mutual defense clause ends.
Ukraine was not and is not part of that architecture. No one in the West is willing to issue for the country a security guarantee that they cannot enforce. In other words, the West hates and rejects the language about Russian spheres of influence but silently accepts it. Contrary to what many pundits say, this is not a qualitatively new situation.
Another indicator that the Ukraine crisis merely confirmed the existing order was NATO's response. The alliance decided during its Wales summit in the fall of 2014 to reinforce its Eastern flank. It deployed forces to patrol NATO air- and sea space, and it created an elaborate exercise system for countries bordering Russia and Ukraine.
The organization took these measures swiftly and with surprising unity and determination. But it did not attempt to alter Europe's strategic landscape by expanding the reach of its security guarantee. NATO turned out to be the status quo power that most of its member states wanted it to be.
This Western preference for the current setup is further confirmed by indicators such as defense spending-which has not really gone up in any meaningful way in NATO countries that matter, nor does it look like it will anytime soon-and the U.S. reaction to the crisis, which was swift but rather small-scale.