Why Ukraine Was No Game Changer - So Far
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.
In many ways, the United States would have been the only country capable of reacting to the Ukraine crisis at a level that would have altered Europe's strategic landscape. Yet Washington preferred not to do so. The Americans are not fundamentally rethinking their reduced strategic posture in Europe, despite the efforts of some key U.S. diplomatic personnel who try to move the White House in this direction.
The reality is that the United States considers Europe a second priority at best when compared with the emerging power game in the Pacific and the worsening malaise in the Middle East. The Ukraine crisis was not big enough to change that calculation, despite the fact that China is watching with great interest how much value the United States attaches to the security guarantees it has given to Europe. Beijing is eager to learn whether it can draw conclusions from this for its own backyard.
Most importantly, perhaps, the old order in Europe was reconfirmed by the Western Europeans themselves. It does not appear that the Ukraine crisis has really changed their general outlook on European security. Only a handful of small countries are willing to increase their military capabilities in any meaningful way. None of the bigger European powers is willing to break away from its established path on security. Tacitly relying on the United States to keep Europe safe is the order of the day, even in France and the UK, once Europe's hard security leaders, now both dwindling military powers.
So nothing has really changed after Ukraine? Not exactly. Two factors have indeed changed. The first is the Ukrainian people. A stronger sense of national identity seems to have emerged from the crisis. The revolutionary spirit is alive and powerful and can no longer be easily subdued. This is perhaps the most significant news coming out of the crisis. It might one day bring real geopolitical change to Eastern Europe.
The second change is that, for the first time, the EU has taken sides. After the Euromaidan prodemocracy movement, the EU put all its support behind the new government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, thereby openly pitting itself against the declared will of Moscow. The union has never done anything like this before. Whether this constitutes a real change depends on whether the EU can stay united and engaged enough to make this position sustainable in the long run.
At this point, only Russia or the United States could change Europe's strategic landscape. Washington does not seem intent on doing so. So the ball is in the Russian court. So far, Moscow has avoided violating NATO territory, which would be the real game changer. But nobody knows how long it will stay this way.