The immediate risk of major armed conflict in Europe may have eased slightly, but Russia's brutally old-fashioned assault on Ukrainian sovereignty will have profound strategic consequences. These will matter as much to the rest of the world, including Asia, as they will to Europe.
Beyond the rude reawakening of Europe from what was left of its postmodern slumber, here are some major repercussions to watch for:
A new Cold War?
Only last week one of America's leading security practitioner-experts, Richard Haass, warned an audience at the Lowy Institute that the past few decades may yet come to be known depressingly as the inter-Cold War era.
He was referring to a potential future freeze in relations between the US and China. But observers who know Russia even more intimately suggest there is now the possibility of at least a limited Cold War between Washington and Moscow featuring a direct contest for influence, deep mistrust, and the end of even a pretence of cooperation on global issues like nuclear arms control. Russia's provocatively-timed test of an intercontinental ballistic missile can be read as the crudest kind of Cold War signaling.
An anxious Asia
China and America's Asian allies will be watching events in Europe closely, but what lessons will they draw?
It is easy to make the argument that China will be emboldened and Japan dismayed by Russia's blatant crossing of an American red line against intervention in Ukraine. But this overlooks the point that Ukraine is not a US ally. So, if anything, the importance of alliances has just risen.
That will change, of course, if America lets down an ally, but there is no evidence of that happening just yet. Indeed, after having its bluff called on diplomatic red lines over Syria and Ukraine, Washington may be even more determined to hold the line in Asia. The ultimate lessons Asia and the rest of the world draw from the Ukraine situation depend on what happens next, placing a premium on the cleverness or otherwise of US diplomacy in the days and weeks ahead.
A conflicted China
Do not assume that the leadership in Beijing will be rejoicing that strategic partner Russia has poked a stick in America's eye and got away with it. China and Russia are partners of convenience, not allies, and have their own long-term currents of mistrust, including over Russia's far eastern territories (which, incidentally, have a large and growing Chinese population).
For now, China will draw some comfort that American attention has been distracted away from the maritime disputes on China's eastern edge. But Russia has now blatantly breached a bedrock principle of China's declared foreign policy: non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It will now be harder for Beijing to deflect future international interest in what goes on in Tibet or Xinjiang.
Yet for China to support some kind of international mediation or monitoring of the Ukraine situation or to keep up its earlier call for 'respect for international law' would raise awkward questions about its present rejection of an international legal process over its maritime dispute with the Philippines. No wonder the current Chinese 'objective, just, fair and peaceful' propaganda line can't do much better than the exquisitely anodyne ('There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today').
Meanwhile, China's rapid military modernisation proceeds apace: today, it announced yet another double-digit annual increase in defence spending.
The dissipation, or at least the trifurcation, of America’s strategic attention
Washington's much-touted 'rebalance to Asia' was already facing scepticism among Indo-Pacific allies and partners who have seen modest and uneven follow-through to grand pronouncements like President Obama's 2011 Canberra speech. Now America's foreign and defence policy establishment faces deep tensions on three fronts at the same time: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia (where China-Japan differences over disputed islands and history carry the small but real possibility of war).
Can America lead in managing all these woes at the same time? How will allies in one region read Washington's handling of troubles in another? Is it fanciful scare-mongering to start thinking of the prospect of a future double Cold War, with US-Russia and US-China relations in the freezer at the same time? All this when most Americans are weary of overseas entanglements and want foreign policy – and every other kind of policy – to begin at home.
A new justification for the intelligence world
A new atmosphere of confrontation between Russia and the US/NATO will remind governments and many in the wider public about the value of covert intelligence-gathering and confidential diplomacy. This may mark the beginning of the end of the trend of widespread public sympathy for Snowden, Assange and their indiscriminate spilling of American and allied secrets, information which has been of incalculable benefit to Putin's Russia.
The present Ukraine crisis is precisely the kind of situation where the US would understandably want to know exactly what its potential adversary, and some of its key European friends, are thinking. And who knows, timely intelligence might even mean the difference been a crisis managed and a one that spins out of control. Even Chancellor Merkel would be in the market for that.
Photo by Flickr user Jennerally.