One year after the invasion of Ukraine, what does the future look like?

Ángel Saz, director of EsadeGeo, talks about the current state of the conflict in Ukraine and the expectations for the future. Will arms shipments continue? Will Ukraine join the European Union? Is the West alone in its rejection of Russia?

Manel Domingo

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his troops had entered Ukraine with the aim of demilitarizing the country and replacing its government. That invasion – euphemistically, if rather unsuccessfully, camouflaged as a “special military operation” – was to last a few days until Kyiv fell to Russia’s overwhelming military superiority. Or so it was thought, at least, on both sides of the Atlantic.  
One year on, Ukraine is holding out. The Russian troops are hundreds of kilometers from Kyiv, bogged down in the Ukrainian trenches. Putin’s government still stands, impervious to Western sanctions and quashing any internal opposition. For its part, the European Union is riding the inflationary wave and has learned to live without access to cheap Russian gas.  

The necessary conditions for peace talks in the short term do not exist

Ángel Saz, director of EsadeGeo, spoke with Do Better about the prospects one year into the conflict. While a military resolution seems unlikely, he does not expect to see peace talks in the short term. “The necessary conditions do not exist. Kyiv cannot accept the loss of territory, nor can Moscow accept a full withdrawal,” he said.  

One scenario he considers quite possible is “an implicit ceasefire, with Russia occupying some territories and a certain normality in the rest of the country.” Such a situation would be similar to that experienced since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and occupied part of Donbas. “After a few initial skirmishes, that resulted in a shaky peace, whereas today we are witnessing a stable war. But this level of conflict intensity is not sustainable for either party,” he explained.  

Will the war be decided outside Ukraine?

In the medium term, several factors come into play, of which the military aspect may be the least important. Russia will make a move in spring with a new offensive and, while it is not expected to turn the situation around, “we’ve had plenty of surprises so far,” Saz said. “But much of this war is going to be decided abroad,” he added.  

We won’t see any Western fighter jets in Ukraine

In particular, the position of China, which seems to “have reined in Russia’s nuclear rhetoric,” will be decisive. So will that of the EU and the US, “whose military support for Ukraine has been fundamental.” Although this support has gradually increased to include shipments of heavy weapons and tanks, Saz does not believe we will ever see Western fighter jets in Ukraine.  

In this regard, “there may come a moment of fatigue on the part of the European countries,” whether because the conflict becomes less relevant in public opinion or because of a political shift in the US in 2024, which “will be key to defining American support.”  

There may come a moment of fatigue on the part of the European countries

Another source of uncertainty is whether the supply chains in Europe and the US will be able to keep up the pace required for military support to Ukraine. “Western production capabilities were at another, lower level, precisely because no one foresaw this level of need,” he explained. “This kind of factors can be more important than what happens on the ground.” 

What will become of Europe?

One unexpected effect of the invasion of Ukraine was the resurgence of NATO, which has also eclipsed the EU’s timid moves to secure its defense independence. “In the short term, the urgency of the conflict has hampered Europe’s drive to build up its own defense capabilities, since it has had to turn to the US,” Saz said. 

The world has shown that it is necessary to have defense and security capabilities

In the medium term, however, the EU can be expected to insist on the path it has staked out. Various indicators support this. For example, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) was recently unblocked, with the trilateral involvement of Germany, Spain, and France. Germany’s attempts to rearm and obtain new aviation systems point in the same direction.  

Saz also believes that the widespread increase in European defense budgets has broken a taboo on military spending. “We may not want a more militarized world, but we cannot cheat. Previously, we had outsourced our security to the US,” he clarified. “The world has shown that it is necessary to have defense and security capabilities. Until the world changes, we cannot forego them.”  

We may not need a European army, but we need 27 interoperable ones

Once this reality is accepted, “the most important thing will be to see how that defense budget is spent.” In this regard, it is not merely a matter of increasing spending, but of “having joint planning at the EU level so as not to duplicate efforts and to make our capabilities interoperable.” “We may not need a European army, but we need 27 interoperable ones,” he said.  

Beyond defensive considerations, February 2022 was also the month that Ukraine began the formal process for its accession to the European Union. Although fast-track accession once seemed possible, Saz rules out Ukrainian membership within the next two or three years. “Current rhetoric is supportive of Ukraine, but there have been no explicit fast-tracking guarantees,” he said. Nevertheless, Ukraine could be integrated into specific programs, whether related to energy, trade, or other areas.  

Ukraine will not have joined the European Union within 2 to 3 years

The EsadeGeo director acknowledged that it is a “delicate” issue, as it has a “psychological component, for the front, as well.” “It is one thing to resist with the prospect of joining the EU and another thing to do so without it. But given the problems that have arisen with new members such as Poland or Hungary, the EU is unlikely to incorporate a new country that, moreover, has a population similar to Spain’s,” he explained.  

And the West’s expectations?   

One thing that this first year of conflict has made clear is that the West, almost exclusively represented by the EU and the US, is largely alone in its militant rejection of the Russian invasion. Saz describes this as a “wake-up call” that holds lessons for the future and points to three main reasons for it.  

Not enough attention was paid to the propaganda battle being waged outside Europe

First, “until recently, not enough attention was paid to the communication and propaganda battle being waged outside Europe.” Russia has long since learned how to influence public opinion abroad. By way of example, Saz pointed to the Internet Research Agency (responsible for many election disinformation campaigns). The agency was recently discovered to have been founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, a mercenary company present in Ukraine.  

Second, the double standards of Western countries’ international policies have taken their toll on the West, something Saz considers “inevitable” insofar as “it is very hard to be a purist in all your positions.” In this sense, he recalled the positions adopted in conflicts in the Middle East, the post-colonial management of Africa by some European countries, or the border management in cases such as the war in Syria.  

The double standards of Western countries’ international policies have taken their toll on the West

Finally, Saz said, “our expectations may simply be unrealistic.” When Europe calls upon the countries of the global South to take a stand, they expect reciprocity. “Europe does not take a stand when, for example, India has a conflict with China or Pakistan. The Indian people are thus unlikely to take Europe’s side in a far-off conflict, which they may not understand and in which there are competing narratives,” he explained. 

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