“The EU is one of the losers of the war in Ukraine”

On February 24 it will be a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Here, political scientist and specialist in post-Soviet affairs Abel Riu analyses the political impact of the conflict

“The war has led to an increase in pre-existing global geopolitical uncertainties” “IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE A PEACE AGREEMENT THAT WOULD BE ACCEPTABLE TO BOTH SIDES”
What’s going on?
The Russian military aggression against Ukraine has led to a conflict that has caused a historic split in the heart of Europe, with Russia and Belarus on the one side and the EU states and NATO on the other, which in turn has generated greater dependence of Russia on China and of the EU on the US. Other consequences have been changes in energy markets due to the drastic reduction in gas and oil exports from one of the world’s main producers (Russia) to one of the largest markets (EU). This has seriously affected prices and global flows, with new opportunities emerging for other producing countries, such as Algeria, Norway, Qatar, Azerbaijan, and the US itself, and for large importers, such as China, India or Turkey. The aggravation of the food crisis has been another consequence, leading to an increase in food prices around the world.
And in geopolitical terms?
The war has led to an increase in pre-existing global geopolitical uncertainties that were already evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerating processes of deglobalisation, as well as a return to a certain economic protectionism, and a renewed commitment to industrial production at national level. Also, multi-polarising trends have accelerated, with the consolidation of new powers, such as India, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil, which are increasingly acting independently of the US and China and which have avoided taking sides in the war in Ukraine. In the context of increasing regionalisation of the global order, a stalled and unresolved conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and great hostility between Russia and Western countries, could become one of the main fault lines that will dictate outcomes in Europe and the world for years.
How long do you see the war lasting?
There are several factors that point to a prolongation of the conflict in 2023 and beyond. At the military level, there’s a certain balance of power, and as historian Lawrence Freedman has said, the Ukrainians are winning on the battlefield but they cannot compete with the Russians at a strategic level. Moscow is focusing its efforts on the destruction of a large part of Ukraine’s capacity to produce and distribute energy, with systematic missile and drone attacks, which in the long run could threaten the functioning of the Ukrainian state itself. Also, so-called “Ukraine fatigue” is growing, with the possibility that at some point Western countries could stop providing military and financial support. For its part, Kyiv is trying to take back territory in the short and medium term and prevent Russian forces from consolidating the current frontlines and preparing for new offensives in the spring.
Is peace with Putin possible?
It’s hard to imagine a peace agreement that would be acceptable to both sides, and less so when both sides think their military situation can improve in the future. As for territorial concessions, polls show that over 80% of Ukrainians are unwilling to cede territory in exchange for peace, while it’s unthinkable that Putin will return any part of the territories annexed on September 30, and which are now officially part of the Russian Federation. These annexations make it very difficult to reach negotiated agreements to end the conflict. It’s worth noting, however, that an unresolved and stalled conflict could be the lesser of two evils for Russia rather than a deal that does not satisfy its core interests, which is retaining control over part of southern and eastern Ukraine and trying to prevent it from being viable as a country.
Is the US keeping the EU and Russia apart?
The US has always sought to prevent any rapprochement between Russia and European countries. Back in the seventies, the Americans tried to prevent the construction of gas pipelines from the USSR to Western Europe. At the end of the Cold War, they imposed the continuity of NATO as a security organisation in Europe in the face of doubts expressed by the Germans, French, Italians, and even the British. After the Warsaw Pact dissolved, they opened NATO’s doors to almost all Central and Eastern Europe states but keeping them closed to Russia, both during Yeltsin’s time and during Putin’s first term when the possibility of membership was raised. The Americans have always believed that a closer relationship between Russians and Europeans would reduce its military and political leverage over them.
The transatlantic link has new life.
The war has led to greater unity between Europe and the US, in terms of sanctions and in military support to Ukraine. US arms exports to the continent have soared, and the Atlantic alliance has reinforced its role as a security umbrella for numerous European states. Finland and Sweden are in the process of joining NATO, while the argument for the EU to achieve “strategic autonomy” has lost ground in the short term.
What does the war mean for the EU?
The EU is one of the losers of this war, while the US is one of the winners. The Americans have taken advantage of Putin’s mistake in attacking Ukraine in the way he has in order to weaken Russia both militarily and economically at minimal cost and without taking any casualties. At the same time, the US has succeeded in deepening European military dependence. The breaking of the EU’s energy ties with Russia has meant looking for alternative sources of gas and oil and strengthening existing ones, both liquefied natural gas (LNG) and gas from other countries, such as Norway, Algeria, Qatar, Azerbaijan, and the US. In the case of LNG especially, these sources are more expensive than gas from Russia, and this has contributed to a rise in inflation and production costs. This has already affected the competitiveness of European industry – especially in Germany – and could potentially erode its capacity as a major economic power. In recent years, there have been ever more voices arguing for “European sovereignty” in the medium to long term, and for the EU to develop its own geopolitical muscle. Despite the growing dependence caused by the war in Ukraine, this may make more sense in the face of a protectionist US and with growing confrontation between Washington and Beijing at a time when the global focus is shifting towards the Asia-Pacific. A main challenge for the EU will be to maintain a non-subordinate role to the US while still remaining its ally.
And Catalonia’s role?
The main challenge is to project itself abroad as a responsible political actor with the capacity to think and operate with the logic of a state. In other words, to do what Scotland has done in terms of the positions and language adopted when addressing international issues. We need to find ways to connect Catalonia with the debates on European defence, the challenges posed by China’s rise, the conflicts and energy opportunities in the Mediterranean, not as a region, but as a political actor that aspires to be a state. Sadly, our governors don’t seem to have the will to move in this direction, and with some exceptions Catalan foreign action is not too far from that of any Autonomous Region.

Interview International

Vision of a state

President of the international affairs analysis centre, Catalonia Global Institute, Abel Riu argues for the need to be aware of Catalonia’s economic, industrial, logistical, agricultural and technological capacities to use them in a strategy of internationalisation. Also “to explain that Catalonia has elements and characteristics that would make it a viable independent state”. In terms of regional priorities, the CGI argues that Catalonia can play an active role in the Mediterranean region, which is its natural area of influence. “We seek to contribute to the debate on how Catalonia should focus on existing challenges and opportunities and on the geopolitical trends and changes that are taking place,” he says.

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