How could the war in Ukraine end? We asked three Maltese experts

To take stock of the war so far, and what is yet to come, we asked three experts hailing from the military, political, and academic fields how the war could play out in the next months, and how it could eventually end

With the Ukraine-Russia war entering its fifth month – or at least five months since Putin announced his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine – the war is increasingly reaching a difficult stalemate with little left to win or lose.

A frozen conflict

Isabelle Ragonesi, an associate professor in international relations, thinks that the most likely long-term scenario for the war would be that it settles into a frozen conflict with gains and losses to be had on both sides of the field.

“Currently, the Ukraine has western support and talks of mobilising up to a million new recruits in the field,” she said. “yet it is uncertain as to whether the resources are available for it to successfully take back the occupied territories.”

Meanwhile, Ragonesi noted that current Russian performance and declining support for the war at home make it unlikely that Russia would be able to take over the whole of Ukraine.

Colonel David Attard, a former deputy commander with the Armed Forces of Malta, said that he expects the war in Ukraine to drag on for years, even if there is some sort of temporary peace agreement, with repeated and regular flare-ups of open conflict.

“This will raise the prospects of wider conflicts in Europe for the foreseeable future, as the USA, EU and NATO wrestle with the economic cost of supporting this war and how to maintain popular support within their respective countries for this war effort in Ukraine.”

Mutual stalemate

Former foreign minister Evarist Bartolo sees the foreseeable future of the war mired in death and devastation.

“Both sides want to resolve their disputes on the battlefield. The right time to start mediation efforts comes when Russia and Ukraine believe they have reached a mutually hurting stalemate where no side can achieve victory and the deadlock is painful for both.”

For Bartolo, the conflict is more complex than a good-guy-bad-guy scenario. Putin’s imperial project to wipe out Ukraine is unacceptable,  but a unipolar world where the US imposes its hegemony is also unacceptable.

“Russia’s red lines have not been taken seriously by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO expanded to its border. Russia will never accept Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in NATO.”

“Real peace will come only if both Russia and Ukraine feel safe in their borders and that their national interests are taken care of.”

Attard similarly believes that the war-fighting may grind to a stalemate in the coming months – assuming of course that Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy will remain at the help of their respective countries.

“I can see Russia continuing to secure the land bridge to Crimea in the south, whilst protecting the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.”

However, Attard says a lot will depend on whether Ukraine commits itself to not seeking NATO membership and not to rearm itself, with Russia likely forced not to oppose Kyiv’s quest for EU membership.

“I find it highly unlikely that Russia would be prepared to give up all the territories conquered. I also cannot see Russia recognising Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders or to even consider ceding the present status of Crimea.”

Does anyone benefit?

Like Bartolo, Ragonesi thinks the war is a losing battle on both sides.

Russia has undoubtedly made gains throughout the conflict, and it will remain focused on continued support and eventual absorption of the Crimea and Donbass regions, which would win Russia important resources while weakening Ukraine.

Meanwhile in the West, Ragonesi thinks unity may be undermined with countries struggling to maintain sanctions against Russia, which remains superior in terms of oil and gas resources.

“However, pursuant to the invasion, changes have occurred on the international level not seen since the end of the Cold War,” she pointed out. Sweden and Finland have abandoned neutrality and applied for NATO membership. The European Council granted candidacy Ukraine and Moldova. Ragonesi says these are the decisions that will be game-changers in the long run.

“The expansion of the EU will further solidify its role as a global economic powerhouse, strengthen its military and security arm, and enhance its position as the dominant regional hegemon, albeit likely increasing its reliance on US power.”

All this while Russia has to contend with a shrinking geo-economic space, “shaped by a western dominated rule-based economic international order that is increasingly treating it as a pariah state”.

A new cold war?

Attard said that it’s possible that a new cold war and new Iron Curtain will develop in Europe, with two belligerent and opposing blocs facing each other over a lengthy militarised border.

“I envisage that EU and NATO countries will have to increase their defence spending for many years to come. A direct military confrontation of sorts between NATO and Russia cannot be excluded particularly if chemical, biological, or, in extremis, tactical nuclear weapons are utilised in Ukraine or if the conflict spills over to any one of the NATO member countries.”

He recalled a similar situation when Lithuania, an EU and NATO member, initially did not allow sanctioned Russian goods to transit its territory on their way to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave.

“These circumstances created weeks of tension and tested Europe’s resolve to continue enforcing the sanctions on Russia, but thankfully were resolved without recourse to military solutions.”

Sustainable sanctions

The war saw Western forces adopting a more economic type of warfare by imposing sanctions on Russia and Russian individuals.

Bartolo and Ragonesi agree that the sanctions have hurt the Russian economy, at least in the short term. But the future is more uncertain.

“Russia will learn how to live with these sanctions one way or another,” Bartolo said. “The West too, however, will learn how to live with these sanctions. But the EU must not make things worse for itself by turning the rest of the world against it.”

He pointed out that some Western companies have made huge investments in Russia. “Will they ever return? These companies will lose their market share in Russia and their void will be filled by others from other regions.”

Ragonesi added that Russia receives 47% of its revenue from energy exports. “Though there has been little evidence of sanction violations, some compromises have been made such as EU tankers continuing to carry Russian oil.”

“Inflationary pressures as a result of the sanctions and Russian allies propensity to continue trading, long term may erode the sustainability of the sanctions.”

Is neutrality necessary?

Being a member of the EU at the time of the war, questions were raised as to the extent Malta could help Ukraine within the parameters of its constitutional neutrality.

In fact, Malta sent humanitarian aid in the form of medicines to Ukraine, but not lethal weapons as have other countries in the EU.

Within the EU there have been efforts to more deeply integrate security and defence policy such as through the Permanent Sructured Cooperation in Defence, or PESCO. Malta had taken a ‘wait and see’ approach as it could violate the neutrality clause.

“Should we join PESCO?” Bartolo questions. “In today’s New Cold War we still need to have good relations with as many different countries as possible, and neutrality should help us do that.”

Meanwhile, Attard believes that Malta ought to revisit its defence policy and military structure. He said the army is not a police force or crivil protection organisation, and cannot be treated as such.

“The defence of a neutral and small nation state such as ours that occupies a geostrategic position right in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea and across major sea lines of communication cannot be wished away, especially in times of turmoil or war.”

He mentioned that, up until 2013, Malta used to play an active role within the EU where defence and security policy was concerned, within the context of its neutrality.

“I recall that at that time, we had a record number of Maltese officers and troops deployed overseas in various countries around the world, ranging from Georgia, Somalia, Uganda to Libya in support of European Security and Defence Policy.”

Attard pointed out that both the government of the day and the Armed Forces were selective on which EU missions to participate in, and under what conditions Malta was to participate.

However, Attard said he does not believe that the notion of a fully fledged European Army will take off in the short or medium term so long as NATO continues to exist.

“Despite the political rhetoric within certain EU circles, I believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine shall dampen any enthusiasm that existed to go down this road. The harsh reality today in Europe is that we are back to a new cold war where territorial defence has become paramount and where NATO, through its article five arrangements, provides for the collective defence.”

“Why should these states set up a European Army with the possibility of duplicating resources and incurring more costs when the economies are suffering as a consequence of the war in Ukraine?”