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2023 ends with much of the world at war, and a quarter of the global population affected

Gaza and Ukraine dominate news in the western world, yet more than 50 other conflicts continue around the globe

Twelve months ago the images from Ukraine showed burnt out landscapes pockmarked by artillery shells with skeletal trees along the skyline. Today’s pictures from Gaza show flattened urban neighbourhoods, the bloodied limbs of the dead and injured and the torment on the faces of those who grieve them.

2023 is ending as it began with much of the world at war, as a quarter of its population live in places affected by conflict and more than 100 million people have been forcibly displaced. Gaza has joined Ukraine as a war that dominates news in the western world while more than 50 other conflicts around the world continue almost unnoticed.

Thousands have died in Sudan’s civil war since it began in April and millions have been displaced, many of whom have left the country. A ceasefire in Ethiopia, which had seen one of the worst conflicts in Africa’s recent history, has held for more than a year but Niger and Gabon saw military coups during the summer.

“Conflicts have become more complex, deadly, and harder to resolve. Last year saw the highest number of conflict-related deaths in almost three decades. Concerns about the possibility of nuclear war have re-emerged. New potential domains of conflict and weapons of war are creating new ways in which humanity can annihilate itself,” United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said in July.

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The year began with optimism among Ukraine’s allies ahead of a planned counteroffensive against Russian defences in the east and south of the country. But amid disagreements about tactics between Ukrainian generals and their American backers, the operation failed to regain much territory but cost tens of thousands of lives.

“Practically along the entire line of contact our armed forces are, shall we say, modestly improving their position. Virtually all are in an active stage of action,” Vladimir Putin told a press conference in mid-December.

Russia has moved its economy on to a war footing, ramping up production of munitions at a pace unmatched by the European and American arms manufacturers supplying Ukraine. Putin said he sees no need at present for a fresh mobilisation through conscription but Russia’s population means that manpower will be less of a problem than in Ukraine if the war is a long one.

The United States and the European Union insist that the economic and financial sanctions that they trumpeted at the start of the war are harming Russia. But they have not halted Moscow’s war machine, and Russia has found alternative markets for its energy exports and new sources for imports.

Parts of the foreign policy elite are openly speculating about the terms of a possible peace settlement that would see Ukraine accept the loss of some of its territory to Russia

China, the African Union and others have presented peace initiatives and some international meetings have discussed Ukraine’s own peace formula. But Russia has not been invited to take part in these meetings, and Moscow and Kyiv have set preconditions for negotiations that are mutually unacceptable.

Both sides appear to be settling in for a long conflict but Ukraine’s war effort depends on the financial and military support of its allies, particularly the Americans. Joe Biden’s struggle to persuade Republicans on Capitol Hill to approve more funding for Ukraine reflects a shift in the mood in Washington that looks ominous for Kyiv.

Parts of the foreign policy elite are openly speculating about the terms of a possible peace settlement that would see Ukraine accept the loss of some of its territory to Russia. They argue that if Ukraine cannot prevail on the battlefield it risks a worse outcome in a year or two, particularly if Donald Trump returns to the White House.

At the top of the European Union thinking about Ukraine has changed little since the start of the year and the most senior figures speak about the conflict as if nothing has changed. Even in private they tend to shut down discussion of a negotiated settlement by insisting that it is for the Ukrainians to decide, mouthing the piety of “nothing about us, without us”.

In fact the Europeans and the Americans make decisions about the Ukrainians without the Ukrainians every day, about everything from economic aid to weapons shipments. The EU’s decision to open accession talks with Ukraine was that of the EU leaders alone, as will be the release of a further €50 billion in aid.

The last time Ukraine and Russia negotiated face to face was in Istanbul in March 2022, when Kyiv said it could remain a neutral state outside Nato if it received security guarantees. Ukraine was also willing to postpone the resolution of the status of Crimea and Sevastopol for 15 years.

In his December press conference Putin restated his conditions for an end to hostilities as Ukraine’s demilitarisation, “denazification” and neutrality. Demilitarisation appears to refer to the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the provinces Moscow has claimed as its territory.

As Samuel Charap argues in a recent paper for any end to hostilities to endure it will have to be accompanied by a stable regional order in Europe. This could involve a regional consultation mechanism and confidence-building measures between Nato and Russia, including new arms control arrangements.

There is currently almost no dialogue between Russia and the western powers, and the conventional wisdom in European capitals is that Putin would use a ceasefire to regroup his forces and prepare for a fresh assault. Foreign policy elites in Moscow think just the same about the Europeans and Americans.

“The westerners will soon offer and even try to impose a ceasefire to buy time and to provide political cover for rearming the Kyiv puppets, boosting defence production and continuing to wear Russia down,” Sergei Karaganov, a political scientist who heads the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, wrote in September.

Countries in the Global South are more clear-eyed in their view of Moscow and even Xi Jinping’s “no limits” partnership with Putin is constrained

“Negotiations will probably have to be held. I am not sure about our actual military and economic capabilities, but I can assume that ceasefires may have to be concluded as well. At the same time, clearly, this war, like the impending global war, can only be ended or prevented by imposing strategic retreat on the west. It should be as dignified as possible. A humiliating retreat may breed revanchism.”

Earlier this year Karaganov suggested that Russia should use nuclear weapons to hit targets in some European Nato member-states. He said such strikes could break the will of the west and save humanity, adding that “countries in the Global South would feel satisfaction from the defeat of their former oppressors”.

Countries in the Global South are more clear-eyed in their view of Moscow and even Xi Jinping’s “no limits” partnership with Putin is constrained. As the war has progressed Russia’s increasingly subordinate position to China has become ever more apparent, sometimes revealing itself in subtle diplomatic slights that are felt keenly in Moscow.

Much of the Global South has, however, resisted western pressure to join the boycott of Russia, which will take over the chair of an expanded Brics in 2024. The new members include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Ethiopia, and although the group remains an informal one without a treaty or a secretariat its members are deepening their co-operation.

European and American appeals on behalf of the rules-based international order in relation to Ukraine were met with scepticism throughout much of the world. This appeared to be justified when Brussels and Washington offered unconditional support to Israel’s operation in Gaza in response to the attacks by Hamas that killed around 1200 people, including women and children, on October 7th.

Washington has given Binyamin Netanyahu’s government military as well as diplomatic support during the bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 17,000 people, most of them women and children. The EU’s response has been more fragmented, with a minority of member-states, including Ireland, backing UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire.

Both the US and the EU have declared that the key to lasting peace lies in a two-state solution but senior Israeli government figures have recently ruled out any prospect of a Palestinian state. As 2023 drew towards a close fears were growing that the conflict could escalate as Israel sought to push Hizbullah back from its northern border deeper into Lebanon.

Both Hizbullah and its sponsor in Iran have been reluctant to get drawn into a wider conflict, which could also have serious consequences for countries such as China which depend on supplies of oil and gas from the Gulf. But an Israeli move against Hizbullah could set off a succession of events that could draw the US and even Russia into a direct role in the conflict.

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have diverted US resources and attention from what it views as its strategic priority of countering Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific. But the relationship between Washington and Beijing remains the most important and one of the most delicate on the geopolitical stage.

Beijing is currently focused on restoring its economy and Washington has enough foreign policy headaches without opening a fresh front with China.

Relations hit a squall early in 2023 when a Chinese balloon flew across North America for a number of days before the US military shot it down off the Atlantic coast. Beijing said it was a weather balloon but Washington claimed it was carrying surveillance equipment.

The furore over the balloon blew the US-China relationship off course for months, and it was not until Xi met Biden in San Francisco in November that some equilibrium was restored. Relations remain difficult but the two leaders agreed to reopen some lines of communication, including military-to-military contacts.

Beijing is currently focused on restoring its economy and Washington has enough foreign policy headaches without opening a fresh front with China. But two elections, one at the beginning of 2024 and another at the end, have the potential to reignite tensions between the two powers.

Taiwan elects a new president in January and polls towards the end of 2023 pointed to victory for Lai Ching-te from the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Beijing views Lai as a dangerous advocate of Taiwanese independence and it is likely to react badly to his election.

Over the past two years Beijing has shown its displeasure with the Taiwanese government by staging military exercises around the self-governing island. An aggressive reaction could trigger a response from the US, where the consensus on Capitol Hill is hostile to China.

If Taiwan’s election in January could upset Beijing’s relationship with Washington, the US presidential election in November has the potential to turn the world order upside down. A Trump victory could see Washington abandon Ukraine and leave the Europeans to take responsibility for their own defence.

Trump’s first term saw a dramatic deterioration in the US-China relationship, which continued under Biden. Regardless of his attitude to China, Trump is likely to lead the US into a partial retreat from its self-appointed global policeman.

Europe has followed Washington’s lead in imposing export bans on some technology to China and the EU is planning to “de-risk” its economy from China’s

All these crises represent major challenges for the EU, whose leaders declared the war in Ukraine to be the dawning of its geopolitical moment. Europe’s immediate response to the war was impressive, notably in accepting refugees and in adapting to the loss of energy supplies from Russia.

The EU and its member-states have also played an important role in supporting Ukraine militarily with weapons and training. But its diplomatic efforts have been flat-footed and sometimes tin-eared, particularly when dealing with the Global South.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminded Europeans of how much they depended on the US for their defence. But the EU has become more dependent on Washington since then, all but abandoning its debate on strategic autonomy.

Europe has followed Washington’s lead in imposing export bans on some technology to China and the EU is planning to “de-risk” its economy from China’s. The US has shown its gratitude by building a protectionist wall around its economy in the shape of the Inflation Reduction Act.

The prospect of a second Trump presidency, which seemed remote at the start of 2023, looked much more plausible by the end of the year. As they face into the new year Europe’s leaders might consider how they are going to de-risk from that.

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