Written by Sietske Moshuldayev
This report outlines the most serious threats to international security that took place over the past month and their possible future spillovers. The stability of European geopolitics severely aggravated in past weeks as Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February, 2022. As the situation continues to escalate, this months’ DEWIS Conflict Monitoring Report provides an exclusive focus on this crisis. Additionally, three new or escalating situations are discussed. Challenges to finalising the Iran nuclear deal, as well as recent increases in political violence in Zimbabwe and Libya, require close monitoring in order to identify risks in advance.
1. Russia-Ukraine Crisis
Tensions in Ukraine intensify daily as both Russian and Ukrainian forces continue to vie for control over the latter's territory. Three rounds of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have thus far been held but have not indicated possible scenarios of de-escalation. Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure are being demolished, with an estimated 1.506 civilian casualties as of March 9th. Exact figures are expected to be higher. Additional pressure is felt internationally with attacks endangering the safety and security of nuclear power plants located in Ukraine. In the meantime, reports indicate that more than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled their home country.
Western actors are implementing retaliatory measures against Russian entities. Initially targeting the functioning of the Russian aviation industry, new sanctions are predominantly economic in nature. Russian banks have been restricted in their access to international payment methods and Russia’s Central Bank can no longer access its foreign reserves. The United States banned the import and export of Russian oil, while an increasing number of commodity, commercial and service-oriented multinational companies have halted or withdrawn their activities in Russia.
Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is bolstering up its defences around the Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian borders. With no intent of engaging militarily as that would result in a conflict of a much larger scale, the member states are forced to balance their responses amidst perpetual Russian threats.
1.1 Conflict in Context
The main driver behind this conflict has been discontentment by Russia over the eastward enlargement of NATO, a US-led organisation set up in 1948 as a collective defence alliance against the former Soviet Union. NATO expansion has been persistently scrutinised by Russia as it brought the alliance closer to its Western borders and traditional Soviet sphere of influence. In a balancing act, Russia set up its own defensive alliance in 1992 with some former Soviet states, known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Though the accession of Ukraine to NATO was not imminent prior to Russia’s invasion, the country was increasingly set on becoming a member. Ukraine’s shift to the West has led to previous tensions with Russia, including the annexation of Crimea by Russia (2014) and fighting following claims for independence by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Ukraine’s Donbas region (2014 - present).
After months of concerns by Western powers about increased Russian military mobilization along its borders with Ukraine, an important turning point came as President Putin officially recognized the independence of the DPR and LPR on February 21st, 2022. He subsequently sent in ‘peacekeeping’ forces into the pro-Russian region in a bid to provide support. However, President Putin quickly portrayed Ukraine as a threat and called for a demilitarization of its neighbour. This culminated in Russian troops deploying further into Ukraine on the 24th of February under the auspices of conducting a ‘special military operation’.
1.2 Upcoming Challenges
The ongoing conflict is expected to have far-reaching humanitarian, economic and geopolitical impacts. With more than 2 million refugees and dire basic provisions in Ukraine, the conflict has led to a humanitarian disaster. Ukraine’s neighbouring countries have seen a surge in refugees, calling for increased resource allocation and adequate action. For those who remain in Ukraine, the security of water, food and energy supplies is threatened as fights continue. It remains unclear how this humanitarian crisis will evolve and what will be required to lessen its severity.
Simultaneously, the conflict affects soaring global oil and gas prices and disrupts global food supply chains. Directly impacting energy costs for transportation and heating, increased oil and gas prices will furthermore be felt through higher commodity prices and inflation levels - among other things. Interrupted Russian and Ukrainian grain and oilseed exports signify increased threats to food supplies for the importing countries. This will likely negatively impact the malnourishment levels of lower-class populations, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. With additional sanctions against Russia to come, further disruptive economic impacts are to be expected.
The conflict in Ukraine concurrently pressurises global and regional geopolitical relations. As Russia continues to be isolated from Western economic and financial institutions, it may seek to enhance its relationship with other partners, such as China. In the meantime, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have applied for European Union membership and Finland and Sweden have strengthened their cooperation with NATO. Even though nothing is concretized, these new forms of cooperation see the West encroaching even closer to Russia’s borders. It remains to be seen how, and together with whom, Russia reacts.
2. Iran - Nuclear Deal Complications
Progress in ongoing talks between Iran and various global powers concerning regulations on the former’s nuclear program remains uncertain. A nuclear nonproliferation deal - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - was claimed to be in its final stages after months of negotiations. However, Russia has recently demanded an explicit assurance that its economic trade with Iran will be exempt from US sanctions imposed on Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. Western negotiators warned Russia, claiming the crisis in Ukraine is not related to the nuclear deal and should not be used for external purposes. These developments provide new challenges in reaching a consensus on the deal, further postponing the finalisation.
3. Libya - Contested Political Handover
Political tension amongst opposing factions in Libya has recently increased. Following the indefinite postponement of elections that were planned for December 2021, the House of Representatives has sworn in Fathi Bashagha as the new Prime Minister to lead a new government. This directly challenges the incumbent interim Prime Minister, Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba, who claims he will not cede power until elections are held. Mobilization of armed troops around Libya’s capital Tripoli has been observed, followed by UN warnings for potential clashes. With the possibility of the re-establishment of two opposite governments in the country, these developments carry further repercussions for Libya’s oil exports, as well as regional involvement in the conflict.
4. Zimbabwe - Electoral Violence
With upcoming legislative and municipal by-elections scheduled for March 26th, political violence has erupted in Zimbabwe. The main opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change led by Nelson Chamisa has accused ruling party ZANU-PF and the police of instigating and carrying out attacks against their supporters. As these allegations have been denounced by ZANU-PF, an increase in political violence amongst these different parties is likely as the elections approach.
This past month, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has captivated the attention of a global audience. As further Russian aggression is expected and the full impacts of West-imposed sanctions are yet to play out, this remains a crisis to watch. As humanitarian, economic and geopolitical consequences mount up, regions beyond merely Ukraine and Europe are impacted. What occurs in Ukraine, for instance, may come to further impact progress on Iran’s nuclear talks. Likewise, the domestic instabilities in Libya and Zimbabwe are (internal) conflicts with the potential of further escalation and, therefore, require close monitoring in the upcoming weeks.
About the author: Sietske Moshuldayev
Sietske Moshuldayev has an international background and is inherently intrigued by the causes and consequences of geopolitical events. She has completed two bachelors at the University of Leiden (International Studies, BA & Political Science, BSc) and currently pursues a masters in International Security at Sciences Po, Paris. Having specialized in East Asian affairs for her undergraduate studies, she now focuses on global risks and risk management.
The article was written with help from Sytske Post and edited by Alessia Cappelletti.