Russia-Ukraine update: continuing fighting in Bakhmut, warrant against Putin issue.
Democratic Republic of the Congo: major displacement, violation of the ceasefire, and war crimes.
Israel: Anti-government protests continue.
Sahel: worsening security situation and Russian-US geopolitical tensions.
Yemen: flare-up in civil war, but new ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia may change outcomes.
Colombia: armed group violence and ceasefire suspended with the Gulf Clan.
India: tensions between Sikh separatist and pro-Hindu state.
Kenya: post-election protests.
Myanmar: illegitimate elections, human rights abuses, and civil war developments.
Azerbaijan-Iran: continuation of tensions.
Ethiopia: U.N.-mandated inquiry into atrocities will take place and there are developments in the peace agreement implementation, but assaults on civilians have continued.
Haiti: severe humanitarian crisis continues, and no international military intervention is planned.
Conflicts March 2023
1. Russia - Ukraine
In March, heavy fighting continued in and around the city of Bakhmut. As written in our January-February Conflict Monitoring report, the Russian forces managed to gain control over the area North and South of Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces were expected to choose for a tactical withdrawal from the city, but this has not happened so far and Ukraine has continued to defend the city against the Russian offensive. On March 26, Yevgeni Prigozhin, chief of the Wagner Group, stated that his forces and their equipment were heavily damaged during the fight for Bakhmut. The number of casualties on both sides is reported to be high, but it is likely that the number of deaths on the Russian side exceeds the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian officials stated that for every Ukrainian soldier being killed, seven soldiers were killed on the Russian side. However, the exact number of casualties on both sides has not been independently verified.
On April 3, the Wagner group claimed victory over the city as they raised a Russian flag over Bakhmut’s city hall. In a video, Prigozhin stated that Bakhmut was now Russian “in a legal sense”. However, this claim was immediately contested by a spokesperson of the Ukrainian Eastern military command. On April 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the Ukrainian forces would withdraw from Bakhmut to avoid encirclement, if necessary. Ukrainian troops have not withdrawn from Bakhmut yet. The heavy fighting between Wagner and the Ukrainian forces after April 3 suggests the battle for Bakhmut is likely to continue.
Fighting also continued elsewhere along the frontline, for example in the city of Avdiivka and the surrounding area, where Russian forces tried to breach the Ukrainian defensive line. The city has been contested since 2014 and has become an important military objective for both sides. On March 15, the Ukrainian forces were pushed out of the town of Krasnohorivka, after which the Russian forces gained control over the northern area around Avdiivka as they tried to encircle the city. It is reported that fighting in and around Avdiivka is now, together with the fighting in Bakhmut, some of the most intense fighting along the front. However, the UK Ministry of Defence stated that Russian forces did not fully encircle the city and lost much of their equipment in the assault. The Avdiivka railroad is seen as an important asset for the Russian forces, since it could function as a supply hub for Russian forces on the frontlines. The city’s infrastructure could also play an important role in the supply of the Russian forces and separatists in the Donetsk region. However, the Ukrainian forces have prevented a major Russian breakthrough in the city of Avdiivka.
On April 1, the Institute for the Study of War stated that the Kremlin had not achieved its objectives of seizing Donetsk and Luhansk oblast administrative borders in the winter offensive. Russian forces anticipate a Ukrainian counteroffensive between Orthodox Easter on April 16, and Soviet Victory Day on May 9. The Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also stated that a spring counteroffensive is planned in several areas and could begin as soon as April. The first week of April, it was reported that Germany, Poland, Canada and Norway sent their pledged Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and it’s expected that more weaponry supplied by Western countries will arrive in Ukraine any time soon. This equipment is expected to strengthen Ukraine’s position in the war and is seen as crucial for a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may end the struggle over Bakhmut.
On March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. The ICC stated that Putin is allegedly responsible for “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.” The arrest warrant could limit Putin’s ability to travel freely abroad, since the 123 member states of the ICC are obliged to detain and transfer Putin if he enters their territory. It is still unclear whether all 123 countries will oblige.
2. Democratic Republic of the Congo
The conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is worsening and, within one month, more than 300,000 people were displaced. Despite an announced ceasefire between M23 and the Congolese government forces, violence has continued in the eastern region of the country. On March 7, clashes between M23 and government forces erupted near Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, even though the agreed upon ceasefire would start on that same day. The fighting continued the days afterwards and M23 managed to close in on Goma and seize several villages.
It’s believed that M23 is supported by Rwanda and according to Human Rights Watch, M23 has left behind a growing trail of war crimes against civilians in North Kivu. The group is now making gains in the area North of Goma as well as in the West. Roads leading to the city have become more difficult to access and gates to the city are partially being closed off. This does not only make it more difficult for people living in Goma to get access to basic goods, but it also hinders the possibilities of humanitarian organizations to provide aid to the region.
Additionally, in March, the Allied Democratic Forces, a group that is linked to ISIS and that’s been blamed for killing thousands of people over the last 10 years, have continued attacks on villages in North Kivu. On March 9, 36 people were killed by the Allied Democratic Forces in the Village of Mukondi and the nearby village of Mausa. On March 12, reports emerged that rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces killed 19 people in the town of Kirindera in North Kivu. It’s suspected that attacks like these have happened in several North Kivu villages over the last month.
On January 7, 2023, anti-judicial reform protests started in Israel in which people expressed their concerns about the plans of Netanyahu’s government. The government introduced a judicial reform bill that would weaken the influence of the Supreme Court on the government’s decision-making. This bill led to mass protests and strikes across the country shutting down highways and, for a short time, Ben-Gurion Airport. January, February, and March have been characterized by frequent protests, with often 100,000 people on the streets.
As of March 27, protests have escalated, following the sacking of a Defence Minister who opposed the reforms, and supporters of the bill have joined in counter-protests which in some instances led to violent clashes. Hundreds of reservists from the Army, Navy, and Airforce have also refused service and have gone on strike to protest the reform bill. The Israeli Defense Forces are heavily reliant on the reservists; without them, there are gaps in the national security defense apparatus. After being careful to criticize the judicial overhaul, U.S. President Joe Biden finally urged Netanyahu to walk away from the judicial reforms on March 28, 2023. The request by Biden was met with a strong reaction from Netanyahu.
As of now, the Israeli government postponed the judicial reform. The continuation of the protests and the refusal of the government to withdraw it completely are likely to increase the political instability of the country. If prime-minister Netanyahu decides to withdraw the bill there is a likelihood that his government will fall. If he does not withdraw the bill the country will likely come to a standstill due to protests and strikes across the board. Together with the recent police repression of Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa mosque and its spillover effects, the situation in Israel is likely to worsen in April.
In March, terrorism-related violence continued in West Africa. From March 30, Burkina Faso announced a state of emergency in 22 provinces due to insecurity from terrorism, slated to last until May 19. According to the Institute for Economics & Peace’s Global Terrorism Index published in March 2023, the Sahel accounted for 43% of the world’s total in 2022. The coup d’etats that took place in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, and the exclusion of these countries from the African Union and ECOWAS, the situation is likely to worsen in the upcoming months.
The United States and Russia are also competing for influence in the Sahel and West Africa. France’s military withdrawal from the Sahel and West Africa has left room for the Russia-affiliated Wagner group to enter the continent. The US has also been increasingly active in the region. Recently, the US warned Chad’s president of a plot against him and three other senior officers by Russian mercenaries. US intelligence also indicated that Moscow was backing Chadian rebels hiding in the neighboring Central African Republic. On March 16, the US carried out the first maritime exercise together with forces from Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria, as part of the Flintlock 2023 drills, which ran from 10-15 of March. Earlier in March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Vice President Kamala Harris both pledged further investments and humanitarian aid for the Sahel region.
Yemen has experienced a new wave of fighting after ten months of relative calm. Iran-backed Houthi movement forces launched an attack on Marib’s Harib district, the energy-rich province in the center of the civil war-torn country. The number of casualties remains unknown. The attack ends a period of relative calm after the United Nations-brokered truce of April 2022.
However, a breakthrough in regional geopolitical affairs might influence the war in Yemen: Iran and Saudi Arabia, who fight each other through proxies in the war in Yemen, reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations. The deal was brokered by China, who has a significant interest in the improvement of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia to be able to strengthen its own ties with the two countries. On April 6, the leaders of both countries met in Beijing. The countries will reopen their embassies for the first time since 2016.
The restoration of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes as the Saudi crown prince is aiming for a broader realignment in the Gulf region, restoring its relation with Syria as well. This could have significant effects on the conflicts in the region, as diplomatic hostility blocked regional stability.
Alerts and developing situations, March 2023
On 29 March, nine Colombian soldiers were killed by the ELN (National Liberation Army) rebels in Colombia’s Norte de Santander province. The area is a stronghold of ELN rebels, and an important coca-growing and producing region. The attack comes as Colombia’s current president, Gustavo Petro, started peace talks with the insurgency group in November 2022. Although no ceasefire had been agreed upon as of March 2023, the ELN had made important moves towards a truce during a second cycle of negotiations on March 10. The attacks jeopardize the recent peace talks.
On March 19, Petro suspended the ceasefire with the main drug trafficking cartel, the Gulf Clan. This suspension is a political blow to the president, who had been pursuing a significantly different approach than his predecessor, Iván Duque. The December 2022 ceasefire was part of the president’s effort to end the country’s armed conflict through peaceful dialogue. His diplomatic approach differs significantly from former president Iván Duque’s military approach. The suspension of the truce with the Gulf Clan, together with the recent attacks by ELN rebels, are severe blows to Petro’s diplomatic approach, and therefore the security situation in Colombia could deteriorate in the following months.
The Indian police’s manhunt for Sikh political activist Amritpal Singh Sandhu which started on March 21 has led to numerous protests in the northwestern region of Punjab and among the Sikh diaspora in the United Kingdom and Canada. Singh is a self-declared Sikh preacher who revived talks of an autonomous Sikh state called Khalistan. The search has become a political crisis for the state on the border of Pakistan and Kashmir. Indian authorities deployed thousands of personnel to the Punjab region to search for Singh, and shut down internet access in the region to curb the spread of fake news, affecting over 28 million people. Singh has not yet been captured, but over 100 of his supporters have been arrested by police, many of whom were carrying swords and guns during extensive protests across the state. In London, Sikh separatist supporters took down the Indian flag of the Indian embassy on March 19. Also, Canada has experienced protests, as hundreds gathered in front of the Indian consulate in Vancouver on March 21.
India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are adhering to a Hindu nationalist ideology, which could fuel the tension between the state and the Sikh separatists; a broader exclusion of Sikh’s could reignite an insurgency that India experienced during the 1980s and early 1990s, killing over 20,000 people.
During March, post-election violence in Kenya spilled over to the streets. William Ruto won the elections in August 2022, after which he was declared president of Kenya. The opposition, led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, never accepted the election results and blamed President Ruto of committing electoral fraud. On March 20, 2023, Raila Odinga called for nationwide protests until the government would lower the costs of living in Kenya and would give access to the 2022 election results from the electoral commission’s computers. After the call by Odinga, three different marches happened over two weeks in which thousands participated. All three marches turned violent as protesters clashed with the police, after which more than 200 protesters were arrested. In total three people died, over 400 were injured, and property was vandalized.
On April 2, President Ruto asked the opposition to call off the protest that was planned for the next day under the promise that he was willing to create a bipartisan parliamentary committee to look at the concerns over the electoral process. The opposition led by Odinga listened to the request by Ruto and suspended the anti-government protest. However, similar protests might erupt in the near future, as Odinga stated that his party “reserves the right to call for demonstrations should this process not bear fruit.”
Myanmar’s military junta is pressing forward with their plans to hold an election later this year. However, on March 28, the junta dissolved the National League for Democracy (NLD) in an attempt to curtail electoral competition. The NLD won the last two elections (2015 and 2020) with landslide victories. The junta’s call for elections, which has been deemed illegitimate by Western countries, comes at a time the regime intensifies airstrikes against villages while committing extensive human rights abuses against civilians in Chin state, close to the border with India.
Violent clashes between the military junta and resistance groups have been continuous since the junta seized power in February 2021. However, the military junta has struggled to suppress growing resistance to the coup. Armed resistance to the regime's rule has spread to the relatively peaceful central regions which are usually confined to ethnic minority-inhabited regions. In a recent military parade, Myanmar’s top military leader labeled resistance to the military junta as an act of terrorism and vowed to crush the resistance led by the loosely affiliated National Unity group and the People’s Defence Forces. The military has recently lost outposts on the border with Thailand to other resistance groups.
Follow-ups on previous conflict monitoring reports
As stated in our last Conflict Monitoring report, tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have been increasing in the past half year. Tensions peaked in late January, with the armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran on January 27. The attack led to the closure of the embassy. Azerbaijan officials accused Iran of attacking the embassy as part of an anti-Azerbaijani campaign, but Iranian officials denied this accusation and argued that the gunman acted on personal motives instead.
In March 2023, a series of events further deteriorated the relationship between the two countries. On March 11, Azerbaijani officials argued that Iran had provoked them by flying a military aircraft along the Azerbaijan-Iran state border, near the disputed regions of the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020. On March 29, Azerbaijan opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in an effort to strengthen its collaboration with Israel. However, as Israel is Iran’s rival, this is likely to increase tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. On the evening of the opening of the embassy, one member of the Azerbaijani parliament, who is an outspoken critic of Iran, was shot in a failed assassination attempt. Azerbaijani officials were quick to blame Iran, however there is no proof of Iran’s involvement.
Despite the increasing tensions, it is unlikely that the situation will develop into a military conflict, and will probably be solved diplomatically instead. If a conflict were to begin, however, it would quickly include Turkey, as the country has a mutual defense pact with Azerbaijan.
As written in our January-February Conflict Monitoring report, the Ethiopian Government has been trying to stop a U.N.-mandated inquiry into atrocities that happened during the war. However, on March 23, multiple diplomats and human rights groups stated that Ethiopia will refrain from the bid to end the U.N.-mandated inquiry on Tigray abuses. This means that the International Commission on Ethiopia will be able to finish their inquiry and to publish its findings.
The Commission already stated that they found evidence of war crimes by all parties involved in the conflict. On March 23, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken came with a similar statement, saying that he was determined that “members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.” Furthermore, Blinken called for the acknowledgment of committed atrocities, accountability, and reconciliation by all parties. The International Commission on Ethiopia is also investigating the violations that were committed since the November peace deal, as women, health workers, and aid organizations have reported that assaults on civilians in Tigray have continued despite the peace deal.
On March 22, Ethiopia’s parliament removed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from the list of ‘terrorist organizations.’ The delisting was a prerequisite by the TPLF to participate in the establishment of an interim regional government as part of the November peace deal. On March 23, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed Tigray People’s Liberation Front delegate Getachew Reda as head of the new interim government of Tigray. Besides, Ethiopia’s prosecutors announced that they will drop charges against military and civilian members of the TPLF as part of the November peace deal. The charges will instead be considered in the framework of transitional justice. Ethiopia is thus putting effort to fulfill its obligations under the November peace deal.
Political instability, hunger, and gang violence are still persistent in Haiti as the country experiences a severe humanitarian crisis. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 80 percent of the capital Port-au-Prince is now under control or influence of armed groups. Armed groups have been present in Haiti since approximately 1956, but their influence has grown since the assassination of President Moïse and the earthquake on 14 August 2021. The recent outbursts of violence are not only limited to Haiti’s capital, but are also reported also in other areas of the country, for example in the Artibonite department.
According to the OCHA, at least 1.5 million people are directly affected by the violence and over 136,500 people are internally displaced as a result of the ongoing violence. More than 5.2 million people in Haiti are in need of humanitarian assistance. However, the ongoing violence has made it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to Haiti’s population. In the beginning of March, the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders was forced to temporarily close its hospital in Port-au-Prince, as violent battles between armed rival groups happened just meters from the hospital compound. The organization stated that it could no longer guarantee the safety of its patients and staff.
As stated in our January-February Conflict Monitoring report, Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry as well as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have requested the international community for military assistance to address the humanitarian crisis. This request led to dissatisfaction among many citizens in Haiti, as they have not forgotten the country’s history with foreign intervention. As of now, no military intervention by the international community has been planned.
About the authors
Alessia is Intelligence Analyst and Project Coordinator at Dyami. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, and has experience in researching organized crime and conflicts. Her academic background includes conflict analysis, international humanitarian law, and criminology.
Anneloe is currently enrolled in the masters Conflict Studies & Human Rights at Utrecht University and completed her Bachelor's in History and International Relations from Historical Perspective, equipping her with skills to contextualize (historical) events and to acknowledge both the uniqueness and similarities between certain events. She is an experienced researcher in the field of disinformation and is very keen to learn more about (cyber) espionage.
Iris de Boer
Iris has a background in Human Geography and has developed a broad interest in geopolitics and armed conflict during her academic career. She is currently enrolled in the Master’s degree Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University, during which she developed conflict mapping and conflict analyzing skills. Her previous research focused on the polarized display of the United States presidential elections in 2020 within Dutch media.
Jacob studied Global Political Economy at Leiden University. He is passionate about international development and is looking to expand his expertise in geopolitics and crisis management. Curious about other cultures, he has traveled in Europe and Asia for both academic study and professional purposes. His expertise includes the geopolitics of oil and industrial upgrading in the electronics global value chain. He is particularly interested in the evolving political and economic relationships between China and ASEAN, and the consequences for regional development and security.