Written by Anneloe Brakel, Iris de Boer, Jacob Dickinson, Alessia Cappelletti
Russia-Ukraine update: Fighting continues, Ukraine loses Bakhmut, and drone attacks on Russian soil.
Sudan: Fighting in Sudan continues, leading to concerns about the stability of the wider region.
Ethiopia: Extensive protests in Tigray and eruption of violence in Amhara region.
Somaliland: Fighting between Dhulbahante clan militias and government forces.
Serbia-Kosovo: Violent clashes between ethnic Serbs, local police, and NATO troops following a boycotted election in north Kosovo.
Pakistan: Clashes and mass unrest after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Iran-Afghanistan: Shooting between Taliban fighters and Iranian forces on the border between Afghanistan and Iran, following tensions over water rights.
Ecuador: President dissolves National Assembly, enacting a constitutional mechanism that allows him to rule until the next general election.
Myanmar: Junta launches airstrikes and further ground assaults against resistance forces, leading to major civilian casualties.
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Large-scale protests near the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both countries currently engage in peace talks.
Conflicts, May 2023
After months of heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Wagner forces for the city of Bakhmut, Wagner leader Prigozhin claimed on May 20 that his forces had taken full control of the city. Whereas Ukrainian officials first contested this claim, they acknowledged a few days later that Bakhmut had indeed been lost. On May 22, Wagner stated that the city would be handed over to the Russian Army and would fully withdraw from the city on June 1. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) Russian Movements in and around Bakhmut are low, which leaves openings for an Ukrainian offensive.
Over the course of May, there has been a spark in attacks on Russian soil. Footage of a drone that targeted the Kremlin was released on May 3. Video footage shows two drones flying above the Kremlin, of which one hit the roof. It’s still unclear who was responsible for the attack. Kyiv has denied any involvement, despite accusations made by the Kremlin. On May 22, the Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), which both consist of Russian-nationals, crossed the international border between Russia and Ukraine and conducted an incursion into Belgorod Oblast. Russian authorities started a “counterterrorism” operation, which resulted in heavy fighting between the FRL and Russian Forces. It is reported that Russian forces employed thermobaric artillery, which are widely condemned by nongovernmental organizations because of the disproportionate destruction that they cause. On May 23 Russia claimed that the FRL was defeated. However, on June 1, it was reported that the RVC started new cross-border incursions into Belgorod Oblast, during which heavy fighting took place near the town of Shebekino. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, “the attack involved up to 70 militants, five tanks, four armored vehicles, seven pick-up trucks and a Kamaz truck”. Russia claimed that the Russian Forces killed over 50 fighters during their attempts to repel the attacks. Ukrainian officials denied any involvement of the Ukrainian Forces in the incursions.
On May 30, Moscow suffered from the biggest drone strike since the start of the Russian invasion. According to Russian authorities the attack involved eight drones of which five were shot down. Three drones managed to strike and hit multiple buildings, all in south-west Moscow, where residences of Putin and his inner-circle are located. There were no casualties reported. During the night of May 29 to May 30, Russia conducted a drone strike on Kyiv, likely as a response to the first incursion in Belgorod Oblast. The drone strike killed one citizen and injured another one. Two high rise buildings in Kyiv caught fire as a result of the attack.
On April 15, 2023, a crisis emerged in Sudan as violent clashes erupted between competing military factions. The conflict is primarily between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and their respective leading generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti. The immediate cause of the conflict is the disagreement over the absorption of RSF forces in the SAF and the disagreement on a timetable for a transition to democratic government after the 2021 coup.
As of the end of May, the fighting and airstrikes still continue and have so far killed 866 civilians and wounded thousands. Almost 1.4 million people have been displaced, of which 300,000 people fled to neighboring countries. In general, the conflict is being fought in the capital Khartoum, other urban areas, and in Darfur. Since the start of the conflict, there have been seven ceasefire attempts, yet none of them was carried out.
The ongoing conflict in Sudan also leads to concerns about the stability of the wider region. Refugee flows to neighboring countries have increased since the start of the fighting, which pressures countries like Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan in which basic resources and humanitarian aid are scarce. There is a risk of tensions between host communities, displaced populations, and new arrivals that have to compete for limited resources. Additionally, the fighting in Sudan also makes the supply routes for commercial and relief goods less accessible, hindering the distribution and availability of aid.
As mentioned in Dyami’s previous conflict monitoring report, political instability increased in the disputed area of Tigray and its bordering Amhara region. In Tigray, there have been extensive protests throughout April and May, with thousands of people demonstrating against the presence of Eritrean forces. In the Amhara region, violence erupted in April after the government decided to dissolve regional paramilitary groups, causing fear amongst the Amharan population that they might lose disputed territory to Tigray’s administration.
Ethiopia has experienced a devastating civil conflict since November 2020, which was centered in and around the Tigray province. The conflict was fought between the federal government, ethno-regional militias (TPLF; Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), and the Eritrean army. Formally, the conflict ended in November 2022 with the signing of a peace deal that halted the fighting and bombing by the government. One of the agreements of the deal was the withdrawal of foreign forces, referring to the Eritrean and Amhara troops. However, Eritrean troops have not yet withdrawn, sparking demonstrations.
Another violent non-state actor operating in Ethiopia is the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has been fighting for control over the Oromia region off and on for decades. In April 2023, the Ethiopian government and OLA began peace negotiations in Tanzania. The peace attempts concluded on May 3, without reaching an agreement. Importantly, hostilities from both sides increased heavily in May, jeopardizing any conflict resolution. According to local news sources, a second round of peace talks is highly unlikely. Amid this increasing violence between OLA and the federal government, one sugar factory was attacked by militants on May 20, killing 14 civilians.
Lastly, as Ethiopia borders Sudan, the country might witness economic, social, and humanitarian spillover effects of the recent conflict.
Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia that has been relatively stable since the late 1990s, has been confronted with armed conflict since 2022. After a Dhulbahante local politician was assassinated in December 2022, protests erupted during which 20 people were killed by the Somaliland security forces. In light of the protests, the Dhulbahante clan stated that they wanted to rejoin Somalia. However, this is not in line with the objectives of the government of Somaliland, which wants to become an independent, internationally recognized state.
Clashes between clan militias and government forces erupted, and both parties are now mainly fighting over the town of Lascanood. Presidential elections planned for November 2022 have been postponed because of contestations and no new date has been set yet. A ceasefire between the two parties that was announced in February 2023 was violated by both sides. According to the UN, over 185,000 people have left their homes because of the clashes. Amnesty International stated that over 100 people have been killed and over 600 were injured since the outbreak of the violence. The rising conflict poses a threat to the political future of Somaliland, as the ongoing fighting will likely weaken the case for recognition of Somaliland by the international community.
Alerts and developing situations, May 2023
On May 28, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo escalated after Kosovo’s police raided Serb-dominated areas in Zvecan, a town in the north of Kosovo. Ethnic Serbs attacked NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, which resulted in violent clashes between ethnic Serbs, local police, and NATO troops. This comes after a disputed election in north Kosovo, in which ethnic Serbs boycotted the vote for four municipalities. The final turnout was very low at 3.5%.
The EU-negotiated agreement between Kosovo and Serbia informally agreed on April 27, 2023, which aimed to ease tensions in exchange for EU membership, appears to be unsuccessful. Serbia has increased the combat readiness of its military near the Kosovo border and refused to tolerate further attacks on Serbs in Kosovo. With China and Russia backing Serbia’s position and NATO supporting Kosovo, the conflict is also being perceived as another fault line in the geopolitical competition in Europe. The situation has sparked concerns about a potential resurgence of the Kosovo-Serbia conflict that occurred between 1998 to 1999.
On May 9, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested by Pakistani paramilitary units over corruption charges along with key figures from his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Khan was subsequently released on May 11, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court deemed his arrest as unlawful. However, clashes and mass unrest erupted across the country and thousands of his supporters were detained by authorities. A nationwide crackdown on the PTI followed Khan’s arrest and more than 80 senior members of the PTI quit the party, allegedly pressured by authorities.
Pakistan has been in a long-running political crisis since Khan was removed from power as Prime Minister in May 2022, which he labeled as a ‘coup’. This prompted months of protests against the Pakistani coalition government led by Shebhaz Sharif. Polls have confirmed that Khan is the most popular politician in the country and he has therefore been demanding early elections, but the government has vehemently resisted calling any election until October 2023. In May, Pakistan’s annual inflation rate rose to 38%, an all-time high. The country also has one month to satisfy the IMF’s demands before its stalled support program expires, raising the risk of debt default.
On May 27, there was a shooting between Taliban fighters and the Iranian forces on the border between Afghanistan and Iran after tensions over water rights emerged. Two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter were reportedly killed in the shooting. Iran claimed that the Taliban restricted the water flow from the Helmand river to the eastern regions of Iran. The Taliban denied the accusation. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021, there have been disagreements between them and Iran over the alleged mistreatment of Afghan refugees and other border clashes. The severe drought in Afghanistan has led to major displacement, food insecurity, and climate-related disasters in recent years. Iran has also been suffering from widespread drought since 2021. It is likely that both countries will thus try to claim the scarce water resources that are available in the area, which could possibly lead to more violent disputes over water rights and add to existing tensions.
On May 17, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly enacting a constitutional mechanism that allows him to rule by decree until the next general election, marking the first time that this power has been used in Ecuador. The unilateral decision comes after he threatened to use this power if he faced an impeachment trial for corruption charges, which began on May 16.
Later on May 17, the Ecuadorian military released a statement in support of Lasso and the day after Ecuador’s electoral authority set August 20, 2023, as the date for snap general elections. Lasso does not plan to run for the presidency, given widespread protests against a stagnant economy, record levels of violence, opposition gains, the loss of an eight-proposal referendum in February, and a generally low approval rating.
Follow-ups on previous conflict monitoring reports
Since on April 11 an airstrike killed 170 civilians, there have been multiple reports of smaller-scale deadly air and ground assaults by the junta. According to local news reports, resistance forces are fighting back and killing junta soldiers. A UN report claimed that since February 2021, the military junta has imported at least $1 billion in arms, equipment, and materials from China and Russia, and to a lesser extent from companies in India, Singapore and Thailand.
Amid the civil war, Myanmar experienced the devastating effects of cyclone Mocha in May. Myanmar’s shadow government stated that 400 people lost their lives to the cyclone, whereas the military junta reported a total of 145 deaths. More information about the civil war in Myanmar can be found in Dyami’s previous conflict monitoring report.
As mentioned in Dyami’s previous conflict monitoring report, the opening of a checkpoint by Azerbaijan on the Lachin corridor in April sparked violent clashes between the countries, causing at least three casualties. On May 20, thousands of Armenians protested near the border with Azerbaijan against the blockade of the Lachin corridor and the checkpoint. The two countries are currently engaged in peace talks, yet aggressive rhetoric may jeopardize the success of these talks.
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.