The world is simultaneously facing two war crises—in Ukraine and the Middle East—with enormous geopolitical significance.
Meanwhile, disturbing clouds are gathering over the Korean peninsula, with an alarming turn in the North's rhetoric.
Taiwan, where the party Beijing most dislikes has won the election for the third time in a row, remains a focus of tension.
If humanity constantly suffers terrible conflicts, such as the civil conflict ravaging Sudan now, the current scenario is especially characterized by a level of confrontation between large and medium powers unknown in decades.
For the first time since 1945, Europe is experiencing a major war, in which, for the first time since then, a great power invades a country not only to subjugate it but to annex territory.
In the conflict, around thirty Western countries provide aid to Ukraine to repel Russian aggression, in turn assisted militarily by Iran, North Korea and Belarus.
American support for kyiv is wavering, strengthening Moscow's position.
The circumstances are such that several European political and military leaders have stressed to their citizens that the risk of the conflict reaching Western Europe is real.
The prospect of a return to the White House of Donald Trump, who despises Washington's commitment to NATO, further stirs the waters.
“Putin could attack a NATO country one day.
It is unlikely now, but our experts believe there is a time window of between five and eight years in which this is possible,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, a social democrat, said recently.
The Danish Defense Minister, a liberal, this week reduced that time window to between three and five years.
“There may be war in Sweden,” Carl-Oskar Bohlin, a moderate conservative civil defense minister in the Nordic country, said in January.
The Middle East, for its part, is experiencing “the most dangerous situation since 1973, and perhaps even before,” in the words of Antony Blinken, United States Secretary of State.
As feared, the conflict between Hamas and Israel has escalated and a dozen countries are already directly involved in hostilities of various types.
The US has bombed, in retaliation, targets in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
The hit to Iranian Revolutionary Guard assets in those countries puts Washington and Tehran in a dangerous direct line of fire.
Both emit signals of not wanting an escalation.
But in the region there are actors beyond their control who, more or less intentionally, are fueling the fire.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, North Korea has taken an abrupt turn in recent weeks by removing from its Constitution the commitment to seek “peaceful reunification,” while developing new weapons and strengthening ties with Putin's Russia.
Further south, the Taiwan question remains a mystery full of risks, in a context of non-violent but stark competition between the two superpowers, the United States and China.
This occurs at a time of changing balance of forces, the most dangerous, as Graham Allison, former US Deputy Secretary of Defense, recently recalled at the Davos Forum.
Other wars with terrible human consequences and important geostrategic repercussions have occurred in recent decades, from those in Afghanistan to Iraq, from those in the Balkans to Congo or Syria, which also had strong international involvement.
But the current moment, together with disastrous numerical data in terms of victims, adds a component of geopolitical risk unparalleled since the Cold War went on and off.
That is what darkens the stage so especially.
In numerical terms, with the difficulties inherent in data collection in this matter, the current moment is dramatic.
According to a study by the Oslo Peace Research Institute, 2022 was the year with the highest number of deaths from state wars – in which at least one actor is a State – since the early 1970s with the exception of 1984. : just over 200,000, with the conflicts in Ukraine and Ethiopia as major sources (1994 would also be higher if the conflict in Rwanda were also included, which the IIPO counts in another category).
It is reasonable to think that 2023, where Ethiopia's has calmed down, but Gaza's has exploded, will also be a bad year in the yet to be published balance sheet.
The intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who points to the south of the Strip, go further down that path.
The number of refugees and displaced people in the world, more than 100 million, is the highest on record.
But the danger lies above all in the geopolitical situation.
“We have entered a period with greater interstate conflict.
“We are in an era of direct competition between important countries,” says Meia Nouwens, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"This is worrying.
And so is the level of cooperation that we see, for example, between China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, which is in some sense new.
And as context, the collapse of the communication of trust, of the mechanisms that would have ensured stability in the past, is very disturbing.”
Old arms control treaties between the US and Russia are collapsing, and there is no prospect of new ones being signed with China.
Sergey Radchenko, a historian specialized in the Cold War and professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, also focuses on the element of the pulse of powers.
“The current period has differences with the Cold War.
There is no ideological confrontation like then.
There are democracies on the one hand and regimes on the other, but they are not the same.
And there is an interdependence that did not exist then,” he comments.
“But there are things that are similar: one is the power struggle between powers.
Another is how the nuclear spectrum conditions that fight,” Radchenko continues.
The future is not written, and the situation does not have to get worse.
There are encouraging signs, such as the attempts by Washington and Beijing to contain the deterioration of their relations, the clear signals issued by the United States and Iran that they do not want an escalation, and the movements underway to seek a negotiated solution to the Gaza conflict.
But it is evident that there are actors determined to seek destabilization and it cannot be ruled out that others will join in or that there will be unintentional escalations, which are more likely in moments of tension, and are especially dangerous when great powers are involved.
The prospect of the possible return to the White House of Donald Trump, who shows no commitment to NATO - on Saturday he said he "encourages" Russia to "do whatever it wants" with allies that do not meet the standard of required military spending - further complicates the scenario.
Therefore, if the Korean War (1950-1953) or the Cuban missile crisis (1963) embodied moments of tension greater than the current one, the phase we are entering has features of unknown risks during the final stage of the crisis. Cold War and the period described as unipolar by US hegemony.
Below, a look at the situation of the three main sources of geopolitical tension, from experts interviewed by telephone last Thursday.
Rescue teams intervene this Saturday after a Russian bombing in Kharkiv in which at least seven people died.Yevhen Titov (AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his speech at the Davos plenary session: “If anyone believes that this is only about Ukraine, they are completely wrong.
The possible directions and even a timetable of new Russian aggression beyond Ukraine becomes increasingly obvious.”
Zelensky did not clarify the schedule and addresses.
But, in a later meeting with an international group of journalists, his sigh when asked about the prospect of a Trump return to the White House was telling.
There are clear signs that his victory would lead to a collapse of US aid to kyiv and a huge question mark over Washington's mutual defense commitment to its allies.
The calendar that Zelensky is talking about has the date of the elections in the United States clearly marked. And the map highlights countries such as the Baltic countries in red.
Putin often says that he has no intention of attacking other countries, and he reaffirmed this in his interview with Tucker Carlson.
He also denied with every word of his that he would attack Ukraine.
In any case, it is interesting to remember what he said at the last Valdai forum: “This is not a territorial conflict and it is not an attempt to establish a regional geopolitical balance.
This question is broader and more fundamental and concerns the underlying principles of the new international order.
The logical consequence is that, if this is not just about Ukraine and the region, but about supposed principles, nothing excludes that he may want to defend those same principles elsewhere.
In the West, of course, not only is no one with any knowledge of the facts calm, but that perspective is taken increasingly seriously.
“The alarmist statements by European political and military officials are an attempt to prevent that from happening,” says Radchenko, who in May will publish To Run the World: The
's Cold War Bid for Global Power.
global power in the Cold War).
“The conflict can be avoided if Europe is prepared for it.
Russia today is a country that, under Putin, seeks to take advantage of weakness.
Weakness invites aggression, strength deters it.
For this reason, the alerts seek to raise awareness, create an understanding that facilitates preparation, which is the best way to avoid a war,” says the historian.
Russia is now facing a huge effort in Ukraine.
35% of all Russian public spending goes to war.
China has lent a hand to compensate for restrictions on access to Western technologies, and bilateral trade has grown a lot, reaching over $200 billion in 2023, but Beijing is ruthlessly putting pressure on Moscow, for example, by slowing down the launch of a new Russian-Chinese gas pipeline while waiting for the Kremlin to give in and guarantee more favorable conditions.
Despite this, it is evident that Putin has stabilized the situation after a very difficult phase and is turning Russia into a war economy.
Radchenko points out that Putin's strategic objective is to "recover a place of great power for Russia" and, in parallel, use this movement "to legitimize his position", as an indispensable leader in this return to greatness, in the resistance against those who allegedly They want to humiliate Russia.
All this does not induce tranquility in the medium term.
And Europe is far from having a clearly deterrent defensive capacity if the United States does not guarantee its support.
It is like this because it is not united.
Its armed forces are fragmented, suffer from interoperability problems, and are not accustomed to combat.
But, above all, there is no political unity.
“If the Americans give up their leadership, which may well happen if Trump wins, can we really expect the Europeans to push forward as a united force?
“We can’t,” summarizes Radchenko.
Thus, the war in Ukraine is now going through a complicated phase, with a shortage of supplies to kyiv.
But the prospect is potentially much more problematic.
It is a key strategic challenge for the world, existential for Europe, and without clear parallels in decades.
Wake for victims of Israeli attacks this Saturday in Rafah.Fatima Shbair (AP)
While all this is happening in Europe, the Middle East is going through the most turbulent phase in decades.
The tension runs on two planes, different but communicating.
One is the conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Another is the confrontation of forces in the region, with Iran and its partners on the one hand, and the United States and Israel, on the other.
At the forefront, Israel's brutal response to the Hamas attack is causing terrible human suffering in Gaza.
Diplomatic efforts are underway to achieve a cessation of hostilities, in which the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt play relevant roles.
“This mediation effort runs into serious problems, especially because Netanyahu has an interest in the fighting continuing.
There is a widespread feeling in Israel that as soon as hostilities end, so will Netanyahu's mandate,” says Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Netanyahu was, even before the current crisis, a divisive leader and in great difficulty due to cases of alleged corruption and for promoting measures that a large part of Israeli society considers harmful to democracy.
The total failure to foresee and contain the Hamas attack is a responsibility that leaves it affected in a way that seems irrecoverable.
An Israeli tank on the border with the Gaza Strip, this Sunday. Ariel Schalit (AP)
“And the resulting problem is that the conflict in Gaza pushes regional escalation.
While the problems in the region have their own causes and dynamics, the Gaza crisis exacerbates them,” Lovatt continues.
“Neither Israel, nor Iran, nor Hezbollah want a regional war, and their actions have been measured to avoid it.
But if the crisis in Gaza continues, the risks increase, for several reasons.
Because Iran and its partners feel pressure to appear to be doing something.
Because Tehran does not have absolute control over its partners and some may act out of self-interest.
Finally, because the risk of unintentional escalation increases.
"It is likely that the attack on the Jordanian base that killed American soldiers was not intended to have that result," says Lovatt.
The United States, which also does not want escalation, has responded in a very calculated way to avoid it, giving Iran time to relocate its forces and striking surgically a week later.
But when you play with fire, fires are likely.
“In my opinion, we are already in a regional war, but it is a largely contained and low-intensity war, with measured attacks.
But as long as the war in Gaza continues, the risk of full and uncontrolled escalation will grow even if few have a stake in it,” Lovatt concludes.
The latest news is alarming.
Netanyahu has ordered his Armed Forces to prepare an offensive against Rafah, in southern Gaza, where a large part of the Gazans displaced by the brutal military action carried out in recent months in the Strip are crowded.
This is a war phase with terrible potential for harm to civilians and serious potential for further geopolitical destabilization.
Meanwhile, America's enemies watch with delight as Washington must deal with other fronts.
Kim Jong-un and his middle daughter, minutes before the launch of a missile, on November 18 at Pyongyang international airport.朝鮮通信社 (AP)
The tension in East Asia completes the serious contemporary picture.
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has made an abrupt political turn, renouncing the traditional goal of peaceful reunification with the South, while he continues to develop his arsenals, including nuclear weapons.
Reputable analysts fear that this is an attempt to lay ideological foundations for warlike action.
Veteran US diplomat Robert Carlin and nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker have written that they consider the situation the most dangerous since the 1950s.
Some experts fear that the perception of a US in decline, with a dysfunctional policy, in abrupt withdrawal in Afghanistan, occupied in Ukraine and the Middle East, and facing a possible complicated transition of power, may motivate some to take war initiatives.
Meanwhile, North Korea has been strengthening ties with Russia, providing it with a huge amount of ammunition for the war in Ukraine.
“I find Kim Jong-un's statements especially disturbing.
We are witnessing the awareness that the North Korean leader could at some point make very risky decisions,” says Meia Nouwens, from the IISS, who specializes in the analysis of China and East Asia.
“I think this year he will develop new defense capabilities.
Is this a preparation for a military attack?
Or a strategic positioning to have more leverage for 2025 and a possible return of Trump?
I think the second is more likely,” says the expert.
The other potential friction point is Taiwan.
The third straight victory of the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the presidential elections is not good news for Beijing.
However, Nouwens notes, the fact that the party has not won a parliamentary majority means that the worst scenario has been avoided from the point of view of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
“What this means, I think, in military terms, is that there will be no big changes in the next four years.
We will continue to see Beijing's focus on the gray zone, maritime and air raids, and disinformation,” says the expert.
Much, in this region, depends on the development of relations between China and the United States.
The two superpowers have shown signs of wanting to put a floor to the deterioration.
“Since [the meeting between Biden and Xi in] San Francisco, we see a positive development, in the sense that the two countries are trying to dialogue, establish channels, even between the Armed Forces.
But, it is a very limited approach.
There is a brutal mistrust between the two countries.
Both recognize that they have no interest in a conflict.
But it is a very fragile stability that unexpected events can derail,” considers Nouwens.
China is in a moment of economic slowdown.
This can cause internal discontent.
There are those who fear that, to divert attention, the regime could hit the nationalist button harder.
“This argument does not convince me.
I think Xi has been clear to his population that there is a period ahead in which it is time to endure.
I don't think they use the instrument of conflict to distract.
Beijing has not acted like this in the past and I would also say that, right now, the Chinese Armed Forces are not in a very stable state, at least as far as allegations of corruption within the missile force and the consequent changes are concerned. in the high command and the disappearance of leaders like the former Minister of Defense,” says Nouwens.
This is the picture.
The big unknown is what consequences a Trump victory would have.
Meanwhile, the brutal violence continues.
In Ukraine, in Gaza and elsewhere, as in the terrible civil conflict in Sudan.
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