Instability 2024: Hotspots and flash points to watch
The adage attributed to former United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1949-1953) is probably the most relevant for any period of history, including the current one: “Foreign policy: it is just one damned thing after another.”
Indeed, challenges existing, expected and unknown will continue casting long shadows on the international landscape, threatening stability, peace and prosperity while vexing the globe’s policymakers throughout 2024.
With Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s (1885-1962) admonition that “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future” in mind, let us take a quick look at some of the hotspots and flash points that will likely be strategic features of this new year.
The latest kinetic phase of the large-scale war is nearly two years old, while Russia’s initial invasion happened nearly a decade ago, with the military takeover of Crimea and the instigation of fighting in the eastern Donbas region. Despite the humanitarian, military, economic, political and diplomatic costs, Moscow shows no signs of ending its war.
Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, want the return of the country’s internationally recognized territory, including the Donbas region, Crimea and additional areas seized following the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion – some 17 percent of Ukraine’s land.
Moscow’s geopolitical appetite for Ukrainian land could quickly grow again.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of conquering Ukraine in its entirety has likely been put on hold due to early military failures. However, the “land bridge” created between Russian territory and Crimea along Ukraine’s southeastern coast likely stands as a reasonably satisfying step toward Moscow’s ultimate goal of subjugating Ukraine.
In 2024, with Kyiv seeking to reclaim lost territory, Moscow will likely play defensive games in the regions it currently holds. Defensive strategies typically require fewer forces and weaponry compared to offensive maneuvers. The conflict could become frozen along current lines of control, especially with Iran and North Korea delivering war materiel to Russia. But Moscow’s geopolitical appetite for Ukrainian land could quickly grow again with the failure of Kyiv to maintain critical international diplomatic, economic and military support or successfully press another offensive.
The conflicting goals make substantive peace talks and any agreement to end the conflict remote. Moscow may move to annex more Ukrainian territory and hold sham elections to try to legitimize its claims. The use of a Russian tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine to break a stalemate, while unlikely, is not out of the question.
Iran’s nuclear program
Iran, already having an outsized impact on international politics with its support of foreign terrorist groups, belligerence and military adventurism in the Middle East and support to Russia in the Ukraine war, stands to continue rocking boats.
One big concern for analysts and policymakers is the course of its nuclear program, especially its possible military dimension. Tehran has been pursuing, overtly and covertly, a nuclear program for decades. While Iran claims its atomic enterprise is entirely for peaceful, civilian electricity generation purposes, significant evidence points to a nuclear program with military applications.
The worry extends to Iran’s prodigious ballistic missile program, the largest in the region. It enables Tehran to project power and provides deterrence and a delivery system for nuclear weapons. Iran’s space program is likely a ruse to hide the development of military intercontinental ballistic missiles that will extend its force’s effective range beyond the Middle East.
With the collapse of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which placed limits on Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran continues to enrich and stockpile uranium that it could use to build atomic warheads rapidly. In 2024, absent an agreement to limit or end Iran’s nuclear program (it seems unlikely after nearly three years of vain diplomatic efforts), Tehran will continue to expand its nuclear know-how and enrich uranium ever closer to weapons-grade level (above 90 percent of U-235).
Watch for foreign assistance and advanced weapons transfers from Russia and North Korea to accelerate Iranian nuclear, ballistic missile or space programs to bolster Tehran’s military buildup.
The recent growth in China’s economic, political and military might has raised the specter of a cross-strait war.
Iranian provocations, especially in the Persian Gulf and other waterways, have the potential to escalate into a crisis. Also, Tehran may widen the Israel-Hamas war – through actions of its own or, more likely, those of terrorist proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Evidence of Iran’s progress in developing an operational nuclear weapon would cause an international dilemma and further destabilize the region. Beyond emergency diplomacy, a response could include Israeli or American military action against Iran. That would result in long-lasting, wide-ranging reverberations.
The Taiwan Strait
Separated by a mere 110 miles of water, the tense relationship between China and Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its sovereign territory, is on the minds of strategists and policymakers from Tokyo in the East to Washington in the West.
While the issue of Taiwan’s political future has simmered for decades going back to the end of World War II, the recent growth in China’s economic, political and military might has raised the specter of a cross-strait war with stakes for regional peace and stability.
A “reunification” with Taiwan would give Beijing a strategic positional advantage in the Western Pacific by intersecting Japan’s transportation lines and undermining U.S. posture in East Asia. Also, it would provide a propaganda victory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and elevate Chinese President Xi Jinping’s legacy alongside those of celebrated leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, which has reportedly become his ambition.
This report was originally published here: https://www.gisreportsonline.com/r/war/