Shortcuts / 09 January 2024

Where the wars are up to

We’re back for our first shortcut of 2024, and we thought it would be helpful to bring you up to speed on 2 stories that didn’t ease up over the last couple of weeks – the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Let’s turn to Ukraine first…
Okies. The big question as we headed into the break was whether the US would continue its military funding of Ukraine’s army.

I think I remember that…
It was a big deal in December. And it’s important because since the start of Russia’s invasion, the US has sent around $44 billion American dollars worth of equipment and military aid to Ukraine, and that support has been crucial to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.

Why is ongoing funding an issue for the US?
The Trump-aligned Republicans in the US Congress have been grumbling about all of the money being put towards Ukraine – they say enough’s enough given other spending priorities. And so in recent months, they’ve been unwilling to authorise more spending.

And what’s the latest?
Last week, despite Republicans refusing to budge, Biden’s administration managed to pull together an extra $250 million to send to Ukraine.

Was it behind a couch or something?
It was leftover from funding that had been previously authorised. President Joe Biden’s team says that’s the last of it, and from here on, they’ll need Republicans to agree to support Ukraine.

So that’s the politics. What’s been happening on the battlefield?
Since late December, Russia has been launching massive air attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. Actually, 29 December saw the biggest air attack since the start of the war, which Ukraine said killed 31 civilians… And air attacks have continued in the week and a half since, including against Ukraine’s two largest cities – Kharkiv, and the capital, Kyiv.

Why now for Russia to launch huge air attacks?
A bit of analysis from The New York Times suggests that Russia’s air attacks against civilians and cities are part of a new phase in the war. The analysis is that both sides no longer believe they can win big chunks of territory, and so instead, Russia is trying to wear down Ukraine’s national spirit.

What’s Ukraine doing during this new phase?
They’ve been turning to guerrilla tactics, like blowing up trains inside Russia or using drones to attack or sabotage Russia’s navy and military infrastructure. But with no big breakthroughs on the horizon for either side, the word stalemate is starting to be used…

What are the casualty and death tolls on each side?
Official, up-to-date numbers are hard to come by, but as of the end of last year, at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians had been killed since the start of the war in February 2022, and the estimate was that around 70,000 troops had been killed. On Russia’s side, the BBC estimates that over 103,000 soldiers had been killed, with another 206,000 wounded (that’s one estimate anyway, there are others that put those numbers both higher and lower…).

What’s coming up next for the Ukraine war?
Well, we’re almost at February 2024, so that’ll be the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Then in March, it’ll be Russia’s presidential election. Vladimir Putin is running for re-election, and given the state of democracy in Russia, he has basically already won… But that’ll still be an interesting moment in the context of the Ukraine war.

Let’s turn to Israel’s war on Hamas now… what’s the death toll up to now?
We’re now just past the 3-month mark since Hamas’s attack that killed 1,200 Israelis – and the death toll from Israel’s assault on Gaza is now over 22,000, according to the Hamas-led health ministry inside Gaza. It’s also said that at least 58,000 people inside Gaza have now been injured. Recently, the UN has also said that half of Gazans are at risk of starving and that 90% regularly go without food for a whole day.

What’s happening with the fighting?
The major shift over the break was the New Year’s Day announcement from Israel’s army that they would begin pulling thousands of soldiers out of Gaza – just like in Ukraine, they say the war is entering a new phase.

What’s this new phase?
Israel’s army has said that moving large numbers of soldiers out of Gaza will allow them “to gather strength for upcoming activities in the next year, as the fighting will persist, and their services will still be needed”. They also said that their war aims would “require prolonged fighting”.

Right, so this isn’t the war ending?
On the contrary, Israel’s troop movements are more of a regrouping and refocusing for the long run rather than a winding down of the war. US officials expect that the next phase of the war will involve Israel’s strategy narrowing to target specific Hamas fighters and leaders.

Haven’t we already seen some of this type of targeting?
We sure have. On 2 January, a top leader of Hamas was killed in Israeli airstrikes – except he was in Lebanon at the time, which made it the first assassination of a Hamas leader outside of Palestinian territory in years.

What’s the significance?
Well, his killing brought back the fear that has been present since the very start of the war: namely that the war could spill out over the border of Israel and become a wider regional conflict. Another fact adding to those fears are the ongoing attacks by fighters from the Houthi group against ships passing through the nearby Red Sea.

Those attacks are still ongoing?
Yes, so these Houthi attacks on global shipping routes aren’t new – we were talking about them at the end of last year. But those attacks have been ongoing for the past few weeks. And because of these fears of the conflict spilling out, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has once again travelled to Israel…

What is Blinken hoping to achieve?
His aim is to try to stop the conflict from spreading, as well as to try to get Israel to curb its attacks on the civilians living in Gaza. But there are reports that the relationship between Israel and the US has begun to strain. The US has backed Israel’s war from the start, but leaders from the US have recently been putting more pressure on Israel to protect Palestinian civilians…

Will Blinken and the US be able to stop the war from spreading?
It’s Blinken’s fourth time in the Middle East since the war began, and it hasn’t spread yet… but we’ll have to see.

So that’s a sombre way to start the year…
It is, but at least you’re now back on top of things.

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