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Ukraine’s counter-offensive is drawing near
Its Western allies want success—but not too much
(The Economist. Apr 16th 2023)
“Break the spine!” shouts the man in Russian, chiding his colleague. “What, you’ve never cut a head off before?” The video shows what appears to be a knife-wielding Russian soldier beheading a Ukrainian one, alive. “Put it in a fucking bag,” demands another voice, “and send it to his commander.” The footage, posted by a popular Russian far-right account on Telegram, a social-media site, on April 11th, provoked outrage in Ukraine. “Everyone must react,” said Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president. “We are not going to forget anything.” Mr Zelensky’s army will soon have a shot at revenge.
A Ukrainian counter-offensive is due in the coming days or weeks. Almost no one knows precisely where or when it will come. Only five officials have all the details, noted Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s security chief, on April 6th. But Russian troops are braced. On April 12th British defence intelligence said that Russia had finished building three layers of defensive lines along 120km (75 miles) of the front line in Zaporizhia province in anticipation of a Ukrainian assault towards Melitopol, including dragon’s teeth anti-tank obstacles stretching south-east along the p37 highway from Shyroke. Conquering Melitopol would help Ukraine sever Russia’s land bridge between the occupied regions of Donbas and Crimea.
Ukraine’s offensive force consists of at least a dozen brigades (some sources say up to 18), nine of which have been armed and supplied by Western allies (a brigade tends to be several thousand men). Those nine are due to have more than 200 tanks, 800 other armoured vehicles and 150 pieces of field artillery in total, according to American intelligence documents which leaked onto the internet in early March and widely circulated in April. It is a large force, but with some glaring weaknesses.
The majority of its vehicles are unarmoured. The amount of artillery is relatively modest—the 21st brigade appears to have just ten guns allocated to it. Notably, the newest equipment is spread thinly across units rather than concentrated in a few. Ukraine might make changes to its order of battle in response to the leaks, but it cannot dismantle and reconstitute brigades that might have been training and preparing together for weeks or months.
One problem for Ukraine is how to achieve surprise. If it masses its forces at a particular spot, Russia might detect those preparations and shore up its lines accordingly. That puts a premium on deception, notes Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major-general. Ukraine will have to conceal troop concentrations, artillery positions, headquarters and logistics hubs. “It could also mean we will see lots of smaller mini-offensives rather than a couple of large ones,” says Mr Ryan, “just to confuse the Russian targeting cycle and to deceive them about Ukraine’s main effort.”
If Ukraine can achieve surprise, the next question is whether it can punch through Russian defences and send more forces quickly through the gap. It will need mobile air defences to keep Russian planes at bay; it is not clear if it has enough. It will have to cross rivers and minefields—obstacles that have consumed entire Russian brigades in the east—as well as a formidable network of Russian trenches and fortifications (see map). “There is no military endeavour that is more difficult to plan, orchestrate and execute than combined-arms obstacle breaching,” says Mr Ryan.
In theory, precision artillery can quickly take out prepared defences, says Ben Barry of iiss, a think-tank in London, pointing to Britain’s use of such systems to destroy bunkers in Afghanistan. But that requires expert synchronisation of artillery, infantry and armour so that troops advance neither too early, while the defences are intact, nor too late, when Russia’s rear echelon has reinforced a barrage’s site.
To date, Ukraine’s army has largely conducted sequential operations—first artillery fire, then a ground advance—rather than these more demanding co-ordinated ones, says Franz-Stefan Gady, a military analyst. That is in part because of rigid Soviet-style commanders and a lack of combined-arms training at scale, he says. Improving Ukraine’s command and control has been a priority for Western officials helping to train and advise Ukrainian generals in Germany over recent weeks.
The timing of an offensive is also uncertain. Weather is one factor. American intelligence analysts reckon that the ground in eastern Ukraine will remain muddy until early May. Kit is another. A third of the Western-supplied brigades are not due to be fully equipped and trained until the end of April. Ukraine’s general staff could launch a staged attack, with some brigades thrown in later as they arrive, but might choose to “save it all up for a big bang”, says Mr Barry. This could maximise the pressure on Russian defences. Waiting for too long could also let Russia dig in further and replenish ammunition.
A question of calibration
Western officials familiar with Ukraine’s preparations are unsure how everything will pan out. It is vital, they say, that Ukrainian forces have the confidence to keep moving forward. Russia’s layered defences are designed to lure advancing columns into “kill zones” covered by pre-sighted artillery. If troops panic and freeze up, they could be decimated. But there are also concerns about the opposite: an unexpected collapse of Russian forces that puts Ukraine’s army at the edge of Crimea, in a position to seal off the peninsula, attack Russian ports and bases there and deny the Sea of Azov to Russian ships. Large pockets of Russian troops could also be trapped in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.
Such a humiliation is deemed unlikely—a leaked American assessment predicts only “marginal” gains for either side this year—but not impossible. Many Ukrainian officials would welcome it. But some Western ones are concerned that a rout would destabilise Russia to a dangerous degree, making it harder for the Kremlin to swallow any negotiations that might follow. Far preferable, they say, for Vladimir Putin to order a semi-voluntary retreat, as he did from the western bank of the Dnieper river in Kherson province in November. The aim is not to defeat Mr Putin militarily but to persuade him that recovering the lost territory would require wave after wave of politically risky mobilisation.
But that will not be easy. Mr Putin is thought to remain convinced that time is on his side. He has reinforced failure at every turn, frittering away tens of thousands of mobilised recruits on a futile offensive around the town of Bakhmut since January. The dia assessment, first published by the Washington Post, says that even if Ukraine were to inflict “unsustainable losses on Russian forces”, Russia would prefer to conduct a fresh mobilisation rather than enter negotiations. On April 12th Russia’s parliament passed a new law allowing the defence ministry to issue electronic rather than physical summons for military service, making it easier to dragoon recruits. On April 18th Mr Putin visited Kherson province personally. Another round seems inevitable.
Ukraine can sustain a counteroffensive through the spring and perhaps into the summer, says Michael Kofman of cna, a think-tank. But it will burn through ammunition and men in the process, he warns, and this could be the “high-water mark” of Western aid. The coming months could be the decisive period of the war.
The Economist. Ukraine’s counter-offensive is drawing near, Apr 16th 2023, The Economist. https://www.economist.com/europe/2023/04/16/ukraines-counter-offensive-is-drawing-near (Consulté le 10/05/2023)
Could Taiwan’s next president impact a potential cross-strait crisis?
BY ZOE LEUNG AND CAMERON WALTZ, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS - 05/07/23
Amid simmering cross-strait tensions, experts and officials alike have predicted that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen in the next 10 years, if not sooner. However, the headlines shroud the crucial role that Taiwan will play in shaping the cross-strait dynamics. Amid escalating U.S.-China strategic competition, the island’s 2024 presidential election will shape crisis management in East Asia.
A new president from the current ruling party, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), would continue to erect barriers to unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including cementing Taiwan’s identity as a democratic beacon and further strengthening integrated deterrence with the U.S. and its allies in Asia. Although Beijing considers Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to be a separatist, she was uniquely moderate on cross-strait relations compared to her party’s leadership bench.
The DPP’s nominee to succeed Tsai, Vice President Lai Ching-te, represents a faction that favors a harder line on Taiwanese independence than Tsai. However, he has recently softened his tone to meet the popular preference for the status quo. Should Lai win the presidency, Beijing would probably turn up the pressure on Taiwan, even though Lai is unlikely to launch a move toward formal independence.
Should voters elect a yet-named candidate from the unification-leaning Kuomintang (KMT), that president would likely take a more conciliatory approach to appease Beijing. Thus far, the KMT’s campaign has focused on portraying itself as the only party that can work effectively with the PRC, presenting voters with the binary choice between peace and prosperity versus tensions and sanctions. Though factions of the KMT still support unification with the PRC, the Taiwanese public’s hostility toward unification means that any move to open that door would be politically untenable.
Instead, a KMT president would likely focus on economic and social integration with Beijing as a means of delaying questions of unification. This approach would appeal to Taiwanese businesses and voters who wish to return to the era of relative cross-strait stability under Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Still, a potential cross-strait détente would require serious concessions from Taipei.
Taiwanese voters, regardless of their ideal preference for formal independence or unification, overwhelmingly support maintaining the cross-strait status quo in practice. Still, they are polarized on which party’s strategy is optimal for doing so. Further complicating voters’ choices, a potential longshot third-party run by former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, though very unlikely to win, could cause Taiwan’s next president to be elected without an outright majority or popular mandate.
Beijing, of course, has a horse in this race and would prefer a more amenable KMT president. What remains to be seen is which tactics the PRC will use to sway Taiwan’s voters.
Beijing has significant penetration into Taiwan’s society to influence public opinion by covertly spreading disinformation and overtly threatening war. The PRC has previously rewarded Taipei with diplomatic truces and trade agreements when Taiwan’s authorities were compliant and lashed out by banning exports and freezing official contacts when they rebelled. How Beijing leverages its economic power and influence network leading up to 2024 may either attract or repulse Taiwanese swing voters. With “peaceful reunification” still Beijing’s preferred policy outcome (while economic and military coercion is not being ruled out), its ability to persuade Taiwan’s public that unification is the best — or only — way forward can play a decisive role in the 2024 elections.
Historically, Beijing’s actions have influenced Taiwan’s election outcomes. In 1996, the PRC conducted missile drills off Taiwan’s coast to intimidate supporters of incumbent Lee Teng-hui days before the island’s first democratic presidential election, which backfired by rallying voters to support Lee. Moreover, major KMT losses in Taiwan’s 2014 local elections and 2016 national elections were attributed, in part, to a nationalist backlash against President Ma Ying-jeou’s engagement with the PRC. The 2019 Hong Kong protests and subsequent dismantling of the “one country, two systems” formula also notably propelled Tsai Ing-wen to reelection in 2020.
In line with this trend, foreign affairs may sway this election too. The recent meeting between Tsai and U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the ensuing Chinese military drills can be viewed as either promising or unsettling by Taiwanese swing voters. Cross-strait tensions are prone to spiraling, with any number of perceived provocations begetting countermeasures. Such an action-reaction cycle between the U.S. and China in the run-up to 2024 could stir Taiwanese politics and alter the election’s outcome.
Taiwan’s upcoming election will shape its relationship with Beijing and Washington in one way or another. With the escalating U.S.-China rivalry, the stakes are high. Though it is hard to imagine Taiwan’s next president flipping the geostrategic chess board, the DPP and KMT’s differing strategies will influence Beijing’s aggressiveness, Taiwan’s vulnerability to coercion and perhaps even the timeline of a potential cross-strait crisis.
LEUNG, Zoe and WALTZ, Cameron. Could Taiwan’s next president impact a potential cross-strait crisis? 07 May 2023. The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3992487-could-taiwans-next-president-impact-a-potential-cross-strait-crisis/ (Consulté le 09 May 2023).
What is happening in Sudan?
ByMorgan Winsor, Shannon K. Crawford, and Ayat Al-Tawy
May 4, 2023, 6:44 PM
Sudan is on the brink of collapse as forces loyal to two rival generals are battling for control of the resource-rich North African nation.
The ongoing conflict has left hundreds of people dead, thousands more wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced, according to figures from the United Nations. It has also prompted a number of countries, including the United States, to evacuate personnel from Sudan and shutter diplomatic missions there indefinitely.
While an unsteady ceasefire is in place for now, President Joe Biden on Thursday issued an executive order he said would expand the U.S. ability to respond to the violence with "sanctions that hold individuals responsible for threatening the peace, security, and stability of Sudan; undermining Sudan's democratic transition; using violence against civilians; or committing serious human rights abuses."
Here's what we know about the situation and how it unfolded.
Who is fighting and why?
Fighting erupted in Khartoum on April 15 in a culmination of weeks of tensions between Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful Sudanese paramilitary group. The two men were once allies who had jointly orchestrated a military coup in 2021 that dissolved Sudan's power-sharing government and derailed its short-lived transition to democracy, following the ousting of a long-time dictator in 2019.
Officially formed in 2013, the RSF evolved out of the notorious Janjaweed militias used by the Sudanese government to crush an armed rebellion in the Darfur region in the 2000s. Sudanese forces and the Janjaweed were accused of committing war crimes in Darfur. Ultimately, the International Criminal Court charged Sudan's former dictatorial ruler Omar al-Bashir al-Bashir with genocide.
After overthrowing al-Bashir and carrying out a coup, Burhan became Sudan's de facto ruler with Hemedti as his right-hand man. In recent months, military and civilian leaders have been engaged in negotiations to reach a power-sharing deal that would return Sudan to the democratic transition and end the political crisis. But long-simmering tensions between the two generals boiled over amid demands that the RSF be disbanded and integrated into the army.
"Hemedti started to believe he had been deceived by Burhan and that the overthrow of the [transitional] government was primarily aimed at serving old-regime figures given the intertwined interests they share," Mohamed Abdel Aziz, a Sudan-based writer and political analyst, told ABC News. "The final straw was disagreement over the security and military reform dossier," which Aziz said is a key aspect of making the transitional period work.
Burhan wants the planned integration of the RSF to take place in two years, while Hemedti insists it should be stretched out over a decade. Now, they are in a vicious power struggle and neither have shown any real indication of backing down.
"The situation now is the worst-case scenario," Jon Temin, vice president of policy and programs at the Truman Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C., told ABC News. "The two generals seem pretty set on fighting it out and seeing who wins, and an incredible number of people are going to suffer along the way."
What's at stake?
The international community has repeatedly called on Sudan's warring parties to immediately lay down their arms and engage in dialogue. But proposed cease-fires have barely held, if at all.
If fighting persists, it could evolve into another civil war that might drag on for years, spelling disaster for a nation that sits at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, bordering the Red Sea. A number of countries in the region are connected through open borders.
"There are two equally unpleasant courses of action: if any of the two sides wins, this will not achieve democracy in Sudan and will be seen as a bad scenario for civil forces," Aziz said. "If the conflict continues and division deepens and extends wider, it will turn into a civil war that will have ramifications beyond Sudan."
"Millions of people will flee to Europe through the Mediterranean." he added. "Neighboring countries already grappling with economic woes will face more pressure when new people are added to their population."
Why is the US concerned?
The clashes have spread outside Khartoum, though "the heaviest concentration of fighting" remains centered in the densely populated capital, according to the WHO. Although Sudan is no stranger to conflict, warfare in Khartoum is unprecedented.
The U.S. is concerned that Sudan's conflict could spread further and has been in contact with the rival sides "every single day ... trying to get them to put down their arms, to abide by the cease-fires that they themselves say they want and to return to some sort of civilian authority," according to John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House.
"We're doing everything we can to get this fighting stopped," Kirby told ABC News. "This is a centrally located, very important, very large African country. We are concerned that other partners, other nations will be affected by this -- not just in the region, but beyond -- so that's why we're working so hard to get this violence stopped."
But it's questionable how much influence the U.S. or the larger international community has on Sudan's warring sides.
"We are looking at a civil war with no end line, with no end game -- and that's why you saw all these countries, including the United States, pull out their diplomats and their citizens out of Sudan," Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., told ABC News. "I don't think any one of these countries has enough leverage to push any one of the fighting parties to step back or to compromise."
There's also a risk that the conflict could create a security vacuum, which Aziz said "will invite militant groups to take Sudan as a haven or a pathway to target other countries in the region and weapons will infiltrate through the borders."
In 1993, the U.S. designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism for supporting international terrorist groups. Sudan notoriously hosted al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and other militants in the mid-1990s. The U.S. removed Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism list after Khartoum agreed to forge ties with Israel in 2020.
"With nations politically, economically and security fragile like Sudan, the importance of national institutions comes to the forefront," Mohamed Fayez Farhat, director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told ABC News. "Sudan now is seeing the absence of those institutions. The army is a pillar for stability."
Morgan Winsor, Shannon K. Crawford, and Ayat Al-Tawy. May 4, 2023. What is happening in Sudan?, ABC News, URL : https://abcnews.go.com/International/sudan-conflict-2023-explained/story?id=98897649 (consulté le 10/05/2023)