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What 2023 could mean for Ukraine, China, conflict zones, and climate change – Grid

One year ago, even some sophisticated readers — and savvy editors — couldn’t have identified Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a photo or found Luhansk and Donetsk on a map. It’s doubtful they’d have known what “HIMARS” or “ATACMS” were, or that the largest nuclear reactor in Europe was in Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine. We might have needed refreshers on the Budapest Agreement or NATO’s Article 5.

And one year ago, Grid’s look at global hot spots for 2022 was focused more on Taiwan and North Korea than Russia and Ukraine.

And yet as 2022 ended, Zelenskyy was everyone’s “Person of the Year” and Russia’s war against Ukraine was without question the year’s most consequential global event. It looks certain to be the same in 2023 — for reasons that matter well beyond the battlefield.

2023 will also be a year (like most in recent memory) when what happens in China influences events far from its own borders. As Grid’s Lili Pike notes, China enters the new year in a state of rare tumult for President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, given economic uncertainties and a messy unwinding of its “zero-covid” policy.

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What happens in China and Ukraine will weigh heavily on the global economy, which starts 2023 with twin worries about inflation and recession, along with nightmarish “debt bomb” crises roiling many nations of the Global South.

As 2023 begins, we are watching other hot spots, most notably the protest movements and regime response in Iran, missile tests (and — likely coming soon — a nuclear test) in North Korea, and the deepening crisis — for women and girls especially — in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

And we’ll monitor global efforts to fight climate change, because — to put it bluntly — in the long term, no crisis matters more than the one that puts the planet at risk.

But we begin our look ahead with the item that rated barely a paragraph in last year’s forecast. We begin with the war.

A second year of war

They are the most profound questions the world will face in 2023:

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  • Will the war in Ukraine end?
  • If so, when and in what way?
  • And if not, what next for Ukraine and Russia?

The stunning reality is that as the new year begins, a Ukrainian victory is possible. A year ago, some of the world’s sharpest military minds were warning that a Russian invasion would topple Ukraine’s government in a matter of days or weeks. Against the world’s largest army, and with a fickle friend in NATO, what chance did Zelenskyy and his country have?

And yet here we are. The failings of the Russian military, resilience of the Ukrainian people and anything-but-fickle response of NATO were perhaps the greatest surprises on the global stage in 2022. Together, they have left Ukraine with a chance to win.

The year closed with Zelenskyy’s triumphant visit to Washington (“Ukraine is alive and kicking!”) and fresh pledges of tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid. New Year’s resolutions for Zelenskyy and his commanders likely include counteroffensives in the east and south, and perhaps even a move to retake Crimea, which has been in Russian hands for more than eight years.

But obstacles remain — not least the fact that Zelenskyy’s opponent appears dug in as ever. In one of his last addresses of 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed an all-in fight: “Do they think we will just stand idly watching threats to Russia emerge? This is the problem: We simply have no room to retreat.”

And that means that beyond the can-Ukraine-win question, there are many others:

  • Will Russia make another move against Kyiv?

It seems unlikely, given the battlefield realities — but Ukrainian officials warned recently that Putin is planning an assault on the capital in the coming months. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top commander, told the Economist that the Russians were mobilizing for a major spring offensive, including “another go at Kyiv” and strikes to interrupt NATO’s flow of weaponry to the Ukrainians.

Some analysts are skeptical, given the Russian military performance in 2022. And a new full-scale assault on Kyiv might harden even the softest among Ukraine’s European supporters. But — like the initial invasion — the fact that a plan might be strategically flawed doesn’t mean Putin won’t try.

On the other end of the spectrum, a different question for 2023:

  • Will peace have a chance?

In the last days of 2022, both sides were talking about a deal.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba laid out a proposal for a February “peace summit,” and on Christmas Day Putin told a Russia TV interviewer that “we are ready to negotiate with all the participants in this process about some acceptable outcomes.”

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The problem is that “acceptable outcomes” for Putin — recognition of the four regions he annexed in September and an official cementing of Russia’s hold on Crimea — are non-starters for Ukraine. And Kuleba’s February plan stipulates that Russia must first face a war-crimes tribunal. That’s not happening any time soon.

What this means is that one side will need to pummel the other badly enough to make negotiations attractive. It’s not hard to imagine European support for deal-making — in Paris and Berlin especially — and Turkey, China or India may use their influence with Putin to move a peace process forward. But the year begins with a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the two sides — and a strong appetite for more fighting.

At which point, other questions come into play:

  • Will sanctions finally bite in Russia, in a meaningful way?
  • Will Russian opposition to the war grow and influence the Kremlin?
  • Will U.S. and European support hold as the war moves into its second year?
  • And — back to that overriding question: How will it end?

Among more than 100 stories Grid has published on the war, one remains particularly relevant to that last question: “In the war in Ukraine, are ‘a coup or a nuke’ the only endgames left?” Meaning, with a slog on the front lines and no sign of negotiations, are the only remaining outcomes an overthrow of Putin or a Russian use of nuclear weapons?

Recently, the forecasting firm Good Judgment surveyed experts to test the likelihood of those scenarios in 2023. It found only a 9 percent chance that Putin would cease to be president of Russia and an even lower probability (5 percent) that Russia would use a nuclear weapon. Five percent is of course a frighteningly high number for such an event, but if these outcomes remain so unlikely, then what? When the Good Judgment survey asked about a negotiated settlement, more than half (55 percent) said it wouldn’t happen until after Oct. 1, 2024.

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In Grid’s own year-end survey of experts, many said the war’s chief lesson has been to expect the unexpected — or even the unthinkable. Liana Fix, fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, said too many analysts of the war had suffered from the “fallacy of linear thinking”; in her view, the “unexpected” in 2023 might include major gains by the Ukrainians and the “unthinkable” an end to Putin’s rule.

In China, “dangerous storms”

“All roads run through Beijing.” That was one headline in Grid’s forecast a year ago. We could reuse it now.

One could argue that 2022′s most important bilateral summits involved Xi. The first came in February, when Xi and Putin met on the sidelines of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing and declared their “no-limits” friendship. That friendship has been tested — it’s safe to assume Xi has been unhappily surprised by the long and messy nature of Putin’s war — but China has also been a much-needed “friend” for the Kremlin in terms of trade and rhetorical support. How that relationship evolves will be a major question in 2023.

Meanwhile, Xi’s meeting with President Joe Biden at the November G-20 in Bali, Indonesia, offered glimmers of hope for the world’s most important geopolitical relationship. After a yearslong downward spiral, the two leaders managed to avoid vitriol and pledge collaboration — most notably an agreement to resume cooperation in the fight against climate change.

On the domestic front, as Pike reported last week, China’s 2023 begins with an unusually long list of worries.

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Xi has acknowledged as much. “We face many deep-seated problems regarding reform, development and stability that cannot be avoided or bypassed,” Xi told the Communist Party Congress in October. He added that China had to be “prepared to withstand high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms on our journey ahead.”

Some of those storms are familiar — a property bubble, sputtering economy and relations with the West — but others are new.

The covid-19 pandemic may be receding in other parts of the world, but after China’s sudden pivot away from zero-covid, caseloads are soaring. And as Pike and Jonathan Lambert reported last month, China’s healthcare system appears dangerously ill-prepared for the deluge; a nation that reported only 6,000 covid fatalities in three years may be on track for hundreds of thousands of deaths in 2023. Later this month, hundreds of millions of Chinese will take advantage of relaxed rules to travel for the Lunar New Year holiday. “I think we’ll see astronomical case numbers,” Jennifer Bouey, an epidemiologist and leader of China studies at the Rand Corporation, told Grid.

Pike also noted that “how China handles the messy unwinding of zero-covid … could have ripple effects well beyond China’s public health — the nation’s economic growth and perhaps even Xi’s leadership could be called into question.”

For three years, the party messages were hammered home relentlessly: Lockdowns, strict quarantines and other measures were essential to ensure the virus did not spread; and Xi regularly cheered China’s tough response as a model for the world. Then came November’s widespread protests against the restrictions; less than two weeks later, the policy and message were turned on their heads.

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Xi addressed the changes for the first time in a New Year’s Eve address to the nation. While the epidemic “is still a struggle,” he said, “everyone is working hard with perseverance. Let’s work harder, persistence means victory.”

The shift may ultimately prove popular, but if the unwinding of zero-covid brings a nationwide public health nightmare, huge questions loom:

  • How will the party explain a high death toll?
  • Given that public protests accelerated the change, will angry citizens be emboldened to take to the streets again?
  • And beyond the public health concerns, what will the covid troubles mean for China’s economy?

In 2021, Xi told his people that “Common Prosperity” would be the defining principle of the party’s rule — a doctrine built chiefly on the promise of a fairer distribution of wealth and better life for his people. Today, it’s hard to see that the regime has delivered.

As Grid has reported, income inequality and youth unemployment have risen, and in 2022, China hit an unfortunate demographic milestone: Its population has begun to shrink.

The hope is that the reopening will reinvigorate the Chinese economy. But all these problems, together with the crisis in China’s property markets and whatever economic consequences come with the covid wave, paint a landscape of anxieties for the year ahead.

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Before we leave China, one more note about geopolitics.

Conversations about the war in Ukraine turn often to implications for a potential conflict over Taiwan. In Grid’s year-end look at the war’s most important lessons, former Australian prime minister and Asia Society President Kevin Rudd said that “Ukraine is a global wake-up call, prompting us to reassess the dangers of other potential conflicts. … The most significant among these is the possibility of war between the U.S. and China. It is a prospect that we must now acknowledge is no longer unthinkable.”

Few experts believe a war over Taiwan is likely in 2023, but the level of concern is higher than ever — and that means that Grid Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating’s piece “Imagining the unimaginable,” which looked at how such a conflict might play out, is also more relevant than ever.

As Rudd put it, in 2023 the U.S. and China will have to make every effort to “avoid sleepwalking into crisis, conflict and war.”

Global economy: Food, fuel and “debt bombs”

The war in Ukraine and troubles in China will weigh heavily on the global economy in 2023 — a year that begins with a nasty mix of inflation and recession worries in many corners of the world.

All the knock-on effects of the war — the refugee crisis, the energy crisis, the crisis in the global food supply — remain in play as the year begins. A sudden end to the conflict would help on all those fronts; a war that drags into 2024 would leave the region and the world vulnerable to yet more economic trauma.

Inflation — driven primarily by the war — crossed the 10 percent threshold in the European Union in 2022, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported recently that the price of staples in a basket of countries had risen by 24 percent since 2020. Meanwhile, recession fears persist in parts of the European Union and the U.S. as well.

China’s economic performance will loom large for the rest of the world. The farewell to zero-covid isn’t just a matter of mollifying protesters; it’s also meant to boost growth. The Center for China and Globalization said that expanding domestic demand will be China’s main priority this year. Success would help boost global growth — but it would also increase the costs of energy and therefore the rate of inflation.

Meanwhile, in several corners of the developing world, there’s a different economic worry, summed up in a term we first heard in the summer of 2022: Debt bombs.

As Grid’s Nikhil Kumar has reported, several countries have taken on high levels of debt that have become more burdensome as global inflation and interest rates rise. The phenomenon has squeezed budgets from Lebanon to Egypt, Kenya to Pakistan — and a debt-bomb crisis brought down the government of Sri Lanka in 2022. The problem has forced governments to cut public spending and — in many cases — petition the IMF for help.

Kumar wrote that as 2023 begins, “the world is left facing the very real prospect of a series of economic explosions that could affect the lives of tens of millions of its poorest people.”

The fate of the planet

It’s hard to say that 2022 was a good year for the global fight against climate change. All the urgency of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings (the latest was held at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November) wasn’t enough to avoid a conference that struggled to repeat past pledges, and despite the traumas climate change inflicted in 2022 — heat waves and fires in Europe and the American West, drought in China, deadly floods in Pakistan, to name just a few — the world has done little to stanch the bleeding.

As Grid’s Dave Levitan reported from the COP27 meetings, “While some aspects of the final text offered cause for celebration … others left the world much where it was before — in a spiraling climate emergency without a clear path to meeting goals set forth in the Paris Agreement seven years ago.”

As 2023 begins, one hope is that the energy crisis sparked by the Ukraine War also sparks a rush to green energy. For the moment, two conflicting trends are in play: heavy investments in wind and solar power and the electric vehicle industry — alongside a short-term return to coal and other fossil fuels. A year-end International Energy Agency report found that coal use probably hit an all-time high in 2022.

The short-term/long-term paradox was summed up in December by Eurasia Group CEO Ian Bremmer: “Take a few steps back and you see a planet that’s moving away from carbon-based energy at breakneck speed, but in 2022 that transition looked anything but smooth.”

These questions, then, for 2023 and beyond:

  • Will the rush to renewables maintain that “breakneck speed”?
  • Will the return to coal be a brief phenomenon?
  • And will that reboot of U.S.-China cooperation pay dividends for the planet?

Leaders to watch

Along with Putin, Zelenskyy and Xi, a few other global leaders will be worth special attention in 2023.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva barely won Brazil’s October election — and the happy surprise in South America was what didn’t happen afterward. Having vowed repeatedly to contest any outcome that didn’t keep him in office, President Jair Bolsonaro scrapped the Donald Trump playbook for the most part, and on Sunday power passed peacefully to Lula, who spoke of “hope and reconstruction” after his swearing-in. Now the challenge for Lula — and for Brazil — will be to reboot an economy that is weaker than it was at the end of his last term as president in 2010, and to do so with a powerful right-wing opposition. How he performs may be South America’s most pressing question for 2023.

Britain’s Rishi Sunak is another newly minted leader with mountains to climb in 2023. Sunak was the third prime minister in the U.K.’s annus horribilis — a year that featured the scandals that brought down Boris Johnson, the historically brief and disastrous tenure of Liz Truss, a full-blown economic crisis, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Sunak’s main calling card is economic competence, and his main job now is to at least begin to fix the country’s worst economic mess in decades. As Kumar reported, Britain is suffering from both the general European malaise and the self-inflicted economic wounds caused by Brexit.

We’ll watch Kim Jong Un — because his country always bears watching and because 2022 saw a record spate of North Korean missile tests. On Sunday, Kim rang in the new year with a call for “exponential” growth in the country’s nuclear system, according to state media. Threats and bluster are nothing new for Kim and his predecessors, but experts believe 2023 will bring the first nuclear test Kim has conducted since 2017.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have a Putinesque longevity. He played a tough geopolitical hand well in 2022, balancing ties with Moscow with drone shipments to Kyiv — and styling himself a dealmaker when it came to the crucial effort to free Ukrainian grain stocks from Black Sea ports. But Turkey starts the year with high unemployment (roughly 10 percent) and wildly high inflation (Reuters forecast a 43 percent rate for 2023), and an election looms this summer. Suffice to say Erdogan’s longevity may be tested.

Then to the Middle East — and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu, who won another term as Israeli prime minister in 2022. What are those two leaders doing in the same sentence? There are rumblings that the Saudis will be the next to make peace with Israel; in its look ahead to 2023, the Economist reported that Riyadh has invested more than $2 billion in Israeli startups, and while the two nations have little else in common, they share a deep antipathy toward Iran.

Which brings us to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As Grid Special Contributor Roxane Farmanfarmaian wrote recently, Khamenei is not well, and his departure from the scene “would unsettle an already tense and dangerous situation” in Iran. Protests sparked by one woman’s death in custody have spread widely and now include demands for a change in the theocracy. Potential endgames range from brutal crackdown to civil war; key questions for the regime in 2023 are whether it will offer reforms that quiet the protesters without endangering its grip on power — and how a post-Khamenei era unfolds, if it comes to that.

And we’ll watch the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, whose last acts of 2022 included rulings to ban high school education for girls and keep women from working at nongovernmental organizations. In response, four NGOs shut down operations in Afghanistan last week. All this comes against a backdrop of economic crisis, and as 2023 begins, the Taliban 2.0 is evolving into a regime as repressive as its earlier iteration.

On the global calendar

There are a few things we can forecast with certainty.

We know that 2023 will bring elections in several important nations — among them Nigeria in February, Turkey in June and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December.

King Charles III will be crowned in May.

The next major climate conference — COP28 — will gather in the United Arab Emirates in November.

Meanwhile, the U.N. says that in mid-April, someone in India will give birth to the country’s 1.43 billionth person — and at that moment India will surpass China as the world’s most populous nation. (How the U.N. knows the timing with such precision, we’re not sure.)

Silver linings?

It’s always good — and never easy — to finish such forecasts on an uplifting note. To that end, here are some of the best scenarios we can imagine.

A deal is done to end the war in Ukraine, or at least to silence the guns, and it is negotiated from a position of Ukrainian strength. Fuel and food prices drop. Inflation ebbs. Other crises start earning a greater share of global attention.

The world benefits from a less turbulent U.S.-China relationship. China gets a short-term benefit from American assistance with the latest covid waves. (This would mark an interesting reversal of roles, given China’s shipments of PPE and other medical equipment to the U.S. in the pandemic’s early days.) Beijing beats back the worst of the covid outbreak, and life in China — along with the country’s economy — returns to something more like normal.

In the rest of the world, covid-19 is no longer the all-consuming front-burner issue it has been.

The race to renewable energy outpaces the backpedaling to coal.

Some measure of reforms come to Iran. Some measure of peace holds in the long-running wars in Yemen and Eritrea.

Finally, perhaps the safest bet for good news comes from the world of sport. Twice in 2022 — at the Winter Olympics in Beijing and soccer’s World Cup in Qatar — global gatherings of sport brought both controversy and thrills. In July 2023, another World Cup — the women’s edition — will kick off in Australia and New Zealand. It’s not too much to hope that this year, we’ll get the thrills, minus the controversy.

Happy New Year.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

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