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Conflict Weekly
The Battle for Avdiivka in Ukraine

  IPRI Team

Conflict Weekly #216, 22 February 2024, Vol.5, No.8
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI 

Padmashree Anandhan

Ukraine: The Battle for Avdiivka
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 15 February, the Financial Times reported on continuing difficulty for Ukrainian troops following Russia's encirclement in Avdiivka. Ukraine's new commander-in-chief, General Oleksandr Syrsky, announced reinforcement to balance the shortage in personnel and ammunition. The shortage emerged due to a lag in the military support from the US. On Ukraine's strategy in Avdiivka, Syrsky stated that it was switching from offensive to defensive. He said: "Goal of our operation is to exhaust the enemy, inflict maximum losses on him." 

On 17 February, Syrsky issued the order for withdrawal from key locations of the town. Russian Ministry of Defence claimed on the south battleground that it was advancing 8.6 kilometres. The ministry claimed that its troops had "completely captured," leaving 1500 Ukrainian troops dead. 

On 19 February, the Centre for Eastern Studies reported that Russian forces had occupied Avdiivka completely, reaching Lastochkyne village in the west. 

Issues at large
First, Ukraine's delicate north. At the beginning of 2024, the Russian offensive into Avdiivka succeeded with a breach into the town, resulting in massive losses for Ukraine. This led to the stronger Russian assault breaking down Ukrainian defences. From the ground level, it is a strategic point for Ukraine, which acts as defence storage. 30 miles northwest of Avdiivka is Pokrovsk, which is the logistical hub for Ukraine's military. Additionally, Avdiivka is a fortified town for the troops due to the placement of coal and chemical plants, which provided a defensive position for Ukraine. It is also the gateway to Donetsk, occupied by Russia and its proxy forces. 

Second, supply shortage and prolonging Western support. The aid from the US and Europe, which was fast-paced during mid-2022 and early 2023, began to decline by the end of 2023. This was due to the faster exhaustion of the military arsenal of NATO and European allies and, the higher demand to secure national and regional security. In the US, the Republican objections have stalled the aid to Ukraine. A decline in support means a reduced capacity for Ukraine to launch strikes further and switch to defence mode in the front line. 

Third, Ukraine's tactical withdrawal. Following the failure of the spring counteroffensive in 2023, Ukraine's demand surrounded over aid of advanced air defence systems. By 2024, there was a massive exchange of aerial attacks between Ukraine and Russia. Following the slowdown in military aid from the West, Ukraine shifted its demand to more ammunition. While Russia launched an offensive to attain a symbolic victory in Avdiivka, Ukraine struggled to prevent the encirclement with the shortage of critical supplies and personnel. Unlike the Battle for Bakhmut, where Ukraine withstood Russia for nine months to exhaust the Russian military, in Avdiivka, Ukraine chose to withdraw quickly. Given the existing shortage and drag in receiving aid from the West, this could be considered tactical.

In perspective 
First, the Kupiansk and Lyman axis is under threat in the north. Ukraine's failure to sustain Avdiivka would mean a subsequent threat to defend other towns on the frontline. The key cities such as Pokrovsk and those in the Kupiansk and Lyman axis will come under direct threat of intense attacks from Russian troops. 

Second, it is a strategic and symbolic win for Russia. The withdrawal of the Ukrainian forces from Avdiivka would be the biggest victory for Russia. Although the win may seem symbolic, the town being the gateway to Donetsk, which forms a key part of Donbas, occupied by Russia, would enable Russian troops to advance further into the west of Ukraine.

Issues in Peace and Conflict This Week:
Regional Roundups

Akriti Sharma, Alka Bala, Vetriselvi Baskaran, Akhil Ajith, Rohini Reenum, Anu Maria Joseph, Femy Francis, Padmashree Anandhan, Dhriti Mukherjee, Shamini Velayutham, Narmatha S and Gopi Keshav N

East, Southeast Asia and Pacific
China: To strengthen law enforcement around Taiwan-controlled Islands
On 18 February, the Chinese Coast Guard stated that it would strengthen law enforcement and conduct regular patrols around the groups of islands controlled by Taiwan. The development came after, on 15 February, Taiwan defended the actions of its coast guard after two Chinese fishing boats got close to the Taiwanese coast guard ship. China's Taiwan Affairs Office stated: "Fishermen on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have been operating in traditional fishing grounds in the Xiamen-Kinmen maritime area since ancient times, and there is no such thing as 'prohibited or restricted waters'." 

China: Construction of border villages near Bhutan
On 18 February, a South China Morning Post editorial titled "Chinese village construction in disputed zone outpaces China-Bhutan border talks" by Jack Lau discussed satellite images of the Tamalung village by US-based Maxar Technologies. The images revealed that the Chinese villages near the Bhutan border expanded to 147 houses by the end of 2022. The villages are part of China's state-led poverty alleviation scheme to provide better living conditions. However, they are doubted as "citadels" to strengthen national security. According to the editorial, Bhutan has downplayed the issue; however, India is paying attention to the ongoing developments in the disputed border area of around 495 square kilometres. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP's) People Daily reported that more than 620 "border moderate prosperity villages" were established by the end of 2021 as part of the party's centenary goal to alleviate poverty in the country. 

China: Labour protests increase amid slowing economy
On 16 February, an editorial in the Voice of America (VOA) titled "As China's Economy Slows, Labor Protests Pick Up" by Evie Steele discussed increased labour protests in China during the Lunar New Year holidays. The author quoted the Freedom House's China Dissent Monitor that the labour protests tripled in the fourth quarter of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022 due to poor working conditions and economic crisis. The China Dissent Monitor recorded 777 labour protests between September and December 2023, compared to 245 in 2022. Additionally, the author quoted the head of the China Dissent Monitor, Kevin Slaten, who said that worker protests are linked to wage disputes and occupational safety, leading to poor enforcement of labour protection and a lack of independent and effective labour unions. 

China: Foreign Ministry urges companies not to be "blinded by lies" in Xinjiang's human rights record
On 15 February, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged companies not to be "blinded by lies" about its human rights record in Xinjiang. Handelsblatt, a German financial media, reported that in 2019, forced labour may have been used to build a test track for Volkswagen (VW) in Xinjiang. The ministry stated that the lies aim to destabilize Xinjiang. With mounting pressure on VW, the company said that it was in talks with its partner, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), "about the future direction of business activities in Xinjiang."

China: The US House of Representatives pass bills on Chinese human rights issues
On 15 February, the US House of Representatives passed three bills on Chinese human rights issues and the security cooperation among US Indo-Pacific allies. The first bill introduced by Republican Young Kim aimed at authorizing an action plan to protect the Uygur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The second bill by Democrat Jim McGovern aimed to amend the Tibetan Policy Act of 2022 and counter Chinese misinformation about the region. The third was proposed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, advising the formation of an inter-parliamentary working group with Australia, India and Japan. The bills need to be passed by the Senate before they reach US President Joe Biden. 

Australia: Government to boost defence spending
On 20 February, the Australian Department of Defence announced plans to boost defence spending to USD 11.1 billion from USD 9.8 billion over the next decade. It aims to procure six warships and eleven frigates to further their combat-ready fleets. Australia has been increasingly concerned about the Chinese presence in the Pacific. Minister of Defence Richard Marles stated: "What is critically important to understand is that as we look forward, with an uncertain world in terms of great power contest, we'll have a dramatically different capability in the mid-2030s to what we have now." 

Australia: Japan-AUKUS defence technology development
On 19 February, the South China Morning Post quoted Australian Minister of Defence Richard Marles referring to a potential collaboration between Japan and AUKUS on defence technology development. Marles stated: "I think it is natural that we would be talking about a greater level of cooperation between the three countries – US, UK, and Australia – and Japan, in terms of joint collaborations going forward." Marles indicated that Pillar 2 of the AUKUS alliance focuses on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and hypersonic missiles, which can be a source of cooperation with Japan. 

Papua New Guinea: 64 killed in tribe clashes
On 19 February, Al Jazeera reported that at least 64 dead bodies were found following the clash between two rival tribes, Ambulin and Sikin, in the Wapenamanda district of the Enga province. A senior police officer said: "This is by far the largest [killing] I've seen in Enga, maybe in all of the Highlands as well, in Papua New Guinea." Following the incident, the military deployed 100 troops in the region to limit the impact. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated: "That is very disturbing the news that has come out of Papua New Guinea. We're providing considerable support, particularly for training police officers and for security in Papua New Guinea." 

South Asia
India: Farmers continue to protest after failed talks
On 21 February, security forces used tear gas to disperse farmer protesters at the Shambhu and Khanauri border crossings between the states of Punjab and Haryana as they attempted to approach the barricades. The farmers stated that they would restart the protest after their fourth round of discussions with the administration failed to settle the issue. The Delhi police tightened security in the national capital and asked its troops to strictly monitor Tikri, Singhu, and Ghazipur borders. Meanwhile, the Minister of Agriculture, Arjun Munda, has sought another conversation with the agitating farmers, urging them to reach a "peaceful" resolution. 

India: Violence in West Bengal
On 18 February, the Hindu reported that the victim of sexual assault by the regional Trinamool Congress leaders in West Bengal's Sandeshkhali said that a group of miscreants ransacked her house in her absence. The survivor said: "They wanted to kill me. Had I been at the house at night, they would have certainly killed me." She added that the police did not protect the complaint filed and that those who ransacked her house identified themselves as police, frustrated with her for filing the complaint. These allegations came a day after the West Bengal police added charges of rape against the Trinamool Congress leaders based on the complaint by the survivor before the magistrate. 

Bangladesh: Thousands of migrant workers die in Gulf region
On 20 February, the Daily Star reported that around 4,552 Bangladeshi migrant workers died, especially in Gulf countries, in 2023. Young and healthy individuals are reported dead with causes attributed to vague terms, including "natural causes" or "cardiac arrest." Families of deceased workers face challenges in seeking compensation due to a lack of proper investigation, evidence and legal hurdles. 

Central Asia and the Middle East 
Iraq: Blames Turkey for killing two people
On 21 February, Arab News quoted Iraqi security and health officials that two people were killed in northern Iraq in a strike that was carried out by Turkey. The officials asserted that Turkey frequently conducts "ground and air offensives on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)." They added that the attack occurred in the village of Akre in the Dohuk province. Separately, on 16 February, the Turkish Ministry of National Defence asserted that a Turkish soldier was killed in northern Iraq in an "attempted intrusion" by PKK.

Israel: Missiles from Lebanon hit Shtula, says IDF
On 18 February, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) asserted that an "anti-tank guided missile" was fired from Lebanon, striking the entrance of the northern town of Shtula. No casualties were reported following the attack. The forces added that it retaliated with artillery shelling. Subsequently, the IDF claimed that a rocket was fired from Lebanon in an open space near Yiftah; Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it targeted the IDF position in the region.

Israel: IDF asserts killing of a soldier in confrontation with Hamas
On 21 February, the Times of Israel reported on an escalation of fighting between the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas in northern Gaza. The Israeli forces reported that one soldier was killed and two others were wounded during the confrontation. Separately, IDF confirmed that it had conducted a full-scale raid in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza, where it eliminated Hamas operatives. IDF asserted that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and the 215 Artillery regiment carried out strikes in the Zeitoun region.

Lebanon: Israeli forces kill six members of Hezbollah and its ally
On 16 February, the Israeli warplanes raided the towns of Qantara, Deir Seryan, and Wadi Saluki in Southern Lebanon. During the raid, six members of Hezbollah and Amal Movement were killed. The IDF spokesperson stated: "We attacked a military building and infrastructure belonging to the Hezbollah organization in the village of Qantara." Separately, on 15 February, Hezbollah stated that it targeted the Kiryat Shmona barracks with Falaq-1 missiles in response to an Israeli attack in the cities of Nabatiyeh and Al-Sowanah. The Civil Defence Force of Lebanon reported that it had retrieved 11 civilian bodies in Nabatiyeh. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah stated: "The enemy went too far in killing civilians. Its goal is to put pressure on the resistance to stop because all pressure since 7 October was aimed at stopping the southern front. The answer to the massacre must be to continue and escalate the action." He added: "The Israeli enemy will pay the price for shedding the blood of our women and children in Nabatiyeh and Al-Sowanah."

Syria: Israel hits Kafr Sousa district
On 21 February, Reuters reported that, according to the Syrian military, two people were killed in an Israeli missile strike in Damascus. The military asserted that several missiles were fired targeting the buildings in the Kafr Sousa district. Separately, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), several missiles targeted Damascus from the direction of the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. 

Africa: AU's measures to tackle instability across Africa
On 18 February, BBC reported on the African Union Commission's collective measures to address multidimensional issues across Africa. The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, made the call during the two-day AU Summit. The bloc's top agenda is the conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mahamat raised concerns about the "litany of difficulties" in the region. He added that the situation in Sudan was "bruised, torn, sinking into chaos" due to the war that has been raging since April 2023. He voiced concern for the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Libya being divided and exposed to foreign interference, the rise in jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel region, and Senegal's political crisis due to a delayed election. He added: "Africa cannot remain arms folded and not work to promote genuine peace in the region."

Democratic Republic of Congo: US condemns M23 rebel attack
On 18 February, the US condemned the drone attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo carried out by the M23 rebel group, which is allegedly backed by Rwanda. The development came after the group advanced toward Goma, the capital of North Kivu. The conflict has forced thousands to be displaced. US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller stated: "This escalation has increased the risk to millions of people already exposed to human rights abuses including displacement, deprivation, and attacks." The DRC, the UN and Western countries accuse Rwanda of backing the Tutsi-led M23 group in a bid to control mineral resources, which is denied by the Rwandan government.

Democratic Republic of Congo: UN report alleges Rwanda of using advanced military
On 17 February, a UN report alleged the Rwandan military using advanced weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to support the M23 rebel group in the eastern DRC. The report claimed that a Rwandan missile was fired at a UN drone. This incident has heightened regional tensions, with the UN Security Council expressing concern and condemning the M23 offensive. Fighting between the rebels and government forces reportedly resulted in dozens of casualties. 

Somalia: President accuses Ethiopia of trying to annex its port
On 17 February, Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud accused Ethiopia of attempting to annex its port through a deal with Somaliland. He stated that the port deal "is nothing more than annexing part of Somalia to Ethiopia, and changing the borders of Somalia," and Somalia "categorically objects to that." Tensions increased between Somalia and Ethiopia following the deal with Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia. Somalia opposed the deal, describing it as a violation of its sovereignty. While Ethiopia denied ill intentions, the dispute remains unresolved and raises concerns about regional stability.

Africa: Increase in African migrants in Mexico trying to reach the US
On 19 February, BBC reported on the surge in African migrants in Mexico, trying to reach the US. Compared to the previous year, the statistics say that the number of migrants surged nine times. Around 6,500 African migrants reached Mexico in 2022; in 2023, the number increased to 60,000. The migrants pay smugglers to reach their destination. The head of the Mission International Organisation for Migration Mexico (UN-IOM), Dana Graber Ladek, stated that the majority of migrants are from Guinea, Angola, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon. 

Guinea: Military dissolves interim government
On 20 February, the military dissolved the interim government without further details. The military stated that the directors of the cabinet, secretary generals and their deputies would be in charge until a new government was formed. The military took power in 2021, ousting the first democratically elected president, Alpha Conde. The coup leader, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, had promised to hand the government to elected civilians by the end of 2024.

Somalia: Signs defence deal with Turkey
On 21 February, Somalia signed a defence agreement with Tukey to enhance its maritime security. The deal was signed by Somalia's Minister of Defence Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur and his Turkish counterpart Ya?ar Güler during the former's visit to Türkiye. The ten-year deal allows Turkey to arm and train the Somalian Navy and deploy its troops in Somalian waters. The Somalian coast is prone to several illegal activities and piracy. Somalia's Prime Minister Hamza Abdi stated that the deal would eliminate such crimes and improve maritime security. 

The Americas
Brazil: Diplomatic row with Israel after president condemns war in Gaza
On 20 February, the Presidents of Colombia and Bolivia, Gustavo Petro and Luis Arce, expressed "solidarity" with the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, following a diplomatic row between Brazil and Israel after Silva called Israel's actions in Gaza a "genocide." Petro defended Silva for speaking "the truth," calling on the entire region to "unite to immediately end the violence in Palestine." Arce warned that "history will not forgive those who are indifferent to this barbarity." On 18 February, Silva compared Israel's actions to the holocaust during the Second World War. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, regarded the statements as "disgraceful and grave." On 19 February, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, Israel Katz, stated that Israel would "not forget nor forgive" the "anti-Semitic attack," designating Silva as a persona non grata in Israel until the comments were retracted. Following this, Brazil recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv. 

Bolivia: 33 dead since November 2023 due to torrential rains
On 20 February, ten of Bolivia's 340 municipalities were put under the highest alert and 279 on the second highest following the torrential rains. Since November 2023, the torrential rains killed 33 people, which is eight times higher than the same period the previous year. Authorities were closely monitoring the dams and reservoirs as they reached their limit. Following an extended drought and one of the warmest winters in history, the country is currently experiencing massive rains. A climate change-induced warming atmosphere increased the country's potential for extreme weather events.

Mexico: Protests against proposed electoral changes 
On 18 February, more than 90,000 people gathered in Mexico City, protesting the proposed changes to the electoral authority before the presidential elections in June. The opposition accused the Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of trying to weaken the autonomous National Electorate Institute (INE), which he claims is biased and corrupt. Following his victory in 2018, Obrador was vying for changes to the INE by reducing the agency's staff. However, protestors claimed that they wanted the INE to be "independent" and demanded Obrador to "keep his hands off the election." 

Canada: Drones worth over CAD 95 million donated to Ukraine
On 19 February, Canada's Minister of Defence, Bill Blair, announced the plan to donate more than 800 SkyRanger R70 multi-mission Unmanned Aerial Systems to Ukraine to counter Russia. The drones, worth over CAD 95 million, are part of the CAD 500 million in military assistance that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced during a visit to Ukraine in 2023. Blair explained that the donation would ensure Ukraine "has the drones it needs to detect and identify targets which are critical" to its ongoing fight. He assured that Canada would "stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes." Since 2022, Canada has committed over CAD 9.7 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Canada: Zombie fires threaten early start to wildfire season 
On 17 February, BBC reported that in January 2024, there were 106 zombie fires in British Columbia (BC), Canada, a significant rise compared to the past ten years. Zombie fires are flameless smulders that burn slowly under the surface and can continue burning due to organic soil and heavy layers of snow that protect them from the cold. According to provincial data, 91 fires are still burning in BC and could reignite if they are not extinguished by the time the snow melts in March. This could potentially lead to an early start to the wildfire season. In 2023, wildfires burned more than 18 million hectares of land, and the year was marked as the fatal wildfire season, with more than 2200 recorded wildfires in BC.  

The US: UNSC resolution for immediate ceasefire in Gaza vetoed 
On 20 February, the US vetoed another UN Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution by Arab countries demanding an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Of the 15 members of the UNSC, the US voted against the draft, while the UK abstained. The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, claimed that the veto was to prevent disruptions in talks between the US, Egypt, Israel and Qatar that aim at a pause in the war and the release of hostages by Hamas. Algeria's ambassador to the UN, Amar Bendjama, introduced the resolution claiming that the UNSC "cannot afford passivity" in the war, calling countries to stand "against the advocates for murder and hatred" as silence is "not a viable option." Previously, on 19 February, the US proposed a rival draft resolution that sought a temporary ceasefire and opposed Israel's ground offensive in Rafah. 

The US: Two men found responsible for Super Bowl shooting charged with murder
On 19 February, prosecutors in Missouri claimed that two men, Lyndell Mays and Dominic Miller, were charged with second-degree murder and weapons counts for the shooting at the Super Bowl victory rally in Kansas City. One person was killed, and more than 20 were injured following the shooting. Previously, on 16 January, as part of the same case, two teenagers were taken into custody and charged as juveniles on the count of resisting arrest and firearms offences. 

About the authors
Akriti Sharma is a PhD Scholars at NIAS. Padmashree Anandhan and Anu Maria Joseph are Research Associates at NIAS. Femy Francis, Dhriti Mukherjee, Akhil Ajith and Shamini Velayutham are Research Assistants at NIAS. Vetriselvi Baskaran, Narmatha S and Gopi Keshav N are Postgraduate Scholars at the University of Madras.

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