29 December 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
1. War in Ukraine
The number of armies on both sides of the front increased on account of mobilizations carried out by both sides. The losses also increased. The most anticipated event amidst the viscous position battles that took place throughout the spring of 2023 was the counteroffensive by the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukraine’s allies supplied the country with a large amount of military equipment and ammunition. The preparation of the counteroffensive was slow and, to all appearances, was connected with strategic disputes: the Ukrainian military leadership took a long time to choose the direction along which the main strike should fall.
The Russian military command was expecting this strike and prepared major fortifications and minefields – mainly in the south of the Zaporizhzhia region. The aggressor considered it necessary to switch to defence during this period. Offensive operations continued only in some areas.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive, which began in June and lasted until about October, did not ultimately bring the result that the political leadership of Ukraine had hoped for. The total area of the liberated territory did not exceed 250 square kilometres, which covered up to half a dozen villages. In the southern direction (Melitopol), Ukrainian troops managed to overcome the first line of the Russian defences, but they could not go further than the village of Rabotino. So the counter-offensive could not solve its main aim – to ensure access to the Sea of Azov.
According to the UN, by November 2023 more than 10,000 civilians had been killed (more than 17,000 wounded) since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces lost between 35,000 and 100,000 soldiers, according to various estimates. The Russian side, in turn, lost between 70,000 and 150,000, with about 300,000 soldiers wounded.
2. Prigozhin’s mutiny
At the height of the fighting in the Donetsk and Melitopol areas, relations between the head of the so-called Wagner Private Military Company, Evgeny Prigozhin, on the one hand, and the leadership of the Russian General Staff and the Ministry of Defence, on the other, deteriorated. Prigozhin has long been one of the people closest to Putin. He created a combat-ready military group of professional mercenaries, which supported, on Putin’s orders, various political regimes in Central and West Africa. After the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Prigozhin’s group was redeployed to the Donetsk region, where it achieved some successes.
At the end of June 2023, Putin decided to reassign the Wagner PMC to the Ministry of Defence. Perhaps this decision was the trigger for Prigozhin’s subsequent actions. He made a number of statements, in which he gave unflattering assessments of the war itself, the Russian Defence Minister and the Chief of the General Staff. And eventually he moved his group from the front first toward Rostov-on-Don and then toward Moscow, announcing that he had begun a “march for justice.” The goals of the mutiny remained unclear, but it can be assumed that Prigozhin was trying to force Shoigu and Gerasimov to resign.
On 24 June, Wagner columns travelled about 800 kilometres in one day, coming to within about 200 kilometres of Moscow. In the Ryazan region, the Wagner columns stopped. The group’s leadership entered into negotiations with representatives of the Kremlin, as well as with the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenka. As a result, Prigozhin announced that he was turning the columns around and leaving for places of permanent deployment.
A few days later, the Wagner leadership met with Putin, who apparently offered Prigozhin and his men some kind of guarantees – security and employment. And about two months later, Prigozhin and his Wagner associate Utkin were killed in an airplane crash.
Events like Prigozhin’s mutiny have not happened in Russian history since the so-called Kornilov Mutiny of 1917. However, after eliminating the head of Wagner, Putin clearly felt more confident.
3. Hamas’ attack on Israel
On 7 October several thousand armed militants of the radical Hamas movement invaded the territory of Israel adjacent to the Gaza Strip and attacked several kibbutzes, as well as the city of Sderot. In less than 24 hours, the militants killed at least 1,200 people, among them women and children. Captured Israelis were tortured and many women were raped. About 200 people were taken to the Gaza Strip as hostages.
Almost immediately, the Israeli leadership launched a retaliatory operation. Its main goal was declared the destruction of Hamas as a military structure and organization. The army operation was accompanied by rocket attacks on various parts of Gaza, which resulted in numerous civilian casualties. At the time of publication, the operation has still not ended.
Reflecting on the reasons for the unprecedented attack on Israel by Islamist militants, most experts concluded that the most important alleged purpose can be considered to be the disruption of negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations. A treaty with the Saudis would have been Israel’s biggest diplomatic success in decades. It could have been a condition for further normalization of the situation in Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority. This was something not at all satisfactory to Hamas and Iran, which supports Hamas.
Israel’s retaliatory measures against Hamas, despite the obvious reason for them, caused a wave of anti-Israeli sentiments and demonstrations in Muslim countries, as well as in European countries. The massive participation in these actions by European city dwellers (non-Muslims) and, in particular, by adherents of left-socialist movements and organizations, could obviously be explained by the general anti-Americanism of these very movements: Israel was presented to these people mainly as an ally of the United States, pursuing American policy in the Middle East. This gross oversimplification, in fact, ignored a number of fundamental facts: it was Israel, through U.S. mediation, that concluded a series of agreements with the Palestinian National Authority that could only lead to the establishment of an Arab state in Palestine. It was the Palestinian National Authority that first declared Hamas a ‘terrorist organization,’ since Hamas, in reality, did not seek the creation of a new independent state, but the physical destruction of its ideological opponents among the Arab population and the destruction of the state of Israel.
The war in Israel has certainly shifted some of the public attention from the war in Ukraine to the Middle East and has gradually created difficulties with the realization of all plans to help Ukraine. Putin must have been pleased with this war – it turned out to be a political gift for him that one could only dream of. It is no coincidence that shortly after the militants’ attack on Israel, a meeting between representatives of the Russian foreign ministry and members of the Hamas leadership was held in Moscow. This, of course, worsened relations between Russia and Israel, but that was of little importance to Putin in this situation.
4. The demise of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
One more tragic episode this year was yet another aggravation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended with the virtual disappearance of the so-called ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ (NKR). It can be assumed that the Azerbaijani leadership decided to take advantage of several factors: the uneasy relations between Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, the protracted war in Ukraine and the focus of attention of world leaders on the same war. In essence, Baku decided to bring the fighting in the region, which was halted in November 2020, to its logical conclusion. That short war showed the overwhelming military superiority of Azerbaijan, which had received comprehensive assistance from Turkey in previous years.
On 19 September the Azerbaijani army launched a new military operation, with artillery playing the main role. The army of Nagorno-Karabakh no longer had the resources to resist. The NKR leadership was forced to sign agreements disarming the NKR army and terminating the NKR as a state entity from 1 January 2024. From that moment, the Armenian population began to leave the region en masse for the territory of neighbouring Armenia. For the Republic of Armenia itself, this is undoubtedly one of the darkest pages in the history of its existence as an independent state. Within a month and a half, about 100,000 of its inhabitants had left the region.
5. Earthquake in Turkey
The beginning of the year brought a terrible ordeal to the inhabitants of southeastern Turkey. On 6 February the strongest earthquake of the last few centuries occurred there with a magnitude of 7 to 8. More than 50,000 people died in 11 provinces of the country. More than 100,000 people were injured. Rescue efforts were underway for several days. The world was once again convinced how powerless humanity is in the face of the elements that know no good or evil. In Turkey itself, the disaster reignited debate about the price of the construction boom of recent years – a price often associated with the disregard for building codes in earthquake-prone areas.
These fierce debates have often taken on a political meaning and could have led to Recep Erdogan’s defeat in May’s presidential election. But that did not happen. Despite a fierce electoral battle and two rounds of voting, Erdogan held on. Or rather, he kept his seat.
6. Economic crisis in Russia
In the course of the war in Ukraine, the Russian leadership is trying to do everything to make sure the population does not feel its consequences for the time being. True, there were some unfortunate nuances. For example, the recent rise in the price of eggs and chicken. The dictator promised to deal with these price rises with the help of imports from Turkey and Iran. But so far it has not worked out well.
Characterizing the situation in the economy, experts have used contradictory assessments. In fact, Russia is conducting a gigantic and extremely risky experiment on its inhabitants. Almost all ties with traditional and reliable partners in Europe, including those who buy Russian oil and gas, have been severed. These partners were replaced by buyers from Asia – primarily companies from China, India, and Turkey. They were ready to order approximately the same volumes of oil, but agreed to prices at a significant discount – taking into account the difficult position of the Russian state and its companies. Russian export revenues have been slowly declining (for example, for November 2023 they amounted to 15,2 billion dollars, i.e., down by 17% compared to October), but are still relatively high. High enough to make possible increased military spending.
The increase in the output of armaments in general delivered an increase in industrial production and, in particular, in manufacturing. However, this was the production of goods shipped to the front, and consequently, regularly destroyed.
Both the workers in military production and the military personnel concentrated along the gigantic – about 2,000 kilometres – front line were paid substantial sums all year long. It can be assumed that these large-scale payments were made on the basis of the regular printing of money by the Central Bank (which, however, did not admit to it).
It was these payments that created the basis for what official statistics recognized as ‘growth in the population’s income’. It is true that the situation of those groups of the population that remained outside the military-industrial complex became increasingly difficult.
7. Putin’s candidacy for a fifth term
In March 2024, Russia is due to hold presidential elections. Russians who approve of Putin’s imperialist expansionist course – even if these things are not explicitly called by their proper names – remain Putin’s loyal adherents. Propaganda uses other constructs (e.g., ‘the fight against Nazism’ and ‘the unipolar world of the United States’), but increasingly and more openly simply calls for the extermination of all enemies of Russia.
The country continues to hunt down opponents of the war, anyone who has expressed the slightest criticism of its initiators or its methods. The number of people sent to prison for their anti-war stance has exceeded a thousand, and tens of thousands of people have already been convicted of offences under administrative law. Especially worth remembering is the case of the playwright Svetlana Petriichuk and theatre director Evgenia Berkovich, remanded in custody on charges related to their script for a play adjudged to contain ‘justification of terrorism’ – a play which had been running for two years.
The register of ‘foreign agents’ maintained by the Ministry of Justice contains more than 700 names by now. Also in 2023, according to the publication Verstka, the Ministry of Justice has designated 50 new organizations as ‘undesirable’ – twice as many as in 2022.
In addition, the Supreme Court designated as ‘extremist’ the ‘international LGBT movement,’ which has never existed – neither as a movement nor as an organization.
Against this glowing backdrop, Putin announced his candidacy for the presidency – for the fifth time. His picture of the world is broadcast daily through the state media: Russia’s revenues are growing, a ‘corridor’ has been made to Crimea, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has failed, we are jailing internal enemies and fighting external ones. And very soon we shall win completely.
In the very last days of December, two poets – Artem Kamardin and Egor Shtovba – were given long prison terms. They had recited poems against mobilization in Moscow, at the Mayakovsky statue – in accordance with the old Moscow tradition. I think someone told the dictator about this. That, no doubt, improved his mood before the New Year holidays, which are just beginning.
Translated by Rights in Russia