Predictions For 2023: From Ukraine Developments To China’s Covid Surge

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A near-inevitable global recession sparked by a lengthening war in Europe’s frozen east; an energy crisis coupled with soaring inflation; Covid-19 finally running rampant in China – predictions for 2023 are grim. That same energy crisis has spurred an unprecedented demand for renewables, which are expected to boom, while in Brazil, a new president has sworn to protect the Amazon. Repressive regimes, meanwhile, will be nervously looking at Iran, where hardline clerics are locked in a struggle with a formidable pro-democracy uprising that threatens to overwhelm them next year, reports The Guardian.

A ceasefire in Ukraine?

Will the Ukraine war end in 2023? It’s impossible to imagine a handshake between Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin, suggesting that a negotiated peace between Ukraine and Russia after 10 months of hard fighting and tens of thousands of casualties on both sides is a long way off.

Ukraine is demanding the creation of a war crimes court for the Russian leadership and reparations from the Kremlin, as well as the restoration of its entire territory. None of this will be conceded by Moscow, which is never going to be faced with a 1945-style total defeat.

A more realistic endpoint would be a military ceasefire, in which two increasingly exhausted combatants see frontline positions harden around a line of control, in effect a repeat of what happened after the fighting of 2014, without the veneer of the previous Minsk peace agreements.

On the current frontlines, or something similar, that would obviously suit Russia, which seeks time to regenerate its shattered military and incorporate a territory roughly the size of Portugal. But it would clearly not suit Ukraine.

The incentive is on Ukraine to probe for weaknesses and try to attack, and its opportunity starts now, in the depths of winter, when the ground is frozen. Although Kyiv warns of Russian counterattacks, Moscow’s efforts are more likely to be limited, even diversionary, probably focused on the Donbas, where it has been on the attack, often ineffectively, since April.

The key point comes when it appears Ukraine’s offensive potential is exhausted. That will become clearer by the summer or autumn, and will at some point prompt a question for its western backers: how long should the west continue supplying military aid at current levels to Ukraine?

Possible blackouts across Europe

Russia’s war on Ukraine, the ensuing continent-wide energy crisis and rampant inflation have largely dictated Europe’s fortunes this year, a state of affairs experts say is unlikely to improve – and may well worsen – in 2023.

Europe may be steadily weaning itself off its biggest source of energy – Russian oil and gas – but the cost has been immense, with soaring energy prices hitting households and businesses and governments forced to fund hundreds of billions in subsidies.

Blackouts and gas rationing remain possible across the continent this winter and despite many countries sourcing alternative supplies mainly of liquid natural gas (LNG), next winter could be worse, with analysts forecasting a worst-case gas shortfall approaching 10%.

Much will clearly depend on the severity of the weather – but “sensible” energy prices are not expected to return to Europe until 2025, meaning many economies will continue to suffer: Germany, the EU’s biggest, is expecting its economy to shrink by 0.5%.

Faced with such strong economic headwinds, the EU27’s efforts to hit Russia’s income without doing too much damage to their own are likely to get harder.

Its collective stance also looks set to be hampered further by Hungary’s continuing “blackmail diplomacy”.

China finally confronts Covid

The so-called paramount leader, Xi Jinping, became even more powerful this year. In October he secured a third five-year term as leader, purging anyone not deemed utterly loyal from the senior party ranks.

With almost unchecked political power and with no known dissenting voices in his close circles, analysts are watching his moves on Taiwan in particular. Xi has long pledged to annex the island of 23 million people, despite their overwhelming opposition. This year, China’s People’s Liberation Army activities increased (the post-Nancy Pelosi drills gave a taste of what they can do), and official rhetoric escalated.

One possible tempering factor is Ukraine, where Russia’s similar invasion dreams did not go to plan. Xi is likely to be taking lessons. The invasion has also caused China headaches. Xi is a close ally of Putin’s, but wants global leadership, not isolation, so has sought to balance his support for Russia carefully.

Growing resistance in Iran

After the political earthquake of nationwide protests over women’s rights, Iran faces a defining year in which the regime will either wrest back control of a cowed population or see resistance grow into something that genuinely threatens the Islamic Republic’s 43-year rule.

Although many say something irreversible has been set in train since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, which prompted the rallies, Iran has a long history of repressing dissent. But a movement that has no stated goals and no leadership, but deep cultural roots may be harder to control.

Much may depend on whether the economy continues to suffer, encouraging a broader impoverished group in society to abandon faith not just in the government, but in the entire system of clerical rule.

Ebrahim Raisi came to power as president in June 2021 unifying the levers of powers in the hands of conservatives in an unprecedented way. But it was a hollow triumph achieved with a record-low turnout. New evidence shows that the lower the turnout in a region, the more likely that region is to have joined the recent protests. Disillusionment now runs deep, with an elderly clerical establishment openly admitting they have lost the nation’s youth.

Raisi has bet all on confronting the west, on the basis of the west’s inevitable decline. So if the west “wins” in Ukraine, he may feel especially exposed after becoming the only major power to supply arms to Russia. Equally if anti-western ideology leads him to reject US terms for lifting economic sanctions in return for a renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, ordinary Iranians may feel they are being sacrificed by a regime that no longer represents them.

The maximum danger point may come if the 83-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dies, prompting an internal power battle that exposes the deep fissures inside the country.

An early start to the 2024 US election

Joe Biden goes into the year with political momentum. Since he took office America has created 11m new jobs – more than at this point in any presidency. He signed legislation investing billions of dollars in Covid relief, infrastructure, manufacturing and climate, appointed the first African American woman to the supreme court and rallied the west in defence of Ukraine.

But now it gets even harder. From January Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, determined to deny Biden further wins and unleash an array of investigations into his pandemic response, his withdrawal from Afghanistan and his son Hunter’s business dealings. The party’s narrow majority, and noisy pro-Trump wing, is a recipe for chaos.

Much of 2023 will be about 2024 and the race for the White House. Biden, who at 80 is the oldest American president in history, is expected to launch a reelection campaign. Although opinion polls show hunger for a new generation, a better-than-expected performance in the recent midterm elections, and a lack of obvious Democratic challengers, put him in the driving seat.

On the Republican side, this could be the year that finally dooms Trump. The 76-year-old already has already announced his third consecutive run for president but could find himself charged by the justice department for crimes related to the January 6 insurrection, or the mishandling of classified documents, or both. Potential challengers such as Ron DeSantis, the rightwing governor of Florida, are expected to show their hand.

The election results of 2018, 2020 and 2022 suggested that all is not lost for American democracy. But division, rancour, threats of political violence and the spirit of Trumpism persist, even if Trump himself might be fading. Biden, who speaks often of a battle for the soul of America, would be the last to assume that the battle is over.

A rising drumbeat of climate chaos

Whether or not temperature records are broken again, there will be little letup in this rising drumbeat of climate chaos. Greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2022, when they need to be reduced by nearly half this decade, for the world to stay within the scientifically advised limit of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The chances of them coming down in 2023 remain slim.

Global talks on the climate, called Cop28, will run for two weeks in December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s leading oil producers. The fractious Cop27 talks in Egypt produced an agreement to set up a “loss and damage” fund to rescue and rebuild poor countries struck by climate disaster, but expect fierce wrangling this year over how such a fund could work.

There are some hopeful signs. Brazil’s incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to reverse the rapid rise of deforestation (see below). Australia’s new government has vowed to prioritise the climate. In the US, massive increases in investment in renewable energy and low-carbon technology are expected, under the Inflation Reduction Act. The EU will trial the first green tariffs, called a “carbon border adjustment mechanism”, to penalise imports of high-carbon goods, from October.

As high fossil fuel prices continue to bite, there will be greater incentive globally to turn to renewable energy and to cut down on the still massive waste of energy. But for emissions to come down, China – the world’s biggest emitter – must move much faster away from coal. Meanwhile, there seems little hope that Russia, the world’s fourth-biggest emitter, will take any action on the increasingly urgent problem of methane from its oil and gas production, while fossil fuel companies and producer countries look set to continue their bonanza. A boom for their shareholders, a bust for the planet.

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Source: The Guardian


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