Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Look out for special editions of this newsletter Feb. 16-19 as SitRep heads to Germany to give you behind-the-scenes looks and breaking news from The Munich Security Conference, one of the most consequential gatherings of world leaders.

The Top 5 Foreign-Policy Trends We’ll Be Watching in 2023

Your go-to guide for what stories to watch in the new year.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Three soldiers in uniform stand on a dirt road and hold guns.
Three soldiers in uniform stand on a dirt road and hold guns.
French soldiers patrol the streets of Gao on December 4, 2021. Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack here, ready to wind down another trip around the sun.

A heartfelt thanks to all our loyal readers this year who have provided us with great feedback, comments, tips, and insights. Our New Year’s resolution is to keep making SitRep better (if that’s even possible?), so keep the feedback coming—we love hearing from you!

Write to us at robbie.gramer@foreignpolicy.com or jack.detsch@foreignpolicy.com.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack here, ready to wind down another trip around the sun.

A heartfelt thanks to all our loyal readers this year who have provided us with great feedback, comments, tips, and insights. Our New Year’s resolution is to keep making SitRep better (if that’s even possible?), so keep the feedback coming—we love hearing from you!

Write to us at robbie.gramer@foreignpolicy.com or jack.detsch@foreignpolicy.com.

OK, back to business. On tap today, we have a look-ahead at the top national security news we’re going to be following in 2023. Consider it your cheat sheet for top stories to keep track of in the new year.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


It’s the Most (Un)Wonderful Time of the Year

If you’ve noticed that diplomats and defense officials at all those holiday parties around Washington the past few weeks have looked extra grim, you can hardly blame them. From a major land war in Europe to nuclear proliferation to China’s looming threat over Taiwan, there’s a lot going on in the world that’s not worth toasting in the new year.

Lest all the problems overwhelm you as you sip your spiked eggnog and count down to midnight in a few days’ time, we at SitRep have compiled a handy cheat sheet of the top national security issues to track in 2023. Let’s get started.

1. The winter war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the post-Cold War order in Europe and quickly turned into a military quagmire for Moscow in the face of stubborn and effective Ukrainian resistance. Now, Russia is banking on a cold winter crumbling the resolve of Ukrainians and their allies across Europe providing military support as Moscow cuts off energy supplies and targets Ukraine’s entire energy infrastructure to keep the country cold and in the dark as much as possible.

The winter could provide Russia a respite to regroup its forces and prepare for spring offensives. It could drive some European countries grappling with surging energy prices and economic woes to start questioning their support for Ukraine. But it could also steel Europe’s resolve, harden Ukraine’s determination, and presage more effective Ukrainian offensives against Russia’s beleaguered forces when the weather warms up. Most defense analysts we spoke to agreed that the first few months of 2023 will be crucial to determining the trajectory of the war in Ukraine and whether Putin’s massive military gambit will ultimately fail.

2. New frenemies. One grim byproduct of the war that will pose a threat to Western allies not just in Europe but across the Middle East is Russia deepening its military ties with Iran. Russia is running out of munitions to lob at Ukrainian civilian targets and has turned to Iran for a steady supply of drones and other sophisticated munitions. The head of Israel’s top spy organization, David Barnea of Mossad, warned that Iran is secretly planning to “widen and broaden” its weapons shipments to Russia in the near future.

Of course, this isn’t an example of a charitable Iran giving poor Russia some weapons for the holidays out of the kindness of its own heart. In exchange, Iran could be getting unprecedented levels of new military hardware and technical support from Russia, including Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, air defense systems, and other advanced military technology. U.S. officials warn that the new military bromance could prolong the war in Ukraine and threatens U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East.

3. Can a shaky peace hold? It’s stunning how little attention the deadly conflict in Ethiopia gets in Washington compared with the war in Ukraine. Russia’s war has caused an estimated 200,000 battlefield casualties, including killed and wounded. By comparison, the conflict in Ethiopia has killed an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people, in a conflict marked by widespread atrocities, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing carried out against civilians.

A shaky peace deal was hashed out between the Ethiopian federal government and the opposing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last month. But Eritrean troops are still committing atrocities in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in the name of the fight against the TPLF, meaning the chances of a lasting peace are unclear.

Just as worrying, tensions are growing and fighting is picking up between rival militias in the Oromia and Amhara regions of the country, which threatens to destabilize Ethiopia even further. Regional experts are even worried about a possible collapse of the Ethiopian state, something that could trigger even deadlier conflicts and a massive humanitarian crisis in a region of Africa already beset by humanitarian crises.

4. The losing lather-rinse-repeat fight against terrorism in the Sahel. It’s a tale as old as time in the national security world: Terrorist groups gain a foothold somewhere. Western countries start military cooperation with brittle, autocratic regimes in the region to combat the terrorists. Those brittle, autocratic regimes breed new grievances among their populations through corruption and repression that lead terrorist groups to gain larger footholds. Western countries expand military cooperation with those regimes even further. So terrorist groups gain more ground. Throw in some military coups, and then lather, rinse, repeat.

The tale of counterterrorism and blowback is playing out across the Sahel region of Africa now, while the U.S., French, and other European governments are keeping their militaries involved in flagging efforts to stem the rising tide of Islamist extremism. After years of fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East, the Sahel is becoming the new epicenter of Islamist terrorism, and it’s clear from the steady spread of these groups’ influence and attacks that Western governments haven’t found a way to actually stop them. Expect this problem to grow worse in 2023, particularly after (another) military coup in Mali that led the new junta to shed ties with the West and cozy up to Russia.

5. Nonproliferation games. 2022 was filled with a lot of bad news in the world of nuclear nonproliferation. 2023 has a similarly depressing forecast but one worth tracking closely nonetheless.

North Korea is preparing its seventh nuclear test, which will showcase how it can expand its nuclear program despite devastating international sanctions and diplomacy that’s dead in the water. Russia will likely continue rattling the nuclear saber in a bid to erode Europe’s support for Ukraine, even though U.S. officials deem any sort of tactical nuclear weapon use by Russia as highly unlikely. Efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal have run aground, and Tehran is already expanding its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, according to U.N. watchdogs. Meanwhile, China is set to expand its nuclear weapons program, with plans to increase its stockpile of 400 nuclear warheads to 1,500 by 2035.

It’s unclear what, if anything, the Biden administration can do to try to reverse these trends in proliferation and expand nuclear arms control regimes.

But don’t forget the good news. Amid all the doom and gloom, we wanted to also end the year on a positive note. In case you missed it, there is finally a vaccine for malaria, something that was 30 years in the making. Malaria is one of the leading causes of deaths in the developing world, killing about half a million children worldwide each year. The World Health Organization is slowly rolling out the vaccine among the world’s most vulnerable populations in pilot studies, and even with an efficacy of 40-50 percent, it has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year and lead to the development of more effective vaccines in the future. So we do have something good to toast for in the new year, after all.


Snapshot 

Two people sit on a tank near barren trees.
Two people sit on a tank near barren trees.

Ukrainian service members sit on a T-72 tank near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on Dec. 22.Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images


Put on Your Radar

Dec. 31: OPEC+ production cuts agreement ends.

Jan. 1: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will be inaugurated as the next president of Brazil.

Jan. 8: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates his birthday.


Quote of the Year

“There is no invasion, and there is no such plans.”

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov, speaking to CBS News on Feb. 20, four days before Russia carried out its planned invasion of Ukraine.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

A bit overdue. Ever get mad at your boss for passing you over for that promotion you feel that you deserved? Spare a thought for Ulysses S. Grant. He’s finally getting that big promotion he deserved, after defeating the Confederacy. The 2023 defense policy bill will posthumously promote Grant to “general of the armies,” the highest rank in the U.S. Army—sometimes referred to as a six-star general. Better 157 years late than never.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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