History is not just on the move again, it is at a gallop.
Since the seismic political shocks of 2014-2016, we have become desensitised to the regular occurrence of epochal events that, in other times, would have prompted deep debates and soul-searching across society – let alone serious solutions from responsible statesmen.
In retrospect, the three main upheavals that began a decade ago fractured the post-1945 international system, as well as the domestic political settlement, at the very heart of the West – in the UK and US – inaugurating a new cycle in human affairs.
We are only now beginning to truly feel the effects of this transformational forcefield rippling through the world and it will likely outlive all of us reading this today.
The first shock that shook the world was Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and the subsequent “hybrid” (ie unacknowledged) invasion of Ukraine via the Donbas.
Arising from the murky circumstances of the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv in late 2013, which appears to have been influenced by Europe and the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene into what had become a Ukrainian civil war between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces largely in Donbas set the scene for the war that only expanded in February 2022.
This was the first return of large-scale conventional warfare in Europe since 1945 and the first outright territorial annexation of another country’s sovereign territory since at least the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. It re-opened the Pandora’s box of land-grabs by force – and we may never be able to close it again.
The second blow came in the form of the great European migrant crisis of 2015, with its unbelievable scenes of masses of so-called “refugees” and other benefits-seekers and advantage-takers from faraway lands, snaking their way across the face of Europe.
In the most staggering display of political delusion and stupidity – words are not enough to describe this criminal political folly – then-German chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s single most catastrophic and damaging politician of the post-war era, unilaterally decided to “embrace” the Turkish-pumped inflows of migrants and open Germany’s doors to over 1 million of these opportunists (just to start with).
Merkel’s iconic Wir schaffen das (“we can manage this”), waving-through this permanent and indiscriminate importation of endless third-world human “capital”, will remain through the ages a towering statement of our ruling elite’s contempt towards their own people: the European citizens living in their forefathers’ countries, who would have to forever bear the price – culturally, socially and economically – of this kind of unrequited, ideological, bleeding-heart liberal “generosity”.
Against this background there occurred, in the world’s two most advanced and exemplary democracies, what the European mandarins and “polite society” subsequently termed annus horribilis.
The year 2016 caused a psychological breakdown across swathes of Liberal opinion – to the delight of Conservatives – as Britain finally declared its independence from the European Union through the “Brexit” referendum, while the good citizens of the US turned to then-president Donald Trump to save them from the impending nightmare of an anti-“deplorables” Hillary Clinton presidency.
Both events triggered four years of vicious establishment counter-mobilisation and reactionary fight-back against the democratic will of the people, breaching untold numbers of democratic conventions and norms but also laws in the process.
This was all done with the connivance of the “mainstream” media, which happily boosted all the fake witch-hunts such as the Russia Hoax or, in the UK, the insulting narrative that voters did not know what they voted for with Brexit.
In the US, federal agencies such as the FBI and high-level bureaucrats broke all protocols and turned against their president and commander-in-chief Trump in desperate attempts to destabilise his presidency.
In the UK, the bleak years of Brexit warfare in parliament saw longstanding procedural conventions framing the functioning of British democracy (such as government control of the Order Paper, the daily publication in Westminster that lists parliament business for that day’s sitting) trampled down by such people as former speaker John Bercow claiming to act in the name democracy itself.
These incredible years when, for the elites, the ends justified any means, unleashed political monsters culminating in the BLM (Black Lives Matter) riots – which in any other age would’ve been considered sedition and rightly met with deadly force – and the absurd cult of the dead serial-criminal George Floyd.
It is only the even greater global catastrophe of COVID-19, with its authoritarian lockdowns, masks and vaccines mandates, the suppression of individual liberties without any real debate and the shut-down of social and economic life while paying for all of this by indebting whole nations for generations – it is only this truly extraordinary and mind-bending experience that was able to make us largely forget what passed between 2016 and 2021 in European and US politics.
This background is important for understanding what’s next – and grasping the reality of the old Darwinian paradigm that is once again creeping into geopolitics as the flouting and breaking of rules, with impunity – and becomes regularised in global statecraft as in domestic politics.
The years 2022 and 2023, coming out of the pandemic, were supposed to begin the return to “normal”, where we “build back better” – the slogan embraced by both former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and current US President Joe Biden – and restore sanity in a world gone mad.
But the opposite has happened and we must face the facts: it will not get much better anytime soon. The only questions are, can we even hold on to what we have today and can the West recover and salvage something out of the wrecks of our leaders’ follies?
The tides of War in 2024
Without doubt, the New Year will find the geopolitics of our planet at their most precarious and perilous low-point since the Second World War. This fact – and its gravity – are not sufficiently understood by our leaders, otherwise we would be seeing decisive action to mitigate the risks.
Traditionally it’s been the Cuban Missile Crisis that, since 1962, has provided the benchmark for what constitutes an extreme global-security emergency – the closest we got to being plunged into world war again.
Unsurprisingly, that too happened under a weak Democrat presidency, the overrated Kennedy administration that invited aggressive Soviet behaviour through mishandling diplomacy over Berlin and bungling the Bay of Pigs invasion.
But even JFK’s “whiz kids” government – forerunners of the super-“educated”, arrogant elites of today and just as incompetent and detached from reality as the ones gracing the halls of power at present from DC to Brussels and beyond – were able to eventually handle the crisis because the US was so much more powerful at that time and because they only had to operate against one major adversary in a bipolar international system.
In 2024 the situation is incomparably more complex and more dangerous precisely because the West is much weaker compared to the aggregate power – in all its forms – of its enemies than in the past and because we are facing three distinct crises on three continents where so many things can go wrong.
- Ukraine: the key to surviving the 2024 campaign is political stability in Kyiv. Overall, the situation at the front will get worse before it gets better.
The most clear and present danger is in Ukraine where, as detailed in these pages in recent weeks, the war is trending in the wrong direction for Kyiv and the West. It is worth considering this issue at greater length.
The painstakingly assembled Western-equipped strike force that was readied for the big summer “counter-offensive” has been wasted in piecemeal attacks against dug-in Russian forces that proved much more agile and better co-ordinated in this defensive posture than initially assumed.
Most of Ukraine’s best-fighting units lie in tatters and many of its most experienced soldiers and officers – especially those of the pre-war army – have been killed. Others have taken their place and the country still has the manpower to fill in the gaps, at least on paper.
In reality, given the huge corruption across the Ukrainian forces, draft-dodging is a huge problem and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s newly-announced target of recruiting half a million more soldiers seems unenforceable – certainly not without great risk of political blow-back against his regime.
Vast amounts of equipment have also been lost, certainly more on the Russian side, but much of Ukraine’s 2022 kit as well, especially that of Soviet vintage. A lot of it has been replaced by Western donations – particularly in terms of long-range armaments and air defence – but that in turn creates a complete dependence on parts and ammunition supplied from abroad.
All in all, the oft-repeated enemy claim that Russia has destroyed the military power of Ukraine several times over since the start of the war and it is now fighting effectively a Western military machine only manned by Kyiv’s soldiers, is certainly exaggerated but also contains a significant dose of real-world fact.
If left to its own devices, purely in a one-on-one fight, Ukraine’s front would have collapsed long ago – which is why it is essential for Western aid to continue.
Worryingly, one of the most sensitive issues with Kyiv’s war effort is also one of the least-discussed, for the obvious reason of protecting the country’s morale and self-confidence.
It relates to the quality of Ukraine’s generalship which, as seen not just in the overall failure of the 2023 campaign but in the mistakes made along the way – from the stubbornness over Bakhmut to the dispersal of effort along multiple axes of attack – is problematic to say the least.
It is not unprecedented for top commanders to be changed in the middle of a war, whether for poor performance or insubordination. Imperial Russia replaced Barclay with Kutuzov a few months into Napoleon’s 1812 invasion; the Union Army during the American Civil War went through several commanders-in-chief including McClellan and Grant; during the First World War the French went through several “generalissimos”, from Joffre to Nivelle, Petain and Foch, while the Germans changed Falkenhayn with Hindenburg in 1916; Truman fired MacArthur and appointed Ridgway in 1951 in the thick of the Korean War; and the Vietnam campaign saw Westmoreland relieved by Abrams in 1968.
But, in the Ukraine of 2024, removing Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhny, who is very popular with the troops, will prove to be a very tall political order for Zelenskyy.
The final element on the negative side of the ledger, which also weighs heaviest, is the state of Western – particularly American – support, not just in terms of money but especially in terms of physical production and delivery of war materiel even if the funding is approved.
What started as mere posturing on Ukraine aid by a clique of hardline Republicans in the US Congress has now grown into a full-blown showdown and serious blockage as the salience of the issue has grown and more US politicians are being forced to take sides.
The odds are still on some of the held-up funds being released to Ukraine but the days of the US Congress waving-through tens of billions of dollars at a time in support of Kyiv are clearly in the past.
Not all is bad news. As described in these pages before, Western defence production – in particular that of the all-important 155mm shells – is actually ramping up.
New orders are being placed, new production lines and even whole factories and repair facilities are being set up both in the US and in Europe – even on Ukraine’s borders in Poland, Hungary and Romania.
Innovation, both within Ukraine and in Western countries, is producing new types of drones to compete with Russia’s own increasing inventory.
In addition, Ukraine’s morale is still strong, if only for lack of choice: Moscow will not accept any “peace” while it’s got the upper hand and surrendering to Putin means a death sentence for the Ukrainian State and a form of slavery for its people.
Furthermore, NATO has also strengthened since February 2022 as the Russian threat has materialised in such stark terms; there is a deeper understanding of the risks ahead than there was even at the beginning of this year.
There is no question that next year’s campaign holds enormous risks for Ukraine. January 2024 will find it on the backfoot, potentially defunded, outgunned and facing a strengthening Russia.
The mission for Kyiv in 2024 is to hold the line as best as it can and wait for more of the Western defence industry to mobilise and increase the supplies of ammunition and other equipment – as it is set to do through mid-late 2024 and 2025.
From a military standpoint, this is a hard but achievable task. As Ukraine’s own failures demonstrated, in this war the defence is at a significant advantage. Russia’s inevitable forward push next year will, in its turn, be slow, costly and likely limited in terms of territorial advances.
Even if Western support really starts to dwindle, the Ukrainians will improvise and continue fighting: desperate and patriotic armies can find solutions and stay in the fight against much superior forces for much longer than one would normally assume.
The Russian themselves are planning for the war to continue into 2025 and 2026.
If anything can sink Ukraine next year it will be politics, not material factors per se. The Biden administration will likely find ways to keep funding Kyiv as will the EU; the US and Europe are still immensely rich and reserves can be found when push comes to shove.
It also bears remembering that even a Trump victory next November could only produce political results some time after Inauguration Day on 20 January 2025. A departing Biden White House will likely increase aid to Ukraine in its final days if at all possible and it is likely that, with Trump about to take office, the Europeans will step up as well, if even just out of a sense of self-preservation.
The real political struggle for Ukraine in 2024 will take place in Kyiv, not in any Western capitals.
As it heads into its third year of war the Zelenskyy regime will be increasingly stress-tested by domestic discontent and factionalism. The public spat with Gen Zaluzhny is only a preview of much bigger and graver things to come. These are exactly the kind of circumstances that Russian political-information warfare experts are so good at exploiting.
If the Zelenskyy regime, with all its faults, can be propped up to survive through 2024 the country has a good chance of stabilising its defences and, perhaps, reducing its external dependencies from 2025 onwards.
This appears to be the best route to assured survival over the coming years, all other things in geopolitical affairs being somewhat equal.
It will get worse before it gets better.
- The Middle East powder keg: no complete detonation, but chaos will spread including on our streets.
The heinous, barbaric massacres perpetrated on October 7 by the abominable ISIS-Hamas Palestinian terrorists were not just a crime against humanity but a crime against Western civilisation itself – and intended as such.
This wider, more or less slow-moving anti-Western domestic insurrection is becoming abundantly clear through all the subsequent displays of radical street political warfare across our capitals.
For example, it takes the form of mass Islamist anti-Semitic pro-terrorist-Palestine demonstrations and provocative mass-Muslim prayers in public spaces, intended to assert Islamist power over cowed Western authorities.
Far from being simply “by-products” of events in the Middle East, these disruptive and insolent provocations in the midst of Western polities are, to a significant extent, directed, supported and orchestrated by radical Islamist networks that, as detailed in these pages, have been foolishly either tolerated or actively nurtured by our own governments.
Despite the enormities seen on our streets in recent weeks and months, it will take some time yet for the political classes and the wider public to appreciate the full extent of the national security danger that has taken deep root within our nations.
In particular, 2024 is likely to bring a growing recognition of how enemy states such as Iran and Russia are sponsoring or assisting elements of this evolving internal threat.
More attention is also likely to be given – through the saving grace of stronger political pressure from the far Right – to the way these foreign powers are directly or indirectly assisting the activities and aims of these militant groups.
This is likely to happen where there is overlap with Tehran’s and Moscow’s long-running strategy of undermining Western democracies from within – not just through overt seditious movements like the jihad-loving “free Palestine” brigades but also through the more widespread useful idiots of the Left-wing anti-national and “cultural decolonisation” variety.
The scope and intensity of this internal security and policy “reset” in the West – including immigration and “multicultural” policies, the root cause of the problem – will be closely tied to the course of military events in Israel and the wider region. An escalation will trigger further Islamist radicalisation in Europe and perhaps a major backlash from both official and non-governmental forces.
But will things tip over into a broader war in the Middle East?
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have been conducting an expertly led and highly efficient campaign in Gaza, rightly pursuing the only available and responsible objective of completely wiping out the ISIS-Hamas terrorists together with their entire support infrastructure and so-called “civilian” collaborator networks in the Strip.
Fears of an imminent regional escalation from Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies after the October 7 shock attack have been overcome through what appears to have been effective US-led deterrence, particularly the powerful naval forces quickly assembled in Levantine waters, including two US aircraft carriers at one point.
If Iran and its murderous allies were set on igniting a full-scale showdown with Israel, they appear to have lost the best opportunity to do so. The IDF has also avoided getting bogged down into the kind of protracted urban guerrilla warfare as initially feared.
And US and allied support for Tel Aviv has held firm, overall, while wider Arab mobilisation on behalf of the Palestinians has been largely limited to rhetoric and ineffectual UN votes – hardly anyone really wants to go to war for the sake of the Hamas terrorists.
Iran still holds powerful cards across the region and it has been playing them with increasing boldness.
US bases across the region have come under regular attacks from Iran-backed militias; Hezbollah has mobilised and is increasing the pressure on Israel’s northern flank; and most unexpectedly, by their brazen anti-shipping strikes the Houthis of Yemen have managed to almost completely disrupt the all-important seaborne trade lanes leading to the Suez Canal while appearing to be making the world’s most advanced military power think twice before striking back at them.
All this is likely Iran’s way of applying pressure on Egypt on behalf of the increasingly-desperate Hamas in Gaza.
The US has shown huge levels of restraint which, from a different angle, can in some cases be seen as weakness and irresolution in retaliating in force against Iran’s proxies. This is likely a deliberate strategy of trying to manage this very complex regional multi-crisis with minimal application of military power.
It is not without merit and it appears to be co-ordinated closely with other regional actors, which also are not interested in escalation.
With each side trying to exhaust and corner the other strategically by increasing the costs of maintaining its adversary’s posture – while also trying to avoid an all-out conflict – the question is in whose favour does time work, ie who will break first?
This type of “fighting equilibrium”, which has been taking shape over the past two months in particular, is likely to provide the main outlines for the course of events in the region throughout 2024.
The situation is likely to change only at the margins, for example with the IDF concluding its Gaza campaign one way or another and redeploying to the north to confront Hezbollah, and with the Houthis brought to heel sooner or later depending on how the White House calculates the regional and global politics of this operation – since the military solution is straightforward given the allied naval forces’ overwhelming firepower advantage.
In such a fraught environment with so many different moving parts as the Middle East, it does not take much for events to spiral out of control.
With Israeli and American forces in the region being targeted and often under attack, the picture looks – and is – highly alarming, particularly when factoring in the Russian and Chinese influence and covert (or even overt in some cases) support for Iran’s and its terrorist friends’ actions.
Still, the overall balance of political and military forces remains in favour of the US and its allies, including their attempts to keep the lid on this explosive part of the world.
The upshot in this scenario is that as Iran’s strategy fails to deliver decisive results – ie fails to dislodge US military power from the region, or to cripple Israel’s security – we will likely see a reversion to the more traditional Islamist jihadi tactics of unleashing new waves of terrorism against Western targets both in the region and in Europe.
As such, in 2024 Middle Eastern geopolitical chaos might be contained but terrorism might well return to the levels last seen a decade ago.
- Taiwan: China will continue its preparations for war but will not strike.
Of the world’s three principal geopolitical flashpoints of 2024, the possibility of war over Taiwan is often seen as the hardest to assess.
The natural problem of a lack of understanding and visibility into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) and President Xi Jinping’s thinking and intentions is compounded by widely diverging opinions across the analyst community about the actual balance of military power between China and the US and its allies.
It is also further complicated by the global factors that will inevitably weigh on any calculations in Beijing regarding the opportunity and feasibility of trying to force the issue over Taiwan in some way in 2024.
Getting this decision wrong – in the sense of botching the invasion or losing the war – carries a huge potential cost, perhaps terminal, not just for Xi himself but for Chinese power and maybe even the CCP’s rule.
At the very worst, it could trigger a Third World War complete with nuclear exchanges. When the stakes are this high the odds of success must be overwhelmingly in favour, especially since there is no immediate pressure on Xi to embark on this adventure.
Reunification with Taiwan is certainly a critical goal for Beijing and Xi himself but the military option would still make it a war of choice – and the absolute necessity of that choice is arguably not clear enough at this point.
For all the (well justified) handwringing in the US about the deteriorating military balance with China in the Western Pacific and about Beijing’s growing defence-industrial and technological prowess, any shortcomings in America’s military posture in the region are not yet as clear-cut as to invite Chinese aggression.
There is some slack in the system of deterrence and even if the US is behind in certain areas – numbers of available surface combatants, for instance – it can still recover the distance before it expands to critical levels.
In addition, there is a keen awareness in the US about this issue and more resources are being directed into counter-China capabilities, while US allies such as Japan and Australia are also re-arming at pace.
When the actual practicalities of an armed Chinese move against Taiwan are considered, the risks appear starker still.
Broadly speaking, there are only two options: blockade or invasion. The first throws away the element of surprise and might go wrong in any number of ways, while turning the world against Beijing before any tangible results are achieved. The second – an amphibious assault, likely preceded by a widespread missile bombardment of the island from opposite mainland China, is likewise fraught with danger.
For all its numerical superiority in missiles, ships and perhaps even planes and drones in-theatre, the People’s Liberation Army is untested in combat and any troops placed ashore in Taiwan would be dependent on vulnerable resupply lines running across the rather wide Strait.
On its part, the US, once engaged, is unlikely to accept defeat even if China secures Taiwan; and then Xi would find himself in a long-war scenario of epic proportions.
The global situation also seems to hold more disincentives than otherwise for a Chinese strike on Taiwan in 2024.
The Biden administration, for all its faults, has at least demonstrated in Ukraine the will to assist a key partner nation under attack. Xi might well think his chances with Taiwan are higher either in a second Biden term at the point where the elderly president finally hands over to Kamala Harris; or that he might be able to come to an arrangement with Trump if the latter returns to office.
Beyond the US, Xi will be mindful of all other nations firstly in Asia and then across the globe – from Japan and Australia to India, the Arabs and the Europeans – which would think that Beijing plunging the world into a devastating conflict, without cause and without warning, is an act of madness.
In Putin’s case, his invasion of Ukraine was and is first of all a regional issue; Taiwan would lead to a global economic disaster much greater than COVID, starting with even worse supply chains breakdowns. China would be throwing away decades of patient global diplomacy and influence-projection through expensive investments like the BRI – and all of this, for not more than a roll of a military dice.
Perhaps the best argument against a Taiwan invasion is that China’s current global strategy, increasingly well co-ordinated with Russia and Iran, is working quite well – so why risk it?
These neo-Axis powers have managed to pin down the military power of the US and some of its key allies in crises unfolding on three different continents – in Ukraine, Middle East and Taiwan. They are also rapidly building out their alternative global alliance and economic governance system centred on BRICS, forcing or incentivising some of America’s long-standing allies, like the Saudis, to gravitate towards their camp.
Not just the Gulf but also much of Africa is now either lost to Western influence – as with the strings of coups in the sub-Saharan part of the continent – or at least being strongly contested, such as in Libya.
Most importantly, Xi can look across the state of domestic politics in the West and draw much encouragement from the radicalisation of political discourse, the increasingly vicious culture wars and its ever-weaker and more incompetent leaders – in short, from the “free world’s” ongoing implosion.
Playing the waiting game to pick up the pieces in due course seems a safer bet than war.
Undoubtedly, China will raise the tempo and aggression of its economic and diplomatic strategies in 2024, precisely because there is blood in the water in terms of the West being on the back foot and the US entering election season.
Despite its own economic travails, Beijing will also continue its aggressive military build-up – an unquestioned priority in the long-term strategic competition with the US. But the invasion of Taiwan will likely have to wait.
Conclusion: a bleak outlook, but nothing is preordained
AD 2024 could well turn out to be the most dangerous year in living memory.
Western power is at a low ebb in historical terms as regards the military balance. Our adversaries have the initiative – and even the upper hand – in a number of domains, regions or subsets of global affairs. The three global flashpoints in Ukraine, the Middle East and Taiwan act as fractures in the US-backed system of global security, fractures that Russia, Iran and China are trying to widen and deepen.
The fact that the West is proving increasingly more incompetent at strategy and global action hardly bears repeating. It is enough to consider the fact that approaching the third year of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is on the offensive and its economy is growing – whether this is temporary or not, time will tell – while those of leading Western nations are teetering on the brink of recession, with some, like Germany, de-industrialising.
Strategic sages were convinced, in the spring of 2022, of Russia’s imminent collapse under “sanctions” and the West’s concerted pressure. This is not just a “mere” example of mistaken Western assumptions and analytical incompetence; it denotes a repeated, systematic and catastrophic failure of our elites to meet the most basic standards of effective policy-making. The tree is judged by its fruit and, in this case, the fruit is rotten.
Even so, the West is still coasting on the enormous accrual of power and wealth gained over centuries – and especially the past half-century – of global dominance.
The neo-Axis axe still has quite a bit of Western economic and military fat and meat to cut through before it truly reaches the proverbial bone. But at that point there will no way back; we must act before then.
In 2024 the situation is dangerous but not hopeless for Western statecraft and geo-strategy. The first task in the new year is to hold the line and stabilise the three security crises discussed above. The second is to force a true awakening, among Western publics and political classes, to the full scale of the risks we are facing – so as to start a real conversation, and a real political process, focused on fixing our approach and prioritising our defences.
Amid all these difficulties, with war and instability gripping the world ever more powerfully and our once-brilliant future of peace and prosperity now seemingly going up in chaos and flames, it is easy to fall prey to pessimism.
But the fact is that the West still enjoys strong fundamentals across economics, technology, defence and other incumbent geopolitical advantages.
Most of all, this is a community of democratic nations; and democracies are slow to rise to the challenge, slow to react – but when they do mobilise and get their act together, the results can be extraordinary.
That should be our collective mission in 2024.
Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at Yorktown Institute in Washington, DC