Escalation of tensions in Ukraine’s Donbas, Anti-mine squads deployed to Western Mexico, and Electricity production started at Ethiopian Dam
Ukraine: Increased shelling reported as conflict escalates in eastern Donbas region
Military shelling along the line of contact in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region has intensified in recent days amid an escalation of Ukrainian-Russian tensions and is likely to persist in the near term in the absence of a diplomatic solution. These developments come as Russia has amassed an estimated 150,000-190,000 troops and military equipment on Ukraine’s borders in recent months and officially recognized the separatist republics of Donetsk & Luhansk (DNR/LNR) as independent republics on Feb. 21 – actions which have prompted NATO and the US to repeatedly warn of a possible large-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Though the recent shelling campaign has mostly occurred in proximity to the major separatist strongholds of Donetsk & Luhansk, Russian military officials claim that Ukrainian munitions struck a border control outpost in Russia’s nearby Rostov Oblast on Feb. 21. Ukrainian officials deny they are undertaking any counter-offensive actions against either the separatists or Russia and have accused Moscow of attempting to manufacture a “false flag” or pretext to justify invading the country. Despite the denial, Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently deployed Russian forces into internationally-recognized Ukrainian territory—namely Donetsk, Shakhtersk, and Makiivka—on Feb. 22 under the guise that they would “perform peacekeeping functions” to end a “genocide” in Donbas. Since shelling intensified on Feb. 18, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recorded over 6,700 violations of the 2015 Minsk II Agreement – a loose ceasefire between belligerent groups in the region. As of Feb. 23, the Ukrainian military has reported three fatalities and 23 injuries due to the ongoing bombardment, while the government recorded 245 civilian-targeted shelling incidents over the past seven days, resulting in one civilian death and at least six injuries. Across the line of contact, the DNR/LNR have claimed two civilian casualties and reportedly evacuated citizens to Rostov Oblast for their safety, while the LNR forbade military-aged males (18-55) from leaving Luhansk. In response, Ukraine has declared a state of emergency and is expected to conscript reservist soldiers aged 18-60 in the coming days, though it is reportedly refraining from mobilizing troops at this time. The Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) also voted to permit civilians to carry firearms outside their homes in an apparent effort to encourage popular mobilization among Ukrainians. Based on the steady increase in violence and Russia’s decision to recognize the DNR/LNR’s full territorial claims, the security situation in the region will likely continue to deteriorate in the near term unless a diplomatic solution is reached or recently imposed global sanctions deter further Russian escalation.
The evolving use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) has prompted the Mexican army to deploy anti-mine squads to the western state of Michoacán, where more than 250 IEDs have been disabled in recent weeks. A military vehicle was struck by an IED planted on a road during an ambush on an army patrol at the end of January, injuring ten soldiers and marking the first known IED attack against a military target in the country. Another IED also claimed the life of a civilian near the Aguililla municipality last week when a farmer drove over the buried device. While DTOs have normalized the use of hand grenades and improvised armored vehicles against security forces and rival gangs, the use of IEDs is a recent development in Mexico’s criminal landscape. The state of Michoacán – home to the largest Mexican seaport of Lázaro Cárdenas – is a hub for synthetic drug manufacture and is therefore strategically vital territory for any group seeking to control the drug trade. As a result, the region has been marked by territorial conflict between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and Cárteles Unidos – a loosely organized group consisting of remnants of La Familia Michoacana, Knights Templar, Los Viagras, and other criminal groups that oppose CJNG expansion in the state. Local authorities believe the CJNG is responsible for planting mines in an attempt to target the military and rival criminal organizations. The cartel has previously used weaponized drones in three states – Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacán – and have dropped explosives from drones in Michoacán on at least three confirmed occasions since April 2021, which demonstrates the CJNG’s ability to deploy sophisticated tactics in order to secure control over territory. There is no evidence to indicate that the CJNG or Cárteles Unidos will deliberately target individuals not directly intervening in their activities, which suggests that the increasing use of IEDs has limited impact on private organizations or travelers outside of cartel-controlled territories. However, the wider use of weaponized drones and IEDs increases the risk of collateral damage to individuals operating in Michoacán and is indicative of the evolving use of more sophisticated combat tactics in inter-cartel disputes and against the state, which threatens a further deterioration of the security environment nationwide.
Ethiopia: Controversial dam begins electricity production, exacerbating tensions with Sudan and Egypt
Ethiopia initiated electricity production at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Feb. 20, escalating tensions with neighboring Sudan and Egypt over water shortages in the region. The USD 4.2–billion project is expected to generate more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, doubling Ethiopia’s national output and reducing power shortages currently affecting two-thirds of the country’s population. Local officials claim that the GERD will bring light to 60% of Ethiopians and transform the national economy, which has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, drought, and military conflict in the northern region of Tigray. Following the start of electricity production, the Egyptian foreign ministry issued a statement claiming the move was an illustration of “persistence by the Ethiopian side in violating its obligations under the 2015 Declaration of Principles agreement” – a preliminary accord consisting of technical guidelines for the GERD operations. In response, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed emphasized the mutual benefit of dam operations and reiterated assurances that the Nile River’s waters would continue to flow to downstream neighbors. Ethiopia originally began filling the dam’s reservoir in 2020, despite objections from Egypt and Sudan that the project could inhibit their own access to a vital source of water in an otherwise extremely arid region. Egypt depends on the Nile for 97% of its fresh-water resources, while Sudan has voiced concerns over the GERD’s impact on their own dams, in addition to posing a similar threat to their drinking water supply. The Sudanese allege that the first filling of the dam in 2020 led to water shortages across the country, though Ethiopia denies this accusation. Both Egypt and Sudan have demanded a binding agreement guaranteeing Ethiopia’s commitment to preventing harm to the two countries. Ethiopia has made verbal pledges to this effect but, following years of tripartite talks between the countries, has refused to sign a written treaty – claiming that the 2015 Declaration of Principles demonstrates their goodwill. In the absence of an official agreement, relations between the three countries will likely continue to sour in the short term. As of Feb. 23, neither nation has authorized military intervention; however, the use of armed forces should not be completely ruled out as Egypt has reportedly threatened military action in the past.