As 2023 draws to a close, both sides in the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts signalled they expect continued fighting through much of the new year when dozens of countries, including the United States, go to the polls.
About two billion people in at least 50 countries will hold elections in 2024, including in India, Russia, Britain, the European Union and across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Some are more unpredictable than others – few expect Vladimir Putin not to win another six years in office in Russia’s presidential vote in March. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fate is seen as tied to the war in Gaza. Many expect him to be ousted as soon as it ends.
It remains unclear whether Ukraine will hold its own presidential vote in March. But the election that matters most for the world at large is November’s US presidential vote, and whether or not Donald Trump returns to office.
The difficulties of predicting who will win, as well as what a more unrestrained, anti-establishment Trump might do in power, in part help explain the dynamics in multiple conflicts across the world. Put simply, all sides want to be positioned as best they can before the November vote and possible changes in US foreign policy.
It is a dynamic that says much about the state of international power, with increasingly assertive rivals to a perceived declining but still powerful United States, whose own internal politics look more and more unbridgeable.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China's leaning on self-ruled Taiwan and military pressure against the Philippines see Moscow and Beijing willing to use methods that until recently would have felt almost unthinkable against Washington’s allies.
The Biden administration has interpreted those as deliberate tests of US power, arguing that the United States needs to stand behind its allies while avoiding unnecessary escalation.
That is already proving a challenging path. Israel’s war in Gaza has shown that US influence can be limited. The Netanyahu government arguably believes it can act as it can in Gaza without losing the broad support of the United States, despite increasingly public US calls for moderation.
For Washington, the rising attacks on Red Sea shipping are just one sign of the regional spillover of that war. This week saw the United States attack Iranian-backed fighters in Iraq, following what US officials say have been more than 100 attacks against US forces there and in Syria since the middle of October.
Largely outside the headlines, experts warn that ongoing civil conflict in Sudan and Myanmar could also escalate in 2024, with the Kremlin and to a lesser extent Beijing backing ruling forces attempting to cling to power as several million people face hunger and displacement.
Events in the Middle East raise the proposition that the early months of 2024 could see further escalation there, deepening US overstretch in the run-up to a perhaps chaotic November presidential vote.
At worst, these multiple crises may essentially fuel each other, just as the Ukraine conflict has forced up global food prices and deepened already serious humanitarian situations in poorer countries and conflict zones around the world.
Within Ukraine and Eastern Europe, there is no shortage of complaints that the United States and its European allies could have done more to arm the Kyiv government in 2023, and that it may now be too late to achieve breakthroughs in 2024.
They are likely to intensify given Republican congressional opposition to further US support and the very real prospect that a Trump administration might cut off Kyiv entirely and force it to sue for peace.
In other areas, however, the actions of a Trump administration are much harder to predict. In his first term, Trump was outspoken in criticising China, flirting with more open support for Taiwan that has been continued by the Biden administration.
The Republican front-runner is sufficiently unpredictable, however – as is his choice of senior officials – that it is impossible to guarantee what path he might take on relations with Beijing, including how hawkish a Trump-run administration might prove.
Who runs the government in Taiwan, which China claims as its own, will be determined in a Jan. 13 presidential vote. Ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te looks likely to beat the opposition Kuomintang that favours much friendlier relations with Beijing.
A DPP victory would combine with ongoing Chinese pressure on the Philippines over its military presence on disputed islands in the South China Sea. As with the current face-off with the Iran-backed Houthis in the Red Sea, these are confrontations on which the Biden administration would like to limit divisive headlines and escalation in the run-up to November.
OTHER POWER DYNAMICS
Other elections will also drive battlefield dynamics and other less-lethal confrontations. Putin’s reaction, some suspect, to a Trump win could prompt him to further militarise the Russian economy and push for full mobilisation to attack Ukraine even more mercilessly.
European parliamentary elections in June will be closely watched for signs of further rises in support for far right parties, particularly after November’s election in the Netherlands saw long-running Prime Minister Mark Rutte lose his majority. Some expect him to quit Dutch politics in the coming months, potentially to take over from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at its July summit in Washington.
Further far right victories would be seen as positive for Putin, particularly after Slovakia dropped support for Ukraine after nationalist and populist Robert Fico won elections in September.
In Britain, where Labour leader Keir Starmer is likely to win elections scheduled for some point next year, a new government may hope to win over nearby allies by following Canada and Germany in committing more forces to Eastern Europe. Overall, however, worries over a potential US pullback are likely to increase the clout and strategic importance of rearming major European governments, particularly those in Warsaw and Berlin.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to win India’s April-May elections – but a reluctance to look weak following a Houthi missile strike on an Indian tanker has helped prompt New Delhi to send warships to the Red Sea, a region in which India has historically attempted to avoid becoming too enmeshed.
More broadly, actual or postponed elections in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are seen potentially as part of a growing trend towards authoritarianism across Asia and the world. Each year of the 2020s has seen a major shock so far – 2024 will determine whether that trend continues.
* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He has been a columnist since 2016. He is also the founder of a think-tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist. His first book, "Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of NATO", will be published in February.