14.12.23 Review

Mapping Violence: Beyond the war in Ukraine, armed conflicts and confrontations worldwide claim the lives of over 100,000 people each year

Even beyond the war in Ukraine, which has become the most intense military conflict in the recent decades since the Iran-Iraq war, the number and intensity of armed conflicts around the world have increased significantly over the past year, making their resolution an increasingly challenging task. The Russia-Ukraine war surpasses all others in terms of the death toll, and yet the number of victims in other conflicts and violent episodes worldwide from May 2022 to June 2023 is over 100,000. And, while in Myanmar and Nigeria we are talking about civil war, that is the struggle of government forces with various groups and insurgents, in Brazil and Mexico approximately 7000 people became victims of gang and mafia warfare during this period.The resolution and cessation of conflicts are hindered by the involvement of various regional and global players, as well as the increasing number of non-state armed groups. Currently, there are approximately 500 such groups globally, and around 195 million people reside in the territories they control.

Between 1 May 2022 and 30 June 2023, the number of armed conflicts around the world increased by 28% year-on-year and the number of fatalities rose by 14%, according to the annual Armed Conflict Survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The latter figure, however, is likely to be an underestimate.

The war in Ukraine significantly surpasses all other armed conflicts in the world today in terms of intensity and the number of casualties. Afghanistan (with over 42,000 deaths in 2021) and Yemen (18,300 deaths in 2021) held the top spots in this IISS ranking in recent years, but now the war in Ukraine is the undisputed leader with almost 33,000 deaths, although this IISS estimate is clearly a conservative figure. The most accurate estimate of the number of deaths on the Russian side for the entire duration of the conflict is 70-75,000, the losses of the Ukrainian army, seem to be comparable (70 thousand dead as of August 2023, according to an estimate by American officials). Additionally, the Ukrainian civilian casualties stand at 10,000 according to figures from the UN mission, but could be as high as 30,000 according to the commander of the Norwegian Defence Forces. Thus, the losses for the reporting period (May 2022-June 2023) should be at least twice as high.

Moreover, according to the IISS estimates, the number of people killed in other armed conflicts over the same period exceeds 100,000. Following Ukraine in the report are Myanmar (with over 19,000 deaths) and Nigeria (10,500), where the terrorist Islamist organisation "Islamic State West Africa Province" operates. Mexico (7,700), Brazil (7,100), Ethiopia, and Somalia (6,800 and 6,500 respectively) follow. As the IISS experts note, in two of the three most acute conflicts in Asia (in Kashmir and Afghanistan), the level of violence has noticeably decreased over the past year, while in Myanmar, where the confrontation between the military junta and insurgents has been ongoing since February 2021, the number of violent incidents has increased by a third. The high level of violence in South America is mainly attributed to conflicts between gangs and criminal groups involved in various aspects of the shadow economy, primarily drug trafficking.

Leadership among global conflicts in terms of the number of internally displaced persons still belongs to Syria: more than 6.8 million in 2022, an increase of 200,000 people compared to last year. The war in Ukraine comes in second in this regard, with 5.9 million displaced persons. However, in this case, the annual increase was more than 5 million people. The Republic of Congo follows with 5.7 million (annual increase of 350,000). The residents of Congo have suffered from clashes between various armed groups for three decades, and in recent years, the situation has significantly worsened due to the infiltration of Islamist squads associated with ISIS. According to the International Organisation for Migration, in 2023 the number of internally displaced persons in the Republic of Congo approached the 7 million mark, setting a historical record for the country. In terms of the number of war refugees, Syria remains the leader in the ranking (more than 6.5 million), followed by the Palestine-Israel conflict (almost 5.9 million), as well as the war in Ukraine and Afghanistan (approximately 5.7 million each).

The unprecedented scale of the hostilities in Ukraine has also seriously affected the direction of international humanitarian aid flows. According to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as cited by IISS, Ukraine became the largest recipient of humanitarian aid in the world last year, accounting for 10% of the total. At the same time, the amount of humanitarian aid available to Yemen and Syria fell by a third, from 11% and 9% in 2021 to 7% and 6% in 2022, respectively.

The war in Ukraine has also highlighted another important trend that the IISS experts have long been highlighting — the growing internationalisation of local armed conflicts through the involvement of an increasing number of regional and global players. This fact complicates efforts to end or resolve these conflicts, and this effect is only intensified in the context of increasing geopolitical polarisation.

The second factor hindering conflict resolution is the increasingly active involvement of various non-state armed formations. According to information from the International Committee of the Red Cross, as cited by IISS, as of June 2023, there were 459 armed groups operating globally, controlling territories where approximately 195 million people lived. In Africa south of the Sahara, the Middle East, and North Africa combined, there were 295 such groups, while in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, there were 83, 68, and 14 groups respectively. Notably, 15% of these groups provide support to various state structures, and 27% receive such support themselves.

The processes gaining momentum in 2023 are leading to the further deterioration of the prospects for conflict resolution, the authors of the IISS study write. Due to the war in Ukraine, the ideological and political divide between Russia and the West has become seemingly insurmountable, and geopolitical fragmentation among the countries of the Global South has intensified. These circumstances, along with the increasing global influence of states such as China, Russia, Gulf countries, Iran, and Turkey, is becoming one of the main reasons for the decline of traditional conflict resolution institutions, including UN structures.

Disagreements over responsibility for climate change mitigation, as well as growing competition for control over resources and technologies critical to the green transition, will exacerbate the existing geopolitical tensions and become new sources of tension in the coming decades. This may push some countries to directly intervene in civil wars in resource-rich regions of the world, which may not only exacerbate existing conflicts, but also provoke new ones.