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Forecast Podcast: Russia’s moves in eastern Ukraine intensify, raising fears of a deadly war

A map of Factal's updates for the Ukraine-Russia conflict for Feb 23, 2022

Listen to the full episode here:

Show Notes:

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Alex Moore discuss the  escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, plus more on Somalia’s national election deadline, a constitutional referendum in Belarus, Canada easing travel restrictions and President Biden delivering the State of the Union.

These stories and more are also available in our weekly Forecast email and you can subscribe for free.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Vivian Wang, Jimmy Lovaas, Thibault Spirlet, Jaime Calle and Alex More.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note: hello@factal.com

Transcript:

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

JIMMY LOVAAS, HOST:

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is February 24th.

In this week’s forecast we’ll look at Somalia’s national election deadline, a constitutional referendum in Belarus, Canada easing travel restrictions, President Biden delivering the State of the Union and an update on the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

You can read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Somalia’s national election deadline

Information compiled by Vivian Wang

JIMMY: Somalia’s leaders are scheduled to complete their national parliamentary elections by Friday. The deadline comes after more than a year of delays fueled by political instability and a bitter feud between its government leaders.

President Farmaajo and Prime Minister Roble have been locked in disputes over the country’s national elections since April when Farmaajo’s expired presidential mandate was controversially extended.

And that extension triggered deadly fighting in Mogadishu over what critics saw as a power grab. 

Meanwhile, as Roble and Farmaajo continued to blame each other over ongoing delays, the country faced regular attacks by al-Shabab militants

Now, if Somalia does not successfully complete the elections as planned, the country faces threats of sanctions from the United States and reduced funding from the IMF

What’s more, continued instability could also prove dangerous in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab as the group continues to try to topple the fragile central government.

Belarus referendum

Information compiled by Jimmy Lovaas

JIMMY: Belarusians will complete voting on a constitutional referendum on Sunday. The vote comes in the wake of the 2020-2021 mass protests, which were the country’s largest since gaining independence from the Soviet Union.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, ordered the referendum in January. 

Included is an amendment to the constitution that would bring back presidential term limits, but would also allow Lukashenko to run for two additional terms after his current one ends in 2025. 

The amendments would also give new powers to the parliament-like, but government-friendly All-Belarus People’s Assembly and remove clauses about Belarus’ pursuit of neutrality and its non-nuclear status.

Now, the referendum has drawn criticism from some, including the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The U.S. mission has called the referendum “non-transparent” and said it’s not a credible path forward for Belarus to resolve the country’s political crisis. 

Some opponents say the draft amendments, which Lukashenko has said he personally wrote, are not something Belarusians are even demanding. 

Instead, some argue the referendum is an attempt by Lukashenko to strengthen his grip and remain in power until 2035. 

Finally, if the referendum passes and Belarus ditches its non-nuclear status, it could pave the way for the country to host Russian nuclear weapons.

Canada eases travel requirements

Information compiled by Thibault Spirlet 

JIMMY: Canada’s public health agency will start easing coronavirus-related entry measures for fully vaccinated international travelers on Monday.

The changes come as coronavirus cases continue to decline and after weeks of protests in Ottawa against coronavirus restrictions.

The easing will allow a rapid antigen test for travelers instead of a molecular one.

Of course, there will be some new measures, including random testing of international travelers entering Canada. 

Additionally, unvaccinated travelers will still be required to take tests on arrival and on day eight, as well as quarantine for 14 days. 

Canada’s travel advisory now urges Canadian citizens to take precautions, as opposed to recommending against all non-essential travel. 

The Global Business Travel Association has welcomed the move as a “positive step” that will boost business travel.

Biden delivers State of the Union

Information compiled by Jaime Calle Moreno 

JIMMY: President Joe Biden will deliver the first State of the Union of his presidency on Tuesday and all 535 congressional members will be invited to attend as the US continues to ease coronavirus restrictions.

Last week, the House sergeant-at-arms announced that all members of the House and Senate can be present in the House chamber, provided each lawmaker produces a negative PCR test and wears a mask. 

Biden delivered a joint statement to Congress in April of 2020, but such a speech is not considered a State of the Union until the president’s second calendar year in office. 

Of course, looming over this year’s address are reports of a convoy of truckers set to arrive in Washington, D.C., around the time of Biden’s address. 

As a result, fencing will be reinstalled around the U.S. Capitol, and various law enforcement agencies, including the National Guard, are drawing up contingency plans.

Now, Biden is expected to address several issues in his speech, including the $1.75 trillion infrastructure plan that’s stalled in the Senate, the country’s efforts on coronavirus, and voting rights. 

And with the Ukraine conflict ramping up and the possible arrival of a trucker’s convoy, Biden’s first State of the Union could hold surprises

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to remove any members who refuse to wear masks

It’s still unclear how many Republicans plan to attend in person.

Ukraine-Russia conflict

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on the crisis underway in eastern Ukraine. For more on that I recently spoke with Factal Editor Alex Moore.

JIMMY: Hi, Alex. 

ALEX: Hello, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Hey, before we get into some of the latest developments in Ukraine, can you maybe just give folks a brief summary on how the conflict got started, who the players are and whatnot? And I do recognize that’s a pretty tall order for a short podcast like ours.

ALEX: No, we can be succinct. So, obviously Ukraine and Russia are major players and in 2013 and 2014 some large scale protests in Ukraine toppled a pro-Russian strongman and a new government came into place and Russia succeeded then to annex the Crimean peninsula, which is very important to them. It’s where their Black Sea fleet is headquartered. Then, shortly thereafter, they sent their hybrid warfare machine into eastern Ukraine in Donetsk Oblast and Luhansk Oblast to sort of whip up unrest among separatists and seize government buildings. And before we knew it, there were these self-proclaimed entities called the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic – Russia backed separatist groups that then formed governments and with significant Russian backing proceeded to then wage a pretty intense war against the Ukrainian state in 2014-2015. And since then, it’s been largely a frozen conflict with clashes persisting ever since. 

JIMMY: So what’s changed then? How do we go from a years-long conflict to now we’re talking about a possible invasion of Ukraine?

ALEX: It’s a good question. Late last year, Russia began amassing forces all along the Ukrainian border, both to its north and to Ukraine’s West, as well as moving naval assets and assets to Crimea, so from the South and the Black Sea. And they steadily built this force posture up. Now it’s up around 200,000 total forces. And this was apparently a sort of a gambit to extract sweeping concessions from NATO. You know, regarding NATO expansion into Ukraine, into Georgia; NATO exercises in former post Soviet states that are already in NATO. So that’s sort of how we got to the point where we are today. 

JIMMY: I see. You know, some have called this escalation the greatest security crisis in Europe since the Cold War. You think that’s a fair assessment?

ALEX: I do, definitely. And I think a lot of the commentary on post-war Europe tends to be rosy, let’s call it. I mean, there have been wars in Europe. I mean, the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 90s was obviously extremely bloody. Obviously, Russia and Ukraine have been fighting a war now for eight years. So it’s not like it’s all rosy from the end of the Cold War to now. But yeah, I think it’s extremely fair to to call this the most precarious security moment that Europe’s faced since the cold war, I do. 

JIMMY: What’s the current situation like? Albeit with the disclaimer that things may change before we get this published tomorrow?

ALEX: Yeah, so starting on February 17, once Russia had amassed all these forces and corresponding infrastructure – hospitals, blood banks, that sort of thing – what we saw was a very intense outbreak of combat all across the entire line of contact, which is hundreds of miles of heavily fortified trenches. And this was the most intense combat in years. In some ways, it’s the most intense it’s ever seen, given the sheer breadth of the locations of the fighting. And in a pretty momentous moment, President Putin announced they were going to recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic after a series of what analysts say were staged provocations of shelling across the Russian border in the Rostov region. And basically, both sides just blame one another for the drastically deteriorating security situation. Russia took in well over 100,000 evacuees from the regions who had already been given passports years ago. So it’s pretty intense right now. And now, the question now is that they recognize the sovereignty of these regions. Crucially, they recognize the sovereignty of all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, not just what they currently control, and the line of contacts roughly divide the region in half. So what that signals is potentially pretty bloody offensive across the trench networks and in the Ukraine occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, which includes major cities like Mariupol’, Severodonetsk and others. And that presupposes that any offensive would remain confined, of course, to the regions that the separatists now are recognized by Russia as having sovereignty over. There, of course, remains a possibility that there’s some sort of broader offensive from the north in Kharkiv, maybe even Kyiv, to Odessa in the south. We just don’t really know. So it’s a bit of a precarious moment.

JIMMY: I hate to put you on the spot, but, you know, do we know what Putin wants out of all this? For that matter, do we know what Ukraine wants to happen?

ALEX: It’s an interesting question. It’s obviously extremely difficult, if not impossible to get into the mind of Vladimir Putin. But, you know, when they annexed Crimea in 2014, there’s a geopolitical rationale that you can tie that up in with the Black Sea Fleet being there, more or less. Likewise, with waging the hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, once that happened, it became readily apparent that Ukraine was not going to join NATO, which, obviously Russia is opposed to. They did the same thing with Georgia in 2008. But if you listen to Putin’s speech, when he announced the recognition of DPR and LPR, it was much broader than that. You know, they were invoking Ukrainian sovereignty in very stark ways. Stark language to describe the history of Ukraine as what has obviously been a Russian dominion for chunks of its history. That sort of signaled that he might want more. 

JIMMY: And how about Ukraine? 

ALEX: You know, they understand that an offensive into the Russian-held territories is unlikely to go well for them. The Ukrainian forces along the line of contact had been under pretty strict orders not to shoot unless shot at. But at this point, it’s just a matter of how far Russia will intend to go. But it seems likely that we will soon see something happen with overt Russian forces. They keep saying that they’re going to respond to threats with the peacekeeping forces that have been given a legal mandate. So at this point, it is a matter of when and how intense. 

JIMMY: How’s the international response been to all this?

ALEX: Obviously, it’s been a lot of condemnation; not much support for Russia in this regard. Obviously, the West has had a unified front. The US, the EU, the UK – the usual players have levied further sanctions against Russia, which is already heavily sanctioned since the Crimea annexation. Germany has halted Nord Stream 2, which is a major oil pipeline that Ukraine was opposed to because it diverts Ukraine. Where most Russian pipelines would go through they would get transit fees. This one went around Ukraine. That was a bit momentous. So, it’s been more or less what you’d expect on the international front.

JIMMY: Well, I know there’s a lot of unknowns here but what do you think folks should be watching for next? 

ALEX: Quite a few things. I think we touched a lot upon the potential for fighting to escalate. I would watch closely, obviously, Russia sending in overt forces and acknowledging it. Would be next in the cards. Then some sort of offensive in the Donbass region. Cities like Mariupol’ seeing combat would be a big deal, potentially very deadly. And of course, further incursion into non-Donbass Ukrainian areas. And as far as the broader, I guess, international ramifications, Russia is obviously a major player in the global oil markets. We’ve already seen prices shoot up with the intensified unrest there over the last week or so and expect that to be a thing further. Ukraine is a major grain producer. So some analysts fear that there could actually be some offshoot impacts of food insecurity in Asia, Africa, places that are reliant upon Ukrainian foodstuff exports in the instance that this is a war that does envelop a lot more of Ukraine than just the Donbass region. So a lot of moving parts here.

JIMMY: Well, I always appreciate your insight into the region and today is no different. Thank you for bringing us up to speed on the conflict. 

ALEX: No, thanks for having me. Always a pleasure. 

JIMMY: Take care

JIMMY: Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Vivian Wang, Jimmy Lovaas, Thibault Spirlet and Jaime Calle. Our interview featured editor Alex Moore and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, thanks for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. You can, of course, subscribe for free. And if you have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

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