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Forecast: Israeli offensive in Rafah sparks fear of humanitarian catastrophe, Russia’s election campaign begins, and EU launches mission in Red Sea

Sitting in a dining chair Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing to the left. There are cameras and video equipment around him.

Welcome to Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories from the editors at Factal.

We publish our forward-looking note each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead.

Some 1.7 million displaced Palestinians may face another evacuation if Israel proceeds with its plan to launch a military operation in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. In this week’s Factal Forecast podcast, Senior Editor Jimmy Lovaas and Editor Agnese Boffano discuss the logistics of such an evacuation and why the some in the international community argue it’s a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

Listen now or download on your favorite platform. 

Week of Feb. 16-23
A Look Ahead

Feb. 17 – Russian presidential campaign period begins  

The campaigning window for Russia’s March presidential election opens Saturday.

What’s happened so far 
The presidential election will mark Russia’s first since 2018, as well as its first since the full invasion of Ukraine catalyzed heightened levels of domestic repression within Russia. It will also serve as the reset for President Vladimir Putin’s term count following a spate of constitutional reforms in 2020 that pave the way for Putin and his unprecedented rule to enter a fourth decade in power. Three other candidates from Kremlin-approved opposition parties will partake in six debates during the campaign period, though Putin will not

The impact 
Though Putin will almost assuredly win the election, the vote will be noteworthy for a few reasons, beginning with the Kremlin’s decision to disqualify two relatively anti-war candidates from the ballot. Protests coinciding with Russian elections is possible, given the past history of organized rallies triggered by votes, though post-invasion legal changes have brought demonstrations to near-total criminalization. The possibility of spillover to the Ukraine war exists, with Kyiv demonstrating heightened ability to reach deep into Russia with domestically-produced drones in 2024. 

Feb. 18 – Sheinbaum to register as candidate for president of Mexico 

The former mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, will be making her presidential run official on Sunday when she registers as a candidate for Mexico’s election in June.

What’s happened so far 
Sheinbaum went to school to become an environmental scientist, getting her doctorate from the University of California in Berkeley. In 2007, she was part of a group that won the Nobel Peace Prize for raising awareness of climate change. She has been a longtime ally of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second six-year term. His party, MORENA, held primaries in September which Sheinbaum won handily despite concerns from her main challenger about the process. 

The impact 
If Sheinbaum is elected, there would likely be a continuation of AMLO’s policies. That includes the much-maligned “hugs, not bullets” campaign, which has done little to curb cartel violence in the past six years. Despite that, the MORENA party maintains popularity and controls 22 of Mexico’s 32 states. Recent polls confirm that, with Sheinbaum tracking to get more than 60 percent of the vote. Still, many Mexicans are concerned about the democratic backsliding that AMLO has championed and have voiced concerns that it may continue under Sheinbaum as well, with protests planned in several major cities.

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Feb. 19 – EU aims to launch Red Sea naval mission

On Monday, European Union member states are expected to launch a mission to protect commercial vessels against attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group in the Red Sea.

What’s happened so far 
While many details are still not official, including what country will command the mission and what navy assets each country will provide, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed the mission would launch Monday, which will coincide with an informal meeting of defense ministers in Brussels. Reports say Greece is expected to take the overall command of the mission with its headquarters in Larissa, but France and Italy have also shown interest.

The impact 
The Iranian-backed Houthis have carried out dozens of attacks on international shipping through the Red Sea in response to Israel’s war on Gaza, impacting a key shipping route for global trade. Italy committed to providing the admiral to the mission aimed at protecting commercial vessels rather than participating in strikes that the United States and the United Kingdom have conducted in recent weeks. France and Italy already have warships in the area, and diplomats have said Germany is planning to send a frigate to the region as well.

Feb. 20 – Julian Assange final appeal against U.S. extradition  

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is set for his final appeal in London’s High Court on Tuesday as he battles extradition to the United States with his lawyer claiming his life is at risk.

What’s happened so far 
Assange is fighting extradition to the United States on charges related to the publication of classified documents on WikiLeaks more than a decade ago. With 17 charges related to espionage, he could face up to 175 years in a maximum-security prison if convicted. Amnesty International says the U.S. pursuit of Assange “is nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression” and called for the charges to be dropped.

The impact 
If Assange, who is being held at the high-security Belmarsh prison in London, loses the appeal, he could be extradited to the United States, and would face his first court appearance in Alexandria, Va., shortly after. WikiLeaks says the two-day hearing may be his final chance to prevent extradition.

Feb. 21- MLS season scheduled to begin amid referee union negotiations  

The U.S. national soccer league starts Wednesday, as the referee union is set to strike unless an agreement is made with the top refereeing organization. 

What’s happened so far 
The collective bargaining agreement between U.S. soccer’s refereeing union and the head organization was initially extended on Jan.15 and then expired at the end of the month. The union is asking for significant pay rises and improvement on issues such as training and locker room conditions, as well as other benefits. The refereeing union is set to strike if no agreement is reached by Wednesday, when Inter Miami plays Real Salt Lake. 

The impact 
If a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached, MLS will have to find replacements on short notice for the beginning of the new season. This is also amid unconfirmed reports that the U.S. Soccer Federation is set to withdraw financial support for the refereeing organization, which was accused of making false statements about a locker room incident with a player. Referees feel they are not being compensated or supported as much as they should be, and while negotiations are underway, it is yet to be seen whether or not the league begins with replacement referees, likely from FIFA. 

Feb. 22 – Judges meet to elect Colombia attorney general  

Colombia’s Supreme Court will hold a vote Thursday to elect the country’s new attorney general.

What’s happened so far 
The vote will take place after several failed attempts to elect one of the three candidates proposed by President Gustavo Petro to replace outgoing Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, whose term expired on Feb. 12. Barbosa, a conservative magistrate appointed in 2020 under the endorsement of then President Iván Duque, has been openly critical of Petro’s government since he took office. The latest unsuccessful vote at the Supreme Court on Feb. 8 sparked protests and some violent incidents across Colombia’s main cities as supporters of the president accused the country’s magistrates of a judicial blockade (members’ link)

The impact 
Deputy Attorney Martha Mancera, who was questioned over alleged ties to criminal groups in Valle del Cauca last year, has been designated by Barbosa as his substitute until the court successfully appoints a successor. Mancera will inherit the case against the president’s son, Nicolás Petro, over alleged money laundering and illicit enrichment activities. Candidates Ángela María Buitrago, Luz Adriana Camargo and Amelia Pérez have promised to reinforce the independence and autonomy of the attorney’s office and to fight against corruption should they be elected.  

What Else Matters

A child leans to the left as they stand in the middle of a dirt road. The road is framed by buildings that are generally three stories tall. These buildings are concrete and show damage. The sky is sunny and bright.
A child stands in the road in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip in 2005. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the country’s military to present plans to evacuate the area ahead of an “intensive military operation.” (Photo: velvetart / Flickr)

Israel proposes Rafah evacuation 

On Feb. 9, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the country’s military to present plans to evacuate civilians from the southern Gaza city of Rafah ahead of an “intensive military operation.” Following the announcement, an Israeli military and Shin Bet command unit attempted an extraction operation earlier this week in Rafah, marking the first such occasion in which ground forces entered the southern city. Although the operation was successful in retrieving two Israeli-Argentinian hostages, Palestinian officials reported airstrikes conducted in conjunction with the operation killed at least 67 Palestinians.

Watch for: Since the start of Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have been told to evacuate south to Rafah to seek refuge and, as a result, the southern city is now home to approximately 1.7 million displaced individuals. Although the plans for a possible Rafah offensive have not been made public, analysts suggest the scale of urban warfare would be logistically difficult given its proximity to the Egyptian border. The nature of the evacuations remains unclear given that Egypt has said it would not take in refugees across the border. The United States, United Nations and European Union have also all warned Israel not to expand their ground offensive, saying it would cause a “humanitarian catastrophe” as mediators rush to get a ceasefire in place.

Renewed fighting in Armenia-Azerbaijan 

Four Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani fire along the two countries’ shared border Tuesday, Armenia’s defense ministry said, in the first fatal exchanges since negotiations began to end 30 years of sporadic conflict. Fighting has centered around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Azerbaijani forces seized in September 2023, forcing the dissolution of the breakaway Armenia-backed Artsakh Republic. Azerbaijan said the latest firing was a retaliation for Armenian gunfire the previous day, which reportedly injured one soldier.

Watch for: Both sides appear to have no appetite for further escalation. Azerbaijan said allegations that this incident was a precursor for more violence were “groundless,” while Armenia called on its troops not to respond to Baku’s “provocations.” Russia, which maintains a peacekeeper presence in Karabakh, called on both sides to show restraint. Any further skirmishes at the border could jeopardize the ongoing peace negotiations, which are in a fledgling phase of direct contact as opposed to being conducted through mediators. 

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

Feb. 16-23 

Feb. 16

  • Munich Security Conference

Feb. 17

  • EU aims to launch Red Sea naval mission

Feb. 18

  • Kurdistan parliamentary election

Feb. 19

  • Qatar Open begins

Feb. 20

  • Julian Assange final appeal against U.S. extradition

Feb. 21 

  • MLS season scheduled to begin amid referee union negotiations
  • Biden’s brother to testify in impeachment inquiry

Feb. 24-March 1

Feb. 24

  • Republican primary in South Carolina

Feb. 25 

  • Cambodia Senate election
  • Senegal presidential elections

Feb. 26

  • Nigeria central bank policy meeting

Feb. 27 

  • Israel municipal elections

March 1

  • Iran parliamentary elections
  • Thailand and China waive visa requirements for travelers

March 2-8 

March 4

  • Donald Trump 2020 election results trial in Washington

March 5 

  • Super Tuesday primaries

March 6

  • UK spring budget

March 7

  • Biden delivers State of the Union address

March 9-15 

March 10 

  • Portugal elections

March 11

  • Biden to release proposed U.S. budget plan
  • Ramadan starts

March 12

  • Philippines president visits Germany

March 15

  • Deadline for India to withdraw troops from Maldives

Top photo: Russian President Putin, pictured above in his interview with Tucker Carlson, is running for an unprecedented fourth decade in power in his country’s elections (Photo: Kremlin)

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