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The Intel Brief

January 2024

Dear ISW readers,


Welcome to the January installment of The Intel Brief. The ISW editorial team has curated content from diverse research portfolios, providing you with a comprehensive understanding of the war in Ukraine, the evolving geopolitical tensions with China, and the security challenges in the Middle East.


This month's highlights:


  • ISW's Russia Team published an article explaining how Ukraine is significantly increasing its defense industrial capacity to independently meet its military needs, aiming to reduce its reliance on foreign military assistance over time.


  • A militia supported by Iran executed a one-way drone attack on US forces in northeastern Jordan, resulting in the death of three American service members and injuries to 25 others. This incident is a component of the continuous Iranian-led initiative to remove US forces from the Middle East.


  • Russia and Iran have taken advantage of the emergence of a coalition of Sahelian juntas opposing the West, which have ousted Western partner states. This allows them to further their strategic goals of destabilizing Europe, easing Western sanctions, and reducing Western influence globally.

Ukraine

The anticipated Russian 2024 winter-spring offensive effort is underway in the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border area. Ukrainian officials state that Russian forces aim to reach the Zherebets River and the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Russian forces have intensified offensive operations along this axis since the beginning of January 2024.


Between December 31 and January 2, Russian forces conducted extensive drone and missile strikes in Ukrainian critical, military, and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine's rear areas, resembling a strike package used on December 29. The sustained Russian attacks underscore the need to bolster Ukraine's air defenses.


On January 3, Russia and Ukraine conducted their largest prisoner of war (POW) exchange since the war's onset and the first official exchange since August 2023. Russia's decision to engage in the largest POW exchange in almost five months is notable, suggesting an effort to counter reports of Russian abuses of Ukrainian POWs and present Russia as adhering to international law.


On January 4, US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby announced that Russia launched ballistic missiles obtained from North Korea at Ukrainian targets. Kirby said that North Korea supplied Russia with missile launchers and an undisclosed number of ballistic missiles, with at least one launched into Ukraine on December 30, 2023.


Ukrainian forces conducted a multi-day strike campaign targeting Russian military sites in occupied Crimea, successfully hitting several locations. Ukrainian forces reportedly targeted an administrative building at the Russian airfield in occupied Saky with up to four Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

Geolocated footage indicated that Russian forces were making tactical gains near Avdiivka on January 29 and January 31. The advancements occurred on the southeastern outskirts and Sportyvna Street in the southernmost residential area. These actions are being portrayed by Putin as successful in the ongoing Russian offensive, serving to justify the war in Ukraine, especially for domestic Russian audiences.

ISW featured 3 Briefing Room videos this month.


On January 4, Russia Deputy Team Lead and Analyst and Evans Hanson Fellow Karolina Hird discussed Russia's use of the POW exchange to counter abuse reports and present adherence to international law.


On January 11, Russia Analyst Riley Bailey emphasized the importance of the West to provide additional air defense systems to help Ukraine protect its people and enhance defense capabilities.


On January 25, Karolina highlighted the increase of Russian military attacks along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border in 2024, focusing on Kupyansk.

China-Taiwan

Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, won the Taiwanese presidential election on January 13, securing nearly a seven-percentage-point lead over the second-place Kuomintang (KMT) candidate. Lai's win signifies a continuation of Taiwan's cross-strait policy and diplomatic strategy established during the incumbent administration of Tsai Ing-wen. This strategy emphasizes closer cooperation with the United States, resulting in strained relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC). Lai's victory is considered a setback for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


The United States and the PRC restarted the US-China Defense Policy Coordination (CDPC) talks on January 8-9. The United States views military-to-military talks as a means of escalation management to prevent and control crises. The PRC views these talks, at least in part, as a bargaining chip that it can use to influence US behavior to the party’s benefit, however.


Daily high-altitude balloon flights by the PRC through Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) are likely part of the CCP's strategy to test Taiwan's responses and diminish its threat awareness. Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) has documented eleven instances of PRC high-altitude balloons floating over or around Taiwan since January 3.


Since mid-December, the PRC's Ministry of Foreign Affairs advocated for resolving the Korean Peninsula's issues through dialogue instead of military deterrence. Head of the CCP's International Liaison Department, Liu Jianchao, reiterated these points in a January 19 meeting with the North Korean Ambassador to China, agreeing to enhance "mutually beneficial cooperation" in the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations. The CCP aims to undermine US-South Korea security ties by diplomatically engaging with North Korea, pushing South Korea to balance its foreign policy between the United States and China. This strategy reflects a perceived regional power shift due to China's military buildup and South Korea's enhanced independent defense capabilities, with the implicit goal of prioritizing PRC strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula.

Middle East Security Project

Attack on US troops in Jordan, Iraq, and Syria


US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby highlighted the collective responsibility of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias, in attacks on US forces in Iraq. Kirby expressed skepticism about Kataib Hezbollah's announcement to suspend attacks on US forces on January 30, following the January 28 attack in northeastern Jordan that killed three US servicemembers. Kirby emphasized that Kataib Hezbollah is not the sole Iranian-backed militia involved in attacking US forces, cautioning against taking the suspension announcement at face value.


On January 29, IRGC Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani reportedly traveled to Baghdad to intervene and halt the military escalation of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias against US forces. The visit followed a January 28 drone attack, attributed to Kataib Hezbollah, which killed three US servicemembers in northeastern Jordan. Ghaani met with militia leaders from the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah, urging them to calm the security situation. Following Ghaani's reported visit, Kataib Hezbollah announced on January 30 that it suspended its "military and security operations" against US forces.


Future of US forces in Iraq


On January 13, the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party supported by Iran, introduced draft legislation in the Iraqi parliament mandating the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The proposed law aims to escalate pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani, pushing him to expel US forces from Iraq. Despite reports from senior Iraqi advisors that Sudani does not seek such expulsion, the draft law includes a prime minister-led committee, intensifying the pressure by requiring Sudani to submit a report outlining the steps for ending the US presence in Iraq.


Israel-Hamas War


On January 30, an unspecified senior Hamas official reported that mediators presented a ceasefire proposal of unspecified duration to Hamas. The proposed three-stage truce involves the release of remaining civilians held in Gaza, followed by the release of soldiers, and finally, the return of bodies of killed hostages. Hamas is currently considering the proposal. Israeli security cabinet Minister Miri Regev mentioned that the Israeli government is likely to approve the deal, despite opposition from far-right ministers. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on January 30 that he would not release "thousands" of Palestinian prisoners or withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza until achieving total victory.


Yemen air strikes


On January 11, the United States and the United Kingdom jointly conducted strikes against Houthi military facilities in Yemen. The objective was to degrade the Houthi group's capability to attack ships in the Red Sea. The operation involved over 100 precision-guided munitions launched from US aircraft, surface vessels, and subsurface vessels, targeting more than 60 Houthi command and control centers, munitions depots, production facilities, air defense radar systems, as well as drone and missile launching systems in 16 locations across Yemen. The UK Defense Ministry also reported that four RAF Typhoons used precision-guided bombs to target Houthi drone and cruise missile launching positions in northwest Yemen. The mission, Operation Poseidon Archer, continued throughout the month of January.


On January 31, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported the US military conducted strikes against a Houthi drone ground control station and 10 one-way attack drones. According to a senior US defense official based in Bahrain, F-18 aircraft carried out the strikes in western Yemen as the Houthis were preparing to launch the drones. Local Yemeni sources indicated that the strikes targeted Hudaydah city.

This newsletter once again features the 2023 year in review, a compilation of ISW's publications from 2023.


We appreciate your continuous support and enthusiasm for the Institute for the Study of War. Keep an eye out for our upcoming newsletter at the end of this month, where we will continue to deliver valuable updates and insights.


Best regards,


Christopher Solomon

ISW Production Manager and Editor

2023 Year in Review
































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