Weekly Trend Monitoring: Bakhmut, Nord Stream incident and the two sessions meeting
Updated: Mar 11
This week's trend monitor report begins with several significant events: an attrition in Bakhmut, Ukraine; a spy's act of sabotage on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline; and the announcement by China's new administration during the Two Sessions, which encompass the National People's Congress (the national legislature) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
This week, several social media outlets sympathetic to Ukraine have published photos of Yana (Yara) Rykhlitska, a 29-year-old volunteer and paramedic with the 93rd Brigade, who died near Bakhmut. Yana was killed while evacuating the wounded - the ambulance she was in was shelled. Another photo is of Timofii Shadura of the 30th Independent Mechanized Brigade, according to preliminary data from the AFU General Staff. Additionally, a video clip has been posted online showing that Shadura was executed by Russian army rifles. Reportedly, after being given a cigarette for a last smoke, Shadura exclaimed "Glory to Ukraine" before being shot dead. Although these two incidents have generated significant empathy for both victims and for the Ukrainian army, the nature of the brutal war in Bakhmut suggests that such events will continue to occur. The phrase "goodbye daughter of Ukraine" in reference to Yana's death is particularly poignant, highlighting the profound level of devotion and sacrifice displayed by those fighting for their motherland.
Bakhmut was founded by the Cossacks of the Izium Sloboda Regiment around 1680-1690s, image source
Battle of Bakhmut Continues
According to the Institute for the Study of War, which is widely considered the most credible source for monitoring the war in Ukraine, Bakhmut has been surrounded on three sides, making it much more difficult to supply the Ukrainian army. However, it is unlikely that the Russian army or Wagner group will capture Bakhmut any time soon. (see updated on the Wagner group claimed to capture eastern Bakhmut) President Zelenskyy has ordered the Ukrainian army to continue defending the city, in accordance with a unanimous decision by the general staff. The Russian tactical "assault detachments" used in attacks against Bakhmut are likely unable to conduct maneuver warfare. In addition, there has been news that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group, has once again posted a video clip in which he quasi-threatens the Kremlin to provide more ammunition. Prigozhin stated that "If Wagner PMC (private military company) were to now retreat from Bakhmut, then the entire front — which PMC Wagner today is cementing — would crumble." This statement is quite peculiar and suggests that the negotiation or discussion between the Wagner group and Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu regarding the allocation of ammunition has continued, despite previous disagreements and Prigozhin's recent remarks expressing a desire to remove Shoigu from his position.
However, as is often the case in war, it is difficult to view things through a black and white lens. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that further investigation has revealed that the sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline was carried out by a "pro-Ukraine" force. Adding more details to this story, Die Zeit, a German national weekly newspaper based in Hamburg, reported that a team of six people conducted the secret operation at sea. The group reportedly consisted of a captain, two divers, two diving assistants, and a doctor who transported explosives to the crime scenes and placed them there. The nationalities of the perpetrators remain unclear, and they used professionally forged passports to rent the boat.
Clue from Ukraine on the Sabotage of Nordstrom
According to the investigation, the commando team sailed from Rostock on September 6, 2022, with the equipment for the secret operation previously transported to the port in a delivery truck. Subsequently, investigators were able to locate the boat the following day in Wieck (Darß) and later on the Danish island of Christiansø, north-east of Bornholm. The yacht was then returned to the owner in an uncleaned condition. Investigative teams found traces of explosives on the table in the cabin, leading to the suspicion that a Ukrainian commando was responsible for the destruction. There were further intelligence indications that a pro-Ukrainian group could be responsible.
In another report from the New York Times, it is stated that United States intelligence agencies believe that certain parts of the Ukrainian government authorized the car bomb attack near Moscow in August. The attack resulted in the death of Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin, and it appears to be a part of a covert campaign that U.S. officials fear could widen the conflict.
American officials have emphasized that the United States had no role in the attack, and they did not provide any intelligence or other support. They also stated that they were not aware of the operation before it occurred and would have objected to the killing if they had been consulted. Following the attack, American officials reportedly criticized Ukrainian officials for their involvement in the assassination.
However, both reports confirm the trend that the war in Ukraine is intensifying and causing thousands of deaths on both sides. Despite being assessed as having no strategic value, Bakhmut has gained more importance due to the increasing number of Ukrainian sacrifices and Russia's attempts to capture the city as a symbolic victory. This has turned the city from being non-strategically relevant to being more strategically important, as capturing it would open the road to deeper regions in Ukraine. However, there are reports that the Ukrainian army has fortified the next line of defense in the surrounding cities. The fall of Bakhmut will have a psychological impact on the Ukrainian people, while the Russian army will use it as efficient war propaganda.
In the final part of our trend monitoring this week, we turn to China's Two Sessions meeting. During the National People's Congress on Sunday, Li Keqiang, a cautious, capable, and highly intelligent bureaucrat who rose through the ranks of a consensus-oriented Communist Party that reflexively stifles dissent, bid his final remarks at the meeting. He set a target of about 5% growth for 2023, acknowledging the "many difficulties" the economy is facing. The only year in recent history when the government has been less ambitious was in 2020, when it passed on a numerical target because the economy was nearly paralyzed by the initial Covid outbreak.
China-US Intense Competition
Li has been gradually sidelined, paving the way for Xi's loyalists to replace him as he departs from the position of the premiership this year.
At a recent meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a rare critical comment about Western countries, stating that "Western countries—led by the U.S.—have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development," as reported by state media on Monday. This marks a departure from Mr. Xi's usual reluctance to directly criticize the U.S. in public, despite his negative view of the bilateral relationship during his decade-long leadership. Previously, Mr. Xi has conveyed his criticisms of the U.S. through subordinates in internal speeches, while publicly referring to them as "certain" countries, without explicitly naming them.
It should be noted that the new Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, made several important remarks during a press conference at the event. He replied to a question from Xinhua News Agency regarding the US Indo-Pacific strategy, even though the reporters did not ask about ASEAN. He stated, "The US claim to 'shape the strategic environment in which China operates' actually reveals the real purpose of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is to encircle China. Such an attempt will only disrupt the ASEAN-centered, open, and inclusive regional cooperation architecture and undermine the overall and long-term interests of regional countries. It is bound to fail." Qin Gang's tactful diplomacy raises a question that whether China has abandoned the wolf warrior diplomacy?
The media outlet established by the bipartisan Congress, the newly established Select Committee on the CCP, seems to be taking a more propagandistic approach. However, this reflects the declining attitude of Americans towards China, as surveyed by Gallup. Senior Chinese leaders have fiercely confronted this, even though it was done through internal communication channels.
Recently, the American perception of China has dramatically declined, reaching historic lows of 15%, compared to its peak at 72% in 1989, according to a Gallup poll. Francis Fukuyama recently published a video interview with Oriana Mastro, both of whom are Center Fellows at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute, regarding the potential for war between China and the US. Oriana explained three possible scenarios for war, including the beachhead, firing missiles, and a blockade. While the latter two scenarios won't change the status quo, the first scenario could be very risky for China and Xi's strategic calculation, which must be completed within the first 48 hours; otherwise, it risks escalating to a full-scale war with the US. Fukuyama agreed with this assessment and noted that Xi is different from Putin, who is more of a risk taker, while Xi is more cautious. Therefore, deterrence is more important than ever, as demonstrated by the war in Ukraine, where Putin's assessment of the low cost of making the decision to invade Ukraine was due to the lack of an appropriate deterrence. Currently, scholars have made several assessments, but the majority, 44%, believe that Beijing has set a hard deadline to achieve unification by 2049.
See additional related reports on:
China to Create New Top Regulator for Data Governance [source]
Translation: ‘Plan for the Overall Layout of Building a Digital China’ [source]
Let’s Start With What China’s Digital Currency is Not [source]
The Taiwan Temptation [source]
Water Crisis as a Security Issue: Water Securitization in People’s Republic of China [source]
Correction: The headline has been corrected from Nordstrom to Nord Stream, we apologize for our previous misspelling.
Geopolitics.Asia will provide serious policy analysis on Mondays, trend monitoring on weekdays, and cultural and lifestyle issues on weekends. Please note that our weekday situation monitoring will not include a trend radar or scenario analysis for the time being, as we work to fully automate these processes with AI. You can, however, access to our previous experiments on trend radar and scenario planning generated by the AI, 1) Simple scenario planning at Jan 26, 2023, 2) Double iteration scenario planning technique at February 2, 2023, 3) Triple iteration scenario planning technique at February 9, 2023, and 4) Hyperdimensional scenario planning technique at February 17, 2023.
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