The increase in global conflicts that have overshadowed 2023 has set alarm bells ringing in the halls of Europe's defense companies.
We are less than three weeks into 2024, and the governments of Estonia, Sweden and now the United Kingdom have already warned their respective nations that the possibility of full-scale war is imminent.
Leaked German intelligence documents suggest Berlin is expecting Russia to launch another wave of attacks to overwhelm Ukraine and is scrambling to draw up contingency plans in the event Russian troops march west from Belarus.
The Israel-Hamas conflict threatens to spread violence across the Middle East as Iran's so-called “Axis of Resistance” – including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels – increases their attacks on Israel and commercial shipping routes, prompting Britain and The US launched a series of devastating air and sea attacks.
Further east, Taiwan's election of a new democracy-loving president has further angered Beijing as a Chinese invasion of the island nation looks increasingly likely in the coming years.
And all the while, Kim Jong Un stands by, fist-pumping, clutching the keys to North Korea's nuclear arsenal, ready to plunge his enemies into a radioactive winter.
In a stark warning speech this week, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps sought to highlight the serious threats facing Britain and beyond.
“In five years, we could be dealing with multiple theaters, including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.” Given today's conflicts around the world, ask yourself: Is this number more likely to increase or decrease?
“I suspect we all know the answer.”
Now, as international security experts cacophonously agree that we are closer to World War III than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, Web examines the global “fault lines” that could drag Europe into massive armed conflict.
Photo released by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on January 14, 2021 shows Israeli troops during a military operation in the Gaza Strip
An oil depot burns in occupied Donetsk, Ukraine, after a rocket attack
Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on January 14, 2024
China's aircraft carrier Liaoning (R) arrives in Hong Kong waters
Smoke rises over Gaza amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel on January 16, 2024
Russia-Ukraine: gateway to war between Moscow and NATO
With Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the specter of a major armed conflict loomed over Europe for the first time since the end of the Second World War.
The UK and EU immediately jumped to Ukraine's defense, targeting Moscow with a barrage of economic sanctions and providing billions in military and humanitarian funding to boost Kiev's war effort.
But now, nearly two years into the conflict and with no clear end in sight, European nations are forced to grapple with the very real possibility that the war could drag on indefinitely — and perhaps even across borders could extend beyond Ukraine.
In an alarming speech earlier this month, Sweden's Civil Protection Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin said: “War could break out in Sweden… The world is facing a security situation with greater risks than at any time since the end of the Second World War,” and urged its citizens to join voluntary civil defense groups.
Days later, the Estonian prime minister said Europe had only three to five years to prepare for the return of Russia as a serious military threat on NATO's eastern flank, before British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said this week he would send 20,000 British troops to To take part in such a return, one of NATO's largest war games since the Cold War.
“Our adversaries are busily rebuilding their barriers, old enemies are being revived, battle lines are being redrawn, the tanks are literally on Ukraine’s turf and the foundations of the world order are being shaken to the core,” he said.
These dire warnings came as leaked German Defense Ministry documents laid out a step-by-step guide to how Russia could escalate the conflict in Ukraine into an even larger battle.
The leaked plans, published by German newspaper Bild, detail the path to a third world war, with Putin using Belarus as a launching pad for an invasion – as he did for his war in Ukraine in February 2022.
General Sir Richard Barrons warned that Britain was woefully underprepared for a conflict with Russia and called on the government to invest heavily in rebuilding the armed forces to meet the challenge.
“Russia is clearly upset and is rearming so its capabilities are restored and if the shooting in Ukraine stops, Russia will blame us for the outcome,” he told Web
“We are already in a confrontation with Russia.” At the moment we have chosen to do very little about it.
“During the Cold War, the army was ready to fight within four hours at any time.” When the Cold War ended and there was no longer any sense of existential danger to the UK, all of this was dismantled.
“Now we would have to wait five to 10 years in advance of a Russian surprise attack to deal with this. “It's deeply disappointing.”
Retired US Army Brigadier General Kevin Ryan also told Web that NATO's failure to prepare could lead Putin to attack.
“Until recently, it seemed that Russia could not build an army good enough to enforce this demand.” But if Russia continues to expand its armed forces and ramp up military production, we must prepare for it.
“Preparing for it could be enough to avert a major war. If you don't prepare for it, you could be invited,” he concluded.
Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army in Europe between 2014 and 2018, added: “If the civilian leadership doesn't believe there is a threat, they won't be able to respond quickly enough.” Our leaders should talk to us like adults. That doesn’t mean you’re scaremongering, it’s that you’re taking precautions, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
How NATO could face a possible all-out war with Russia by the summer of 2025, according to leaked German defense documents
A Ukrainian soldier from the 406th Artillery Brigade named after Khorunzhoy Gen. Oleksii Almazov places 155mm grenades near an M777 howitzer at an undisclosed location in the Zaporizhia region of southeastern Ukraine, Jan. 14, 2024
A crater left by a missile in the courtyard of a damaged residential building after a Russian attack on January 2, 2024 in Kharkiv
Grant Shapps sent out a warning that Britain and its allies must increase defense spending in the face of threats from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea
Mr Shapps said the UK's contribution to this year's Steadfast Defender exercise would provide an “important reassurance” to the “threat” posed by Russia's Vladimir Putin
The Middle East: A powder keg waiting for a spark
The ruthless attacks by Hamas gunmen on Israeli towns and kibbutzim on October 7, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis, prompted Tel Aviv to launch a brutal airstrike on Palestinian territory and a subsequent armed raid on Palestinian territory that killed more than 20,000 Residents of the Gaza Strip were killed.
But the heinous violence sweeping the Gaza Strip threatens to plunge the entire region's already fragile security landscape into utter chaos.
Since October 7, Hezbollah has stepped up attacks on cities in northern Israel and engaged in firefights with the IDF across the border, and heavily armed Houthi rebels in Yemen have hijacked merchant ships and damaged several others with rockets.
US and British forces responded with fury, carrying out massive attacks on dozens of rebel strongholds, but the rebel Supreme Political Council threatened retaliation, declaring: “All US-British interests have become legitimate targets of Yemeni forces.”
The Houthis made good on their threat this week, firing another missile at a U.S. cargo ship traveling in the Gulf of Aden, while disturbing footage in Yemen's capital Sanaa showed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people chanting anti-U.S. slogans chanted.
But behind each of the emerging militias in the Middle East lies a much greater threat: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis are part of Iran's “Axis of Resistance” – groups spread across the Middle East that form a geopolitical and military alliance to counter threats from the West and regional rivals. The Islamic Republic has significant military forces in Iraq and Syria, which have carried out several drone and missile attacks on U.S. bases in recent months.
Tehran is also preparing a far-reaching strategic partnership agreement with none other than Vladimir Putin, for which it is already producing drones to bomb Ukrainian cities.
Putin himself has warned that “further escalation of the crisis will have serious, extremely dangerous and destructive consequences… It could reach far beyond the borders of the Middle East.”
Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the US Institute of Peace's MENA Center, said that with tensions high in the Middle East, a single spark could ignite the powder keg at any moment.
“The Middle East is in the midst of unprecedented tensions, unparalleled in recent history. Across the region, as many as four major flashpoints could trigger a major war in the Middle East. In addition to the conflict dynamics between Israel and Lebanon, the Red Sea, Iraq and Syria have also become sites of spillover confrontations from Gaza.
“A violent surge in one of these hotspots could quickly escalate into a major confrontation,” she concluded.
Tehran is the main backer of both Hamas and Hezbollah – but these are just some of the powerful militias that have been propped up by Iranian money, weapons and military training in recent decades
A view of the destruction of the Al-Maghazi refugee camp following the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the area in Deir Al Balah, Gaza, on January 16, 2024
Supporters of the Houthi movement gather in Sanaa, Yemen, on Friday to denounce US and British airstrikes on Houthi targets
An RAF Typhoon aircraft takes off to join the US-led coalition in carrying out airstrikes against military targets in Yemen
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, speaks with a gun in his hand in Sanaa, Yemen, on Friday
A handout image provided by the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran shows Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meeting with Iranian clerics from across the country on January 16, 2024 in Tehran, Iran
China-Taiwan: A localized conflict that could lead to a clash of titans
Last weekend, Lai Ching-te – the presidential candidate most hated by Beijing – was elected as Taiwan's new leader.
Chinese officials branded him a dangerous separatist – one spokesman called him a “destroyer of peace” and declared in a delusional and mocking statement that the new president-elect did not represent the voice of his people.
Analysts expect China to increase its anger around May, when Lai takes office, by dramatically increasing aggressive military exercises around the island or restricting imports from Taiwan as economic punishment.
China has done both in the past, particularly hosting war games on an unprecedented scale following the visit of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Beijing already routinely sends fighter jets and warships into the skies and waters around Taiwan – a constant reminder of the threat of invasion if the government refuses to become part of China.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Taiwan as a renegade province that should be brought back under Beijing's control – something authoritarian President Xi Jinping is prepared to do by force.
But Taiwan's elected Democratic Progressive Party steadfastly maintains that it presides over a self-governing, democratic, capitalist society with overwhelming support from its people.
Taipei's army, navy and air force are among the best trained, most technologically advanced and best equipped in the world. But China's huge population and vast resources mean Beijing's military has the advantage in every possible way.
In a direct fight, China would quickly overwhelm Taiwan's defenses and take control of the island nation.
But any aggression from Beijing could trigger a military clash between the world's two superpowers in the 21st century.
CIA Director William Burns claimed last year that US intelligence agencies had suggested that Xi had ordered his country's military to be “ready by 2027” to invade Taiwan, and President Joe Biden confirmed that Washington would come to Taipei's aid, “if an unprecedented attack actually occurred.” .
America's willingness to abandon its decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity demonstrates Taiwan's strategic importance on many fronts.
The island has one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world and is the leading manufacturer of key technology components.
Geographically, it is also a highly strategic ally, as it is part of the “First Island Chain,” which allows states such as the United States, Australia and South Korea to establish a series of allied nations that monitor and deter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
But even the threat of US intervention does not appear to have dampened China's ambitions.
In his New Year's address to the nation, Xi said China will “certainly be reunified” and all Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be united by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the revitalization of the Chinese nation. '
Chinese People's Liberation Army troops patrol with the Chinese flag during an exercise
Taiwanese soldiers pose for group photos with a Taiwan flag after a readiness improvement exercise in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its territory, and fears have grown in recent years that Xi is planning an invasion in the coming years amid increasingly hostile rhetoric and simulated blockades of the island. But China has also been involved in other trouble spots. Pictured: Chinese soldiers take part in a simulated beach attack
Chinese President Xi Jinping considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be brought under Beijing's control
A Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile is fired during an exercise at an undisclosed location on December 18, 2023, North Korea said
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks at a rocket launcher before firing a Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile during an exercise North Korea said was being conducted at an undisclosed location, Dec. 18, 2023
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korea: A nuclear pariah poised to destabilize relations with the West
Much of North Korea's population faces dire hardship, persistent famine, a lack of health care and near-total isolation from the world beyond its borders.
That's because Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has focused almost all of his country's resources and wealth on a single goal – building the world's largest and most threatening nuclear arsenal.
His regime tested a record number of missiles in 2022 and continued to do so rapidly in 2023. Satellite overflights also showed that the long-defunct Punggye-ri nuclear test site had been reconstructed, presumably to enable the development of a brand new bomb.
Because North Korea is almost completely isolated from the world stage, it is less likely to become embroiled in a major conflict, and the threat of war has been a tool to maintain dynasty power since the country's founding by Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung Handle.
But the regime has already agreed to supply Moscow with ammunition for its ongoing war in Ukraine, at a time when the West's relations with its historic allies – China and Russia – are at a new low.
A RUSI analysis of North Korean ammunition deliveries to Russia warned: “The effects will be felt far beyond the battlefield in Ukraine.” The sale of such quantities of ammunition will fill the coffers of the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang.
“North Korea could demand other assistance from Russia in return for its support, including the provision of missiles and other advanced military technologies.”
And a U.S. intelligence estimate released in June 2023 warned that Pyongyang could expand the scope of its incessant missile tests to carry out more provocative or even damaging attacks off the coast of Western partners Japan and South Korea.
Bruce Bennett, deputy international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, said: “North Korea knows that the United States has promised that the regime will not survive if the North uses its nuclear weapons.” It is hard to imagine Kim taking that risk, it unless the regime is threatened by an internal rebellion.
“But that leaves open options for North Korea to use nuclear weapons forcibly – both of which would likely be aimed at decoupling nuclear weapons.” [South Korea-US] to form an alliance and put the North, with its nuclear weapons, in a position of military superiority on the peninsula and thus be able to at least exert influence, if not dominate [South Korea].
“North Korea could also directly threaten the United States with the use of nuclear weapons.” For example, it could threaten to attack Washington DC with a nuclear weapon unless the United States withdraws its forces from South Korea.