Preview of May 2021

What is ahead for Eastern Europe?

Increasing armed activities have been reported in the Donbas region since early April. After a steep decrease in numbers for the first half of 2020, casualties, battles, and remote explosions have been trending up once again since August. The situation has particularly deteriorated in 2021. While 30 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the whole of 2020, 11 were killed in action in February 2021 alone.    

Eastern Ukraine has witnessed a steep increase in armed-related incidents since August 2020 (Source: ACLED)

Besides the intensification on the Donbas battleground, there has also been the massive deployment of Russian forces to Ukrainian borders, including Crimea. Sources from the US are already indicating that there are more troops at the border by mid-April than at any time in 2014 when Crimea was annexed by Russia. The exact numbers are difficult to grasp as most reports emerge from social media accounts, with some having been proven fake or outdated.

There is currently no broad consensus among the international community on what is Russia’s endgame with the escalation in tension. The size of the deployment and the overall context in the area seem to point at a display of coercive political pressure. Hypotheses considering both posturing and concrete military offensive have emerged amid weeks of hostility. They include:

Military drills: Russian representatives have claimed in early April that drills were the motive behind the military moves. The high number of deployed troops likely to discredit this idea. 

Full military invasion of the Donbas: Unlikely at least until mid-May, when the terrain in the area would be dry enough for troops to move forward. There are no signs of this intent on either side of the border. The perceived visibility of Russia’s movements also indicates that the actions have an intention of display of force.  

Creation of a water supply corridor between the Donbas and Crimea. Since the annexation of Crimea, water supply has been a problem as Ukraine switched off the transport through the North Crimea Canal, previously responsible for 85 percent of the water supply in the region. The annexation of territory to form a supply corridor through Azov Sea coast has been vented by analysts. Although the water crisis is often linked to increased conflict in the region, the extension of the territory and the military cost of the endeavor deters its feasibility.

Political pressure at the United States and NATO: The change in administration in the United States combined with sanctions imposed by President Joe Biden regarding Russian interference in the elections and other frictions do not sit well with the Kremlin. No direct link can be established with the aggressions at the Ukrainian border. President Vladimir Putin, however, demonstrates that his military and strategic positions are a force to be reckoned with. 

Political pressure in Ukraine: The ceasefire in the Donbas has been ongoing since the signing of the Minsk protocol in 2014. Consistent violations led to the reshaping of the agreement in 2015 with the so-called Minsk II, which has also not been respected or fully implemented. Its full recognition would mean that the Donbas territory would remain under the Ukrainian administration although as an independent body. The increase in conflict could mean, at least on the Russian side, a pressure on Ukraine and its Western backers that a low conflict ceasefire could not stand the lack of progress to implement the Minsk II clauses.

Whatever the conjecture or combination of conjectures that plays out, there is an ongoing practical risk when it comes to the region:

Amassing forces near an active frontline means that any action, intentional or not, could lead to a massive military escalation. Presence in Eastern Ukraine and border areas in both countries is highly unrecommended.  

Civil aviation is under potential risk as anti-aircraft capable weapon systems, and electronic warfare activity are possible during the conflict. Travel through the region air space is also not recommended, especially with private aircraft. Flight restrictions have been imposed in the area on 20 April.

There has been a significant increase in military activities near the Line of Demarcation between the main part of Ukraine and ORDLO (separate areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions) since early 2021.

Governments seek to accelerate Covid-19 vaccination drive

After more than a year, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have shown little sign of abating globally, with daily new cases and deaths continued to shatter records made during previous waves. Parts of South Asia and Latin America as well as continental Europe, were once again put lockdown since early March as the latest surges threaten to cause a collapse of healthcare systems. While some countries have pinned their hopes on the procurement of vaccines, a slower than expected rollout has meant that measures such as a lockdown or movement restrictions are here to stay in the months ahead.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had already sounded an alarm in early April, calling the vaccine rollout in the most affected regions, including Europe, as “unacceptably slow”. As the more transmissible variants rage, the increase in mobility due to religious holidays such as Easter in the western hemisphere or Holi festival in India have also fueled the pandemic, causing cases to rise consecutively for several weeks. Throughout April, lockdowns were imposed in a handful of countries such as Brazil, where the death toll hovered at about 3,000-4,000 daily. In India, dozens of states also reverted to various levels of restrictions, while the Easter celebrations in Europe were largely somber for a second consecutive year as most large gatherings were significantly curtailed. 

Although some of these measures were credited in reducing the strain at hospitals, the fatigue among the populace has also made such decisions becoming increasingly unpopular. The German chancellor, Angel Merkel, for instance, had to make a “U-turn” in early April after receiving backlash for her decision to impose a hard lockdown over Easter. Amid such a delicate situation, it is no surprise that calls have been growing louder for vaccination efforts to be accelerated so that herd immunity could be reached earlier. 

While many countries intend to speed up vaccination, challenges remain with regards to the supply available.


World Health Organization 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Brazil National Health Surveillance Agency 

Public Health European Commission

The blame game between governments or supranational organization such as the European Union (EU) and drugmakers also did little to help, pointing out to the bureaucracy involved in getting the vaccines to those who needed most. With the exception of Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom, most of the advanced economies across the globe, particularly in Europe appeared to have fallen behind initial targets partly associated with missteps in vaccination strategy, lack of supply, and skepticisms over some of the vaccines, among others. 

 As production is expected to ramp up during summer and more people set to get vaccinated, it has been hoped that the lockdown measures will finally be scaled down in many of these countries. Over-reliance on the vaccine as however, could prove to be a fool’s errand as the false sense of security could result in a lax attitude on hygiene measures among the general public even before herd immunity is achieved.

On the radar

Militant attack casts a shadow over Mozambique’s fight against insurgency

On 24 March, militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) launched a multipronged attack on the city of Palma in the country’s far north region. The group, known locally as Al-Shabaab (not related to the group in Somalia), held Palma for over ten days before a counteroffensive that left many casualties in its process. Government forces and private contractors were left blindsided by the assault, which highlighted a significant lapse in counter-insurgency capabilities. While the group’s affiliation with IS heralds a worrying development, the insurgency is largely a product of local grievances. Entrenched structural inequalities remain a driving force for the group, who have recruited freely from the large, disenfranchised population in the area. High levels of greed and corruption linked to the region’s burgeoning gas industry have led many to question whether authorities will provide an equitable share of future profits. As such, the promise of jobs and money remains a significant recruitment tool for the militant group, who have only grown stronger in the past years. The rise of Al-Shabaab will undoubtedly threaten the multiple billion-dollar gas projects in the area and attacks on facilities in and around the Afungi peninsula seem likely in the short term. External bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), may be prompted to intervene, but a failure by authorities to address these root causes will do little in halting the group’s growth, leaving the door open for further incursions.

Violent crimes make a comeback in South Africa

After a drop during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, violent crimes in major cities across South Africa have once again since the easing of measures in February. According to statistics by local police, the Eastern Cape, which is being regarded as the country’s poorest province, has witnessed a surge in the murder rate. Besides murder, reports of trio crimes, which refer to car or truck hijacking, business, and house robberies, have always been persistent, with a notable increase in the hijacking of trucks, delivery drivers, and couriers since the first lockdown in 2020. In Johannesburg, an alarming rise in house robberies has been recorded since March 2021, where the perpetrators are commonly armed with illegal firearms. Other types of crimes that are prevalent include rape, assault, and gender-based violence. The crimes plaguing the country have seen a dramatic increase in the last eight years, making South Africa’s level of crimes higher than most countries across the globe. Travelers to South Africa can be impacted by the level of crime, even though the occurrence of violent crimes at tourist destinations is generally low. Therefore, it is advisable to remain alert, especially in central business districts (CBDs), as they have a greater threat of crime than suburban areas. The threat also increases after dark, highlighting the vitality for reliable transportation to and from one’s planned destination.

Terror attacks underscores Indonesia’s security challenges

Over the past two decades, Indonesia has recorded several major terrorist attacks across the country, with the ‘2002 Bali Bombing’ being among the deadliest. Despite numerous countermeasures taken to combat terrorism, the country is still struggling with extremist activities. Towards the end of March, the country was once again rocked by two separate attacks. The first attack was ‘The Makassar Church Bombing’ that occurred on 28 March, followed by a lone wolf armed attack at National Police Headquarters in Jakarta on 31 March. Based on official investigations, it can be derived that Islamic State (IS) radical ideologies were the key influence for the attacks. It is also essential to note that the attacks were reckoned as a form of retaliation following multiple counter-terrorism operations against militant groups since August 2020. The latest violence also shared a similar modus operandi with other recent domestic attacks that targeted the security forces and Christian community. To make matters worse, an increased number of attacks have been carried out by women, indicating that it is becoming a trend for them to participate in such an operation. Heightened security measures and more offensive counter-terrorism operations will be carried out in the near terms, especially in Jakarta, Makassar, West Nusa Tenggara, and Java amid the persisting threat. Deradicalization, though will remain a daunting challenge to Indonesia as the county is still home to thousands of sympathizers and supporters of radical ideologies.

Myanmar edges toward a total collapse

Since a military coup in early February, protests have taken place in Myanmar almost on a daily basis. As time goes by, however, the level of violence has also intensified, with hundreds of deaths being reported among the protesters. With no signs of the protests ending, the government forces have also employed various tactics to stifle the anti-junta movements. Raids have been carried out in which dissenters were often arbitrarily arrested, and some were also beaten up or had their houses burned down as warning. Amidst the ongoing crackdown, there is a risk that social order is on the brink of collapse with the daily protests and strikes continued to cause mounting economic losses. Already facing the prospect of returning to its “pariah” status, the refusal of both sides to engage in reconciliation could eventually push the country into a civil war of ‘unprecedented scale,’ as pointed out by the United Nations.

May timeline

What to look out for this month:


Chan Hoi Cheong
Senior Analyst and Office Manager Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Deborah Sheps
Senior Analyst São Paulo, Brazil

Ezza Omar
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Farith Ariffin
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Johan Emilsson
Senior Analyst Lund, Sweden

Misha Desai
Analyst Lund, Sweden


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