The independent resource on global security

4. Thematic issues in armed conflict


Overview, Marina Caparini, Ian Davis, Caroline Delgado and Kyungmee Kim

I. The role of the Wagner Group and other Russian private military and security companies in armed conflicts in 2023, Marina Caparini

II. Food systems and geopolitics, Caroline Delgado

III. Climate, peace and security in Yemen, Kyungmee Kim and Ian Davis

Armed conflicts are often complex, involving multiple armed groups and the use of proxy forces by major powers and regional players. Aspects of that complexity in 2023 included: the role of the Wagner Group and other Russian private military and security companies (PMSCs) in armed conflicts; food insecurity as both a consequence and a trigger of armed conflict; and the linkages between climate change, conflict and insecurity in Yemen.


The Wagner Group

One of the key features of armed conflicts in recent years has been the rapid global growth of PMSCs. The fortunes of the Wagner Group, a prominent Russian PMSC with clear links to the Russian government, underwent a dramatic trajectory during 2023. Wagner’s battlefield successes in Ukraine in the first few months of the year were mainly achieved at a high human cost by sending large numbers of recruited convicts to fight in intense battles at the frontline. In June 2023 the Russian government formalized the involvement of irregular and so-called voluntary units—including those linked to Wagner—in the war in Ukraine by ordering their integration under the defence ministry. The head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, refused to comply with the order and instigated a short-lived armed rebellion in late June—the first armed uprising in Russia in three decades.


On 24 June Wagner troops and tanks advanced into Russia from the battlefield in Ukraine: one column headed towards the city of Rostov-on-Don and another column headed towards Moscow. The rebellion was quickly aborted after an agreement was reached for Prigozhin and his personnel to relocate to neighbouring Belarus. Within two months, however, Prigozhin was dead—killed by an explosion on his private jet aircraft. The Russian state subsequently moved to take more overt control of Wagner’s paramilitary activities.


In a bid to curtail Wagner’s growing global influence, in 2023 the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States strengthened their unilateral coercive sanctions targeting the group’s key personnel and linked entities.


Food insecurity

The link between food systems, violent conflict and peace is a critical global concern. Three conflicts in particular affected global levels of food security in 2023: the Russia–Ukraine war, the civil war in Sudan and the Israel–Hamas war.


Warfare in Ukraine continued to devastate agricultural production and impacted global food supplies. But despite Russia withdrawing from the 2022 Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2023, alternative logistical networks and shipping corridors enabled Ukrainian exports of agricultural products to reach near pre-invasion levels by the end of 2023.


Sudan experienced a sharp rise in food insecurity in 2023, driven by armed conflict, economic decline and food price inflation, while also suffering a significant decrease in aid. Moreover, refugees from the civil war affected food security in other countries, such as South Sudan.


The Israel–Hamas war, meanwhile, caused widespread damage to food systems in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with famine threatening to engulf Gaza.


While food insecurity increased globally in 2023, the number of people facing food insecurity in Latin America decreased—even though the situation in some countries in the region, such as Haiti, worsened during the year. The overall improvement in food security in the region can be credited to positive labour market development and effective social protection policies. However, growing levels of violence in Latin America threaten the durability of this achievement. Strengthening food systems—and making them more equitable and sustainable, including by reducing environmental degradation and taking action on climate change—is paramount to breaking the detrimental link between food insecurity and conflict.


Climate and security in Yemen

The ongoing climate crisis has consequences for peace and security, especially in conflict-affected and fragile countries, such as Yemen. The civil war in Yemen has heightened the socio-economic vulnerability of the country’s population, while climate change has aggravated the risk of droughts and floods disrupting critical agricultural production. Food insecurity worsened in 2023, with an estimated 17 million people, or over 53 per cent of the population, suffering acute food insecurity during the year. The socio-economic challenges exacerbated by climate change and armed conflict have undermined food and livelihood security and have disproportionately affected women in Yemen.


The prolonged armed conflict continued to be a major driver of displacement in Yemen in 2023, while extreme weather events intensified the vulnerability of the displaced populations. Climate change has worsened the risk of conflicts over vital land and water resources: in 2023, conflict parties continued to attack water infrastructure and sought to control local populations in contested territories by seizing control of farmland, fishing sites and pasture. Many of the ongoing intercommunal disputes involving tribal militias were over land and water resources, including highly profitable groundwater-fed irrigation projects.


Humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts can contribute towards building climate resilience if they are carefully designed and executed with solutions that account for future climate impacts and the population’s vulnerability to climate change. In Yemen, however, this will first require a ceasefire and political stabilization.

Dr Marina Caparini, Dr Ian Davis , Dr Caroline Delgado and Dr Kyungmee Kim