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2 bitter wars with a long history and no solution in sight

A Ukrainian soldier walks through a charred forest near the eastern town of Bakhmut in September. Despite heavy fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war this year, the front line has barely moved.
Mstyslav Chernov
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AP
A Ukrainian soldier walks through a charred forest near the eastern town of Bakhmut in September. Despite heavy fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war this year, the front line has barely moved.

Editor's Note: NPR's Greg Myre has covered many wars, and this year he's reported from both the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Israel-Hamas fighting. As the year winds down, he offers this look at where these wars stand and the prospects for finding a permanent solution.

When I called author and historian Anne Applebaum to talk about the wars currently raging, she took the long view and offered this stark assessment.

"I think we've reached the end of a particular period in history when it was even possible to talk about some kind of universal values or rules," said Applebaum.

I've seen this lack of restraints when reporting on Russia's invasion in Ukraine.

The evidence is the deserted Ukrainian towns and villages, the scorched homes, the abducted children and mass graves in communities across the country.

Applebaum, who writes for The Atlantic, sees Russia's actions as part of a broader move by autocratic leaders and extremist groups that reject many of the norms established by Western nations in the aftermath of World War II, such as the Geneva Conventions.

"The (Russian) tactics have been to hit civilians, hit sites of industrial production, hit the electricity grid, hit hospitals," she said. "The war in Ukraine is really an attack on those laws, on that system itself."

In covering the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict several recurring themes keep jumping out.

Both wars stretch back generations. What we're witnessing is just the latest eruption. Modern weaponry makes them deadlier, and accumulated hatreds make them harder than ever to resolve.

At an Israeli military center, I saw a 45-minute video with gruesome scenes of Hamas militants rampaging through southern Israel. Much of the footage is from Hamas militants wearing body cameras, filming themselves as they slaughtered Israeli civilians.

In its response, Israel's military says its operation in Gaza targets Hamas, not Palestinian civilians.

Yet this is the fourth Israeli conflict I've covered. Israel has never unleashed such a massive bombing campaign in such a densely packed civilian area as it's doing daily in Gaza — with predictable results — the deaths of thousands of women and children.

A Palestinian man carries a child for burial in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Dec. 22. Israel's bombing campaign has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in the territory,  most of them women and children, according to health officials in Gaza.
Hatem Ali / AP
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AP
A Palestinian man carries a child for burial in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Dec. 22. Israel's bombing campaign has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in the territory, most of them women and children, according to health officials in Gaza.

Ian Bremmer, a global affairs analyst and president of the Eurasia Group, sees two wars that will be very hard to solve.

"The Ukrainians believe a genocide has been committed against them, and the Russians don't think Ukraine has a right to exist," said Bremmer. "Historically, Israel-Palestine has been the most challenging geopolitical issue out there. And I don't think it's getting any easier with this war."

In some ways, the Israelis and Palestinians seem to be moving further from a solution. They fought their first war in 1948. Now, 75 years later, the leading Palestinian faction, Hamas, wants to destroy Israel.

Israel's long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's been in power on and off since 1996, vows to eradicate Hamas.

No serious negotiations have taken place in years, and during my most recent time in the Middle East, I was struck by how views have hardened across the spectrum. They have shifted even among those favoring a peaceful settlement.

Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Sgt. Lavi Ghasi, 19, at his funeral in Modiin, Israel, on Dec. 21.
Ariel Schalit / AP
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AP
Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Sgt. Lavi Ghasi, 19, at his funeral in Modiin, Israel, on Dec. 21.

"Look, we need a new administration in Gaza," said Erel Margalit, a leading Israeli high-tech entrepreneur who heads Jerusalem Venture Partners. He used to be in parliament, the Knesset, with the liberal Labor Party, which supports a Palestinian state.

He still holds that view, but says both sides need new leadership. He says Netanyahu, who's been in power for 13 of the past 15 years, needs to go.

And Margalit also says Hamas needs to be replaced with a "Palestinian administration that's willing to build life rather than death, willing to build schools which don't have ammunition right underneath them, willing to build hospitals, which don't have a terror maze of tunnels right underneath them."

In the past, I traveled to Gaza dozens of times on my own. Now, Israel's bombing campaign has made it too dangerous. The military has only taken journalists into the territory on brief, chaperoned visits.

NPR's Palestinian producer Anas Baba, has been our eyes and ears in Gaza. He described his devastated hometown, Gaza City, this way:

"This is not my city. I cannot even realize what street it is. I only can smell death. Dead bodies under the rubbles. Nothing is the same," Baba said.

Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on Dec. 21. The war has created a humanitarian crisis in the territory. The vast majority of 2 million residents have been displaced by the fighting.
Fatima Shbair / AP
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AP
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on Dec. 21. The war has created a humanitarian crisis in the territory. The vast majority of 2 million residents have been displaced by the fighting.

The story of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian feud is well known. Far fewer know the history of the Russia-Ukraine dispute.

Ukraine declared independence from Russia shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, but didn't manage to breakaway until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

That Ukrainian independence has been under assault since Russia's Vladimir Putin invaded in 2014.

Dmitri Alperovitch, who was born in Russia, now heads a Washington think tank, the Silverado Policy Accelerator. He's a fierce critic of Putin.

"For Putin, it's really not about whether he can capture a village and keep it occupied," said Alperovitch. "His determination from day one has been to control Ukraine, to prevent Ukraine from being part of the Western alliance."

Ukraine wants to recapture lost territory. More importantly, he says, it seeks the long-term protection that would come with membership in NATO.

"What Ukraine really wants is stability and security for its country to prevent another invasion from Russia. And that's much more challenging to achieve," said Alperovitch, author of the forthcoming book, World on the Brink: The United States, China, and the Race for the 21st Century.

The U.S. plays a critical role in both wars, yet may not be able to forge the outcome it wants in either conflict.

One reason is that U.S. foreign policy has become much more fickle. Once upon a time, Democrats and Republicans worked together on foreign policy under the notion that "politics end at the water's edge."

Not anymore, says Anne Applebaum.

"In an era of really harsh partisanship, it will be much more difficult to maintain a consistent foreign policy over time," she said.

President Biden's plan to send more military aid to Ukraine is now being blocked by Republicans.

Biden's strong backing for Israel faces pushback from many in his own party — who say he should do more for the stateless Palestinians.

"The assumption that the U.S. could at least be relied on to have the same policy over several different administrations, that probably belongs to the past," said Appelbaum.

Ian Bremmer acknowledges the difficulties in settling these conflicts. But he says the only real hope is for the U.S. to be fully engaged.

"A world where you don't have global leadership, where the United States is increasingly unwilling to be the promoter of global values, you will get more conflict."

Today there are calls for cease-fires and peace talks. But both wars are a long, long way from there to a permanent solution.

NPR National Security Correspondent Greg Myre was based in Moscow from 1996-1999 and in Jerusalem from 2000-2007. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.