Season Finale: Ukraine and an Unsettling Few Months in Global Politics
Season Finale: Ukraine and an Unsettling Few Months in Global Politics
Podcast / Global 20+ minutes

Season Finale: Ukraine and an Unsettling Few Months in Global Politics

In a special episode to mark the end of Season Two of Hold Your Fire!, Richard is joined by Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia director and Comfort Ero, its president and CEO. They look at what’s happening in Ukraine and reflect back on a rocky six months in Europe and across many of the world’s other hotspots.

In a special Hold Your Fire! episode to mark the end of Season Two, Richard Atwood speaks first to Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia director, for an update on the war in Ukraine, and then to Comfort Ero, its president and CEO, to reflect back on a rocky six months. Olga talks about the latest from the front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine. She and Richard discuss what is happening in Russian-occupied territories, whether Moscow’s goals in Ukraine have evolved, and potential scenarios for the months ahead. They look at the impact of Western sanctions on Russia and prospects for getting Ukrainian grain out of Black Sea ports. They also zoom out, and reflect on European security and relations with Russia more broadly.

Richard and Comfort then look back at an unsettling few months in global affairs. They reflect on the West’s Ukraine policy and the dilemmas Russia’s invasion poses for an organisation like Crisis Group in trying to find a sustainable end to the war. They talk about the global fallout, particularly reactions from around the world and why many non-Western leaders have distanced themselves from efforts to isolate Russia, and feel Western capitals should be investing more into addressing a perfect storm of other challenges – price hikes in food and fuel, poor countries’ debt burdens and the climate emergency. They also survey some of the world’s other wars and crises, many in danger of being neglected as attention focuses on Ukraine.

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Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Richard  00:06
Hi. This is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. So, this is our last episode of Season Two and for this one, we wanted to go back to Ukraine. We’ve talked a lot over the past few episodes about the war’s global fallout. Today, we’ll look again at what’s happening on the ground and what the next few months might hold. I’m going to speak first to Olya Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia director, who I’m sure listeners will know very well from previous episodes. Then I’m going to chat to Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s president and CEO. We’ll reflect back a bit on the past six months or so. So Olya, welcome back on. Thanks so much again for joining us. 

Olga  00:47
Glad to be back.

Richard  00:48
So, we're recording this on Tuesday, shortly after the G7 and NATO meetings last week. And we'll talk about those meetings in a moment. But, Olya, let’s start if we can with an update of where things stand on the front lines. What does the fighting currently look like? 

Olga  01:04
So with the Russian capture of Lysychansk, the Russians have basically said they control Luhansk Oblast. “Oblast” being a term for “region” in both Russian and Ukrainian. And the Ukrainians are not particularly contesting this statement. So, of the two regions that Russia recognised as independent prior to the start of its “special military operation”, as they call it, on February 24th, one of them is now fully under the control of Russian forces – the Luhansk Oblast. The Ukrainians’ big success of recent days was the recapture of Snake Island, which you may remember from the early days of the war because of the colourful language with which the defending Ukrainian forces told the Russians to go away. But the Russians did in fact capture that island and after a period of intensive Ukrainian bombardment, they have departed and so that's a Ukrainian victory. But on the ground in eastern and southern Ukraine, what we're seeing is just more of the same slow attritional warfare, occasional gains by the Ukrainians, more gains by the Russians, but none of it moving very quickly.

Richard  02:39
And Snake Island, that's sort of south west of Odesa, right? A small island in the Black Sea, so some way away from Crimea.

Olga  02:47
Right. So this, this is in the Black Sea. This is south of Odesa, kind of off the coast. Not actually that far off the coast, in the north western part of the Black Sea.

Richard  03:01
And so the Ukrainians have captured Snake Island, but it’s mostly the Russians that have been advancing in the Donbas, holding as you said all of Luhansk and also now much of Donetsk? 

Olga  03:12
Look, Luhansk was always going to be the easier one of the two for the Russians to gain control of. They've had more of it for some time. Donetsk continues to be a very slow and difficult fight, in which just kilometres change hands. So, you know, it's been a very long fight to gain control of Luhansk also, so, you know, it is a victory for the Russians, but it was definitely a hard fought one.

Richard  03:47
So, that’s the Donbas and there’s also fighting taking place in the south. There's Kherson, which is just above Crimea and then next to that Zaporizhzhya which provides this land bridge from Kherson over then to Donetsk. And Russian forces now control most of those areas as well. Are front lines moving much there?

Olga  04:09
A little bit. In Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, you see some Ukrainian gains from time to time, but nothing that looks like a major offensive as yet. A lot of contested territory. So, I mean, back and forth, are a lot of artillery attritional warfare.

Richard  04:32
And, Olya, we hear reports that in the areas that Russian forces control, Moscow is changing school curricula. They’re changing language signs from Ukrainian to Russian. Broadly speaking, “Russifying” areas under Russian forces’ control. I mean, how much do we sort of know about what's going on?

Olga  04:54
We get reports from the Russians themselves in their images and their videos, and also from the people living there. It's very clear that this is what is going on, right? Street signs, renamed, relettered to be in the Russian alphabet, rather than the Ukrainian one. Changes in school curricula, etc. We don't have a very clear sense of what is happening in terms of arrests, we do hear of some detentions of the officials who had been in charge in these places when Ukrainians were in control, but it's not 100 per cent clear what's happening, where and under what conditions. The Russians certainly want to tell the story that they are liberating these areas, and that people are excited to see them and enthusiastic. Of course, the Ukrainian narrative is quite the opposite. And to be honest, it's easy to imagine that most people are just trying to get by, survive and wait this out.

Richard  05:52
Because people haven’t been taken to the streets in protest, right? I mean, what's happening, presumably, it would be pretty intimidating to do something like that in any case.

Olga  06:02
We've seen a bit of it here and there over the course of the last few months, and certainly there's frustration, you know, but it takes organisation. So yeah, every once in a while people do this. And I'm certain that there are people who are stockpiling weapons and preparing other sorts of resistance. It's just that it's hard to imagine, under current conditions, that being particularly successful.

Richard  06:29
And there's the front lines in the Donbas and front lines in the south. But over the past couple of weeks, particularly around the G7 and the NATO Summit, you also saw, correct me if this is wrong, an uptick in Russian missile strikes on other parts of Ukraine, on the west, including the one that hit the shopping centre in Kremenchuk which had a very heavy civilian toll. I mean, do you have any idea of what Russia hopes to get out of these strikes?

Olga  06:51
So look, it's impossible at some level to know whether they are intentionally striking civilian targets, whether they are aiming for military targets but have bad aim or bad maps. And, you know, I think part of it is that they may have bad aim and bad maps, but they're not necessarily going to be that unhappy if the result is a strike on a civilian target, if it has the effect of cowing the population, which it may or may not do, right? because the other possibility, of course, is that it energises the population, which seems to be how it's working up until now. We've also seen more Ukrainian strikes, or we assume they're Ukrainian strikes, into Russia and certainly into Russian controlled parts of Ukraine. And I think that's also going to continue to be a facet of this war. So these strikes, they're meant to do a number of things, right? They have the purpose of reminding the adversary that, you know, we have missiles, we can reach these things. Insofar as they are targeting military facilities, warehouses, depots or supply lines, they're intended to degrade military capacity. And they are also, I think, intended to send signals to the rest of the world, right, that this war is continuing. And it's not just attrition warfare in eastern Ukraine.

Richard  08:25
What does this say now about Russia’s goals, to the extent that we know them? And I know you and the team sort of talk to people close to the Kremlin. But what does this say about Russia's sort of immediate goals, and then its longer term hopes in Ukraine?

Olga  08:42
So we continue to have absolutely no reason to think that Russia's overall political goal in Ukraine – a reason it is fighting this war – has changed in any way. So, the way we usually put it, colloquially, is that Russia is looking for a “vassal state” in Ukraine. Russia is looking for decisive influence over the Ukrainian government. It's looking for a Ukraine that does what Moscow tells it to do, and not a Ukraine that does what Washington tells it to do, which is how Russia looks at the current Ukrainian government. Of course, the current Ukrainian government does not do what Washington tells it to do. But that is the Russian perception of things. So, this is what it continues to want. How do you accomplish that? You know, you apparently do not accomplish it by invading Ukraine along multiple axes to the cheers of the Ukrainian people who then overthrow their government, and you can install your own government, which was apparently Plan A. So, now perhaps you do it through a long term fight in which more and more of Ukraine is lost over time, which makes it harder for the government to stay in power until it capitulates and maybe signs the deal that Russia wants? Maybe, I mean, you know, there's one expert who said to Crisis Group that basically every time the Ukrainians do something that the Russians don't like, the Russian territorial goals are going to get that much bigger, they're going to intend to cut off that much more of Ukraine. Whether that's the actual strategy, and whether that's even attainable, right? Not so clear. But the point is to intimidate the Ukrainians and with the end result of getting the Ukrainians to recognise Russian influence and effectively sovereignty over Ukraine, and getting Western states, getting the world to recognise that this is Russia's rightful sphere of influence. And Russia belongs in charge of Ukraine, and certainly other former Soviet countries like Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, and that nobody should be contesting its right to them.

Richard  11:03
So, Olya, Russia's longer term goals, as you say, haven’t changed – a vassal state, a pliant government in Kyiv. That’s the longer term aspiration over time. But could it also be that, if the front lines largely stay where they are for some time, could it be that the Kremlin settles for now for the areas it controls, and sort of markets that back home as a success? 

Olga  11:26
We've not seen that be what they're talking about, right? We've not seen any evidence that they're looking for a negotiated settlement where they get to keep the territory they've got, and everybody calms down. In fact, what they keep saying when there is talk of negotiations is you know, they're happy, they're happy to end the war, as soon as the Ukrainians capitulate. Their territorial goals have increased, right, from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions to now Zaporizhzhya and Kherson. And again, to more territory than they actually hold. So, you know, kind of this notion that you can negotiate and end this, that's not what the Russians seem to be saying. I mean, the Russians seem to be quite intent on continuing to fight and continuing to gain territory from the Ukrainians, even if they are doing it very slowly.

Richard  12:26
And that's explicit? Moscow says that explicitly, that they’re not going to give up Kherson and Zaporizhzhya? That it goes beyond the initially proclaimed goals – the independent statelets Moscow recognised in Luhansk and Donetsk? Well, I guess it’s true that they’re also introducing new school curricula, changing road signs, “Russifying” areas it controls, including not just in the east but also in the south.

Olya  12:50
Everywhere, where they are in control, that is what they are doing. Yeah, they're also introducing Russian passports.

Richard  12:58
And so, for now then, you know, I mean, there's been some talk of making sure that Moscow has an off ramp if it wants one. I mean, from what you said, it's pretty clear that, for now, the Kremlin isn't looking for an off ramp?

Olga  13:10
The Kremlin does not seem to be looking for an off ramp. Look, and it has an off ramp. It's not as though there's ever been the absence of space. If the Russians want to back away, there will be a clamour to accept that and to make some sort of a deal. Now, at this point, I think there is a pretty strong Western desire to limit Russian capacity to aggress under any circumstances, whether this war continues or if it is paused or ends in some way. But, you know, nobody is going to not welcome a Russia that wants to make a deal. And Western leaders have been very clear that any deal that Ukrainians are okay with is a deal they are okay with. But we've seen nothing from Russia that suggests they're interested in a deal.

Richard  14:05
So, if that's what Russia wants – an obedient government in Kyiv, to hold on to the territory that Russian forces control now, at the very least – if that’s what Russia wants, what are Ukrainian goals? Pretty much the polar opposite, right? A sovereign government able to chart its own foreign relations and to recapture the territory the Russian forces control.

Olga  14:25
Absolutely. I mean, Ukraine does not want to be beholden to anybody unless it chooses to be beholden. It wants to be recognised as a sovereign state making its own decisions and it wants its territory back. All of it. Now, you know, kind of you look at the situation on the ground, it's a little bit difficult to chart the path in which they get it all back, absent the Russian forces somehow giving up and melting away. But, you know, I think from the Ukrainian perspective, nobody expected them to still be a sovereign state on February 24th, right? The fact that they were able to mount a pretty substantial opposition to the Russians, and that the Russians were not able to implement their original plan. You know, so basically, if you worked a miracle once, why wouldn't you hope that you can work a miracle a second time? So I think this is, for the Ukrainians, there is this – okay, you know what, the Russians have personnel problems. The Russians, maybe have a lot of equipment, but they're also losing a lot of equipment. The Russians gave up on Kyiv, and central and northern Ukraine and went home. If we keep fighting, if we keep getting the Western gear, if we can train up our forces, even if we can't mount effective counter-attacks that are going to get back all the territory easily. Maybe, if maybe the Russians will get sick of continuing to pour men – and the Russians pour men, the Ukrainians pour men and women – the Russians will get sick of continuing to pour men's bodies into the spite and go home, but the Russians don't seem to be of that mindset.

Richard  16:16
And we’ll talk about different scenarios for the weeks and months ahead in a moment, but for now, fair to say that Ukraine is also not looking for a ceasefire or to pause the fight?

Olga  16:27
No, I mean, kind of my conversations, when you suggest such a thing, when you say, hey, a pause, even if it's not official would give you time to get everyone trained up and equipped so that people aren't being sent to the frontlines with inadequate training, without body armour etc. Is that something you're considering? The answer is pretty clear. No, we are going to keep fighting. And I think the concern has always been that any kind of deal to pause fighting would be cemented by the Russians, potentially with the help of the international community. And the Russians have those gains from which they can then try to work to get new gains. So the Ukrainians are in no mood to accept any Russian gains.

Richard  17:16
And so, so last week, we had the G7 meeting in Germany, the NATO meeting of NATO leaders in Madrid, obviously big shows of support for Ukraine, sort of big displays of unity. What, broadly speaking, should we take away from those meetings?

Olga  17:41
Well, I think, you know, NATO has never been I think its history perhaps as energised and as clear on having a mission and having a purpose. They even managed to get the Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership, maybe not fully sorted but sorted enough that they could invite these two neighbours to join the alliance. So, NATO comes out of this with, you know, our mission is to defend Ukraine. It's going to protect ourselves and our allies. We're going to build up forces. We have two new very well armed allies joining, we are united and Russia better not even think about any action against any of us. And we're going to keep on backing Ukraine and this is going to make Russia weaker. The G7 meeting, I think you got the same message from the Western states involved in the G7 meeting, but some of the guests and others they invited were a bit more doubtful.

Richard  18:47
So, that was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who we talked about last week on the podcast with Shivshankar Menon. It was also the leaders from Argentina, Indonesia, Senegal and South Africa, all invited to the G7 meeting in Germany.

Olga  19:05
So, you know, the challenge of the way that Western states are pushing back against Russia, is on the one hand, right, they're arming Ukraine. On the other, they're putting pretty enormous sanctions on Russia. And this has, this has global effects. The war has global effects, because Ukraine and Russia both are major grain exporters. And with the Russian Black Sea Fleet effectively blockading Ukraine, Ukraine can't get most of its grain out. So this has an impact on global markets, sanctioning Russia. However many people will tell you that it has the GDP of a small European state – pick one, Italy is often the one that's used – it's a pretty important exporter, importer, global trading partner. So if you cut a lot of Russian trade off, it has a global impact. The energy sanctions have a global impact on energy prices.

Richard  20:01
And in fact, the hike in fuel prices has then big knock on effects on other commodity prices, right?

Olga  20:09
Absolutely.  All of this has an impact all around the world. And I think it's frustrating, right? If you are not in this part of the world, and you're saying – why does their war have such a huge impact on my household economy? You know, if we have wars, they're able to ignore them? Why is it when they have wars, we’re not able to ignore them? And the answer is because they are large economies integrated into the global economy. And this is what happens when the elephants start to dance, the earth shakes.

Richard  20:39
And we'll come back, Olya, in a moment to the sanctions and see how that looks in different parts of the world. It's obviously something we talked about last week as well. But what we've described at the moment, what you described at the moment, is Russia and Ukraine pursuing incompatible goals and goals that are entirely contradictory to one another, and NATO offering still determined support for Ukraine. So, can we sort of think through then, what are the next, what are some of the potential scenarios for the coming months? I mean, a comprehensive settlement for all the reasons you've talked about, that appears completely  off the table for the moment. But what about sort of prospects for, you know, the battle lines at the moment are fairly static, as you say, Russian advances have been costly, they've been slow. But what chance of that changing? I mean, either, that, sort of, you know, Ukrainian forces tire, Russia makes more sudden gains, or conversely, that the Western weapons start arriving in more force and Ukraine makes gains and Russian forces, you know, collapse in a way that the Ukrainians haven't. I mean, what are the prospects for dynamics on the battlefield changing in a way that could really shift how the war proceeds?

Olga  21:50
Predicting wars is really hard. And if there's one thing that this war has already shown all of us military analysts is that we're not that good at figuring out capacity to fight, will to fight, what all of the factors that are going to go into military success are and are not. Still, you know, when you've got something that's been going on for a long time, you know, people tend to figure the trend lines will continue on in the same direction. So, one possibility is you do have continuing attrition warfare. The question has been, how long can either or both sides keep this up? The answer is, we don't know. But they've already kept it up longer than most people thought they would early on. They're losing a lot of people, right, both the Russians and the Ukrainians are losing an awful lot of people. We don't have exact numbers, because everybody has good reasons to exaggerate, underestimate or just not say anything. But we do know they're both losing a lot of people. But they seem to have more people to put in. And, you know, unlike at the beginning of the war, when the Russians were trying to do everything all at once, they actually are trying to do a fairly, you know, a smaller operation, which means that they can keep their reserves in the rear, they can rotate people through the battlefield, they can push harder where they want to push harder, and try to just hold on to territory where they're just trying to hold on. And they do have a lot of weapons. Some of them are very old. Some of them require repair, but they do seem to have a lot of weapons that they can keep sending to the front lines. The Ukrainians seem to also be doing okay on finding more people to send to the front lines. And I would say in both cases, there is evidence that they're sending undertrained and underequipped people into this fight, which contributes to the casualty counts, right? Aside from the fact that if you've got people who don't have adequate body armour, or they don't know what they're doing, if they also don't know what they're doing for first aid, more people are going to bleed out on the battlefield instead of survive. But the Ukrainians too are able to keep sending men and women into the front lines. And for weapons, they're getting Western weapons. Now, the thing about the Western weapons is that we long ago ran out of the sort of weapons that the Ukrainians just know how to use. So people have to be trained up on these weapons. That training, a lot of it happens at least initially outside of Ukraine, so that Western countries don't have to send trainers into Ukraine, and then follow-on training happens in Ukraine. But all of this takes time; they've compressed the schedules. But then having compressed the schedules you run the risk that people aren't adequately trained, so they're going to have trouble operating the equipment. So It's not as though America promises something, and it immediately shows up in the hands of capable Ukrainian soldiers. It is that America promises something, it chugs its way across to Poland where Ukrainians get trained up on it, after which Ukrainians then train their colleagues on it. And then it makes its way to the front lines where it gets used. It's a long process. But the stuff keeps coming. Can it keep coming? Well, most of the NATO member states that are supporting Ukraine have cleared out a lot of their own warehouses. So at some point, it has to be new stuff that's being produced, you also have to backfill what's already been sent to Ukraine. So you get countries who are saying, okay, we'll send stuff to Ukraine, but who's going to provide us with gear. So, this isn’t sustainable if people want to sustain it. Indeed, it could be a boon for the European and American defence industry, but you have to make a commitment that that's what you're going to be doing for some time to come.

Richard  25:46
This sort of question of whose side is time on, I mean, you really see very different interpretations of this, which goes to your point about how difficult it is to predict the way things might shake out. But, you know, on the one hand, you have this idea that, you know, if the fighting carries on this sort of same grinding way it has been, then slow Russian gains appear more likely, you know, that the pace at which Western arms arrive, the training that Ukrainian forces will need, the heavy casualties that they're suffering, you know, all those sort of point in the favour of Russian gains, even if slow Russian gains. But on the other hand, you also see this idea that, you know, if Ukraine can make some advances, the Russian forces in some places have sort of ceded quite quickly. Russian commanders, when they realised the game is up, have retreated quite fast. That you might not have the same sort of Russian resistance as you have Ukrainian resistance, the Ukrainian forces could get some momentum going. You could have, I mean, I think we talked about it earlier, sort of everywhere becomes this sort of Snake Island where the Russian forces just give up and retreat quickly. So you see these very different interpretations. What's your sense as, as the conflict drags on, is it likely to play to Russia's advantage or to the advantage of Ukraine and  its supporters?

Olga  27:05
I don't think all of the Western gear has been integrated into the Ukrainian forces yet. So, let's see if that shifts things. If it doesn't shift things, then I would say yes, the Russians will continue to have a certain advantage. But also, you know, kind of bear in mind that the slowness of Russian progress is an important indicator. If you remember how this looked in 2014 and 2015, when the Russians would send in Russian regular troops every time the separatist proxy forces they were backing ran into trouble, in the end the Russian troops were always very successful against the Ukrainians. That's not what we're seeing now. So, it is a more evenly matched set of forces on both sides. So, you can look at the trend lines and say, if things continue the way they are now, then the Russians seem to have something of an advantage. But this isn't something I say with a whole lot of confidence. And I would also say, you know, a few weeks back, my thought was the time was probably more on the Ukrainian side. It's really hard to know at what point the Russians are going to run out of men. And you're also seeing stories of Russian families crowdfunding to get equipment and supplies to Russian soldiers, because they're not being adequately supplied by the Defence Ministry. You know, these are interesting stories. What does one make of them? And how does that translate? Do you take that to mean there's a lot of grassroots support for soldiers? Do you take that to mean that the Russian Defence Ministry is in trouble because it can't supply and support?

Richard  28:48
And from what I understand on the front lines, Russian commanders kind of rely on a mix of Russian troops with mixed degrees of training plus Wagner operatives, fighters from this security company close to the Kremlin, plus separatist forces. I mean, it's, it's a whole mix that they're using on the front lines, right?

Olga  29:09
Yes. And, you know, people who volunteered and have shown up – and again, who knows how much training or capacity these people bring to the fight – we've definitely seen evidence of Wagner or private military forces being used, including to fly aircraft. What does this tell me about Russian capacity? What does this tell me about, you know, Russia’s 800,000 person military, and how many people can it actually put into the fight and which of them are capable of what? We've got the Russian National Guard involved. A lot of the Chechen forces you'll be reading about, they're technically National Guard. The National Guard is not supposed to do offensive operations. The National Guard is supposed to do kind of, you know, high end policing, riot control sorts of things. So just what's going on, who's fighting and how they're fighting? But a lot of this is just artillery being lobbed from one side to the other and then back again. So, the other aspect of this fight is it's a lot of people sitting in trenches, while artillery rains down on them.

Richard  30:19
And negotiations – I mean, there were talks, political talks, but they petered out some months ago and given the difference between the two sides, it’s hard to see what they would yield if they did restart? 

Olga  30:33
Negotiations have stopped, other than for prisoner exchanges and so forth. And those continue, they are continuing to exchange prisoners. And they're continuing to exchange remains. Negotiations on an end state, you know, there is a lot of speculation on how real those were even before they shut down now several months ago.

Richard  30:58
These were the talks that Turkey or Turkey was hosting.

Olga  31:00
Well, first Belarus, then Turkey. There were ideas being put forward regarding final settlements at these talks. But the question of whether the Russian delegation especially had a real mandate to negotiate was never satisfactorily answered. But those were interesting and that they were useful in laying out the positions of both sides and in the end, kind of the lack of overlap between the positions of both sides. So, the reason that they were going to keep fighting, 

Richard  31:33
And in the early stages of the war, there was understandable fear fueled in part by barely veiled threats from the Kremlin about how they, you know, could use nuclear weapons in response to others getting involved in Ukraine. How much do you see that threat sort of having subsided a little bit? That firstly the rhetoric seems to have changed, but also that Moscow appears to have accepted that Western governments are going to throw in weapons to Ukraine, and there's not a lot that Russia can do about it?

Olga  32:06
Look, the thing that worries me most from a nuclear war likelihood perspective is a direct fight between NATO and Russia. Luckily, that seems to also worry both people in various NATO capitals and in Moscow. So from both sides, they have quite studiously avoided things that seem to be likely to lead to a direct fight. Though you do get calls for it, right. You do get calls for things that would push NATO forces, say, you know, escorting ships in the Black Sea to get Ukrainian grain out. You know, the no fly zone idea has mostly gone away. But you get ideas like that, that get floated. This idea that the Russians will back off, right, because they don't want a nuclear war either, so NATO might as well just get into this fight. You hear those ideas.

Richard  32:59
Though, you hear them but maybe a little bit quieter than a couple of months ago.

Olga  33:03
Yeah. What you're not hearing from officials is as much talk of the need for regime change in Russia. You're hearing less about the need to put the Russian government up on war crimes charges. In Russia, you still get a lot of TV pundits talking about, you know, the prospects for a nuclear war and how they're going to turn the West to dust. But you certainly don't hear officials saying that. In that sense, the reliance on coercive threats, of course of nuclear threats, on the part of Moscow seems to have died down for the time being. That doesn't mean that the risk of nuclear use has disappeared. But look, from the beginning, I've always thought that the odds of Russia just lobbing a nuke at something are pretty low, right? It's not like that's how countries tend to use nuclear weapons. I do think that both the Russian doctrine – which is that nuclear weapons use is appropriate when the existence of the state is at risk, and the nuclear deterrent is at risk, absolutely and short of that, I think that the Russian government's attitude is a little bit of we're going down, everyone's gonna go down with us. So, again, if they're feeling that that's a real risk, you know, kind of the usefulness of nuclear weapons in this scenario seems limited. You know, kind of this notion that if the Russians felt they were losing, they would try to signify how crazy they were by using a nuclear weapon. That notion is always out there. It's non-doctrinal, but not impossible. But again, I start to worry when the rhetoric heats up, and I start to worry when I see a real risk of NATO-Russia force-on-force fighting. Right now, I'm not seeing that.

Richard  35:00
So not even necessarily if Ukrainian forces advance, you know, push Russian forces out of the areas they've captured, even as far back as the sort of end of February frontlines or even further in Donbas?

Olga  35:13
I mean, I don't know, right, but you have to kind of tell yourself the story of how this works. So, another miracle occurs: the Ukrainians start winning, the Russians are forced to back out and, you know, presumably, the Russian government decides, oh my, our government is going to fall because we're losing this war, which is a bit of a jump, right? You have to tell yourself a story about how that happens. But okay, let's say you've thought up a story for how that happens. And then they say, okay, we're going to use a nuclear weapon to get out of this mess. We're going to do what, bomb Lviv? I mean, and then the Ukrainians will say, oh, nevermind, we're going to stop advancing? What's the logic to it?

Richard  36:00
Even leaving aside how Ukraine's Western supporters would respond.

Olga  36:05
And Ukraine's Western supporters have made very clear the unacceptability of nuclear use. 

Richard  36:12
So, could we come back to the sanctions policy? We talked about it a while ago. This is perhaps the aspect of Western policy that's maybe most contested in different parts of the world. Broadly speaking, the goal of the sanctions is to contain Russia, to weaken Russia, to inhibit its ability not just to fight the war in Ukraine, but potentially conduct sort of similar aggression elsewhere. How much evidence do you see that they're going to be able to achieve that goal?

Olga  36:40
So, I do think the sanctions are affecting the Russian economy. We certainly see that. The problem, of course, is Russia can just keep pouring money into defence instead of other things. Then you have to ask, is it pouring money into defence effectively? How much of the poor performance and the problems that we've seen on the battlefield are a result of mismanagement of defence spending over the course of the last however many years? And can they improve that and fix that and spend money better, particularly without access to Western parts? You know, all of these things that they have to make up for going forward. But in terms of diverting resources, they've got, you know, got decades of the Soviet experience to show that governments run by Moscow know how to divert resources to defence. It's going to be harder for them. And then the question is, if you have impoverished your population, can you keep that going? Some of the reporting we're hearing from major metropolitan areas, like Moscow and St Petersburg, basically say that the war doesn't affect them. But if you go out into poorer parts of Russia, from where many of the soldiers are coming, people who don't have a lot of options, where the economy was already in bad shape, and you think about what happens in those places, when the economy goes downhill even further. What's the impact on that? Well, one cynical view is you'll have more men willing to sign up and join the armed forces, because there are even fewer jobs. But, you know, are there other effects? So, I think this is another one where it's really hard to predict exactly how this plays out. Western states imposing the sanctions are banking on this constraining Russia and making it harder for them to be aggressive. Russia is banking on being able to survive it, and also on the sanctions eventually going away one way or another, potentially because there is pressure from the Global South, potentially because they get enough success on the battlefield that the Ukrainians are forced to capitulate, and then, what, everyone's going to keep all the sanctions on? They won't. I think there are a lot of possibilities that the Russians are trying to factor in. But the message they're sending is “we'll manage”.

Richard  38:53
One option for the sanctions would be that Western governments make clear what Russia would have to do to get certain sanctions eased. Let's say it was prepared to compromise to make some sort of deal that was acceptable to Kyiv. Then some of the sanctions should be lifted and that would gradually provide a set of incentives for Moscow to do things it might not be inclined to do now. I mean, clearly that would be a logical thing for Western governments to do, but it seems sort of peripheral in the way it's going to shape Moscow's calculations. it doesn't seem like it's going to have much of an impact. But what about sort of conditioning lifting some of the sanctions on its blockade of the Black Sea ports that are stopping Ukrainian grain from getting out? Which is something that obviously a lot of countries across the world care about because it impacts directly the commodities crisis. I mean, what do you make of offering to lift some sanctions on that basis?

Olga  39:52
Well, the Russians have said, "lift all the sanctions, and we'll be happy to let all the grain go". There are a number of fundamental problems here, right? One of them being how does that work exactly? Do they then remove the Black Sea Fleet from the Black Sea? Right, because it's an effective blockade. It's because the Black Sea Fleet is there and people don't want to engage it. Now the other issue, of course, is that both Ukrainians and Russians have mined pretty heavily. The Ukrainians have done that because they don't want the Russian Black Sea Fleet attempting to land in Odesa or elsewhere along that southern coast. How are you going to convince them to take those mines out? Because the Russians have said that they're not going to do anything but if I were Ukrainian I would not be terribly enthusiastic about that. So you know, it's much more complicated than the Russians should lift the blockade and then we can lift some sanctions and everybody will be happy. You know, so that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is, of course, you know, are you rewarding that behaviour? Are you then feeding the Russian military complex, etc, etc. There's not a lot of Western appetite for rewarding Russia for pretty much anything, though there might be a decent amount of southern appetite for doing it.

Richard  41:14
So, as things appear likely to be settling into a protracted war. Neither side looking for a way out. For now, the fighting probably looking like – with all the difficulty of predicting – what it looks like for now in eastern and southern Ukraine. And of course Ukraine and its Western backers have been living with Russian-backed separatists in the east. Crimea was annexed since 2014. But obviously this is war on a different scale and dramatic changes in perceptions in European capitals, justifiably, about the threat Russia under its current leadership poses. So how does this start to look in the months ahead for European security, European security architecture? We’ve talked already about some changes – Finland and Sweden looking to join NATO assuming that Turkey’s objections have actually been overcome. So there's one aspect of it. We've seen NATO troop buildups in parts of Europe along Russia's border. But what else? What does this sort of mean in the year or so ahead? 

Olga  42:11
I think we're seeing a new European security architecture take shape, which is an architecture of deterring Russia, building up forces, sending more forces to reassure NATO allies closer to Russia. It'll be interesting to see, on the Russian side, how they build up and what they do ostensibly to deter NATO from attacking Russia. But we're going to be seeing, unless something changes pretty drastically in this war, a lot more money spent on defence. And a certain amount of instability that's built into the system where people who want to push back more forcefully against Russia, people who think that the support to Ukraine has been inadequate, make that case. And as frustration mounts, you know, if the war continues, those voices will be warring with the voices that say this isn't working, we need to force the Ukrainians to cut some sort of a deal. If there is a pause, or there is some sort of a deal, then it's going to be preparation for the next crisis, right? And then in the next crisis – this is something that concerns me that we've talked about before – there's a very strong possibility that there will be people saying the only reason we're in this next crisis is because we did not respond adequately in 2022. So, we need to respond more forcefully now. And I think the escalation risks become very serious at that point.

Richard  43:44
And for now, it appears that relations between Western capitals and Moscow, for all intents and purposes, they're broken. The relationship has collapsed. Western governments are obviously trying to isolate Russia. For the most part not engaging their Russian counterparts. Some exceptions – Iran nuclear talks, some UN Security Council business mainly hasn’t been as badly affected as we might have expected, although it’s still early days. But generally shaping up to be a sort of new Cold War. Yet the world is obviously much more globalised today – problems that it’s facing, as everyone knows and everybody says, can only be tackled by world powers working together. So what do you feel this might look like in the years ahead? Is it feasible for the West to sort of ignore and treat Russia as an outcast, especially if much of the world is not doing the same?

Olga  44:36
So, I'm not sure the goal is to entirely isolate Russia. I think there is a recognition that there are some things that will require some level of engagement. I think the goal is to weaken Russia so that it can not be aggressive. If we think back to all those months ago, to February, the expectation in the West, in Moscow and quite probably in Ukraine also, was that Russia would be successful in its military campaign  And then you would have this effort to build a force to deter Russian action elsewhere on the part of Western states, and in Russia an effort to figure out where it goes next to make sure Western states recognise its right to influence in its “neighbourhood”, however it defines it. So, what the Ukrainian success early in the war and then the slowness of Russian progress even after they restructured their war efforts to focus on the east of Ukraine, has done is open up this other option in which you could actually limit Russian capacity. Now, through sanctions, through the war itself, the idea being to do some damage to the Russian war machine, now and into the future. The idea being that maybe you don't have to sustain it all that long, if you can, you know, if you can do it successfully now. Now, maybe you can't, and then you have to keep it going. And you do run into all of these problems as a result, but there is no foreign policy that doesn't have its costs and benefits and its risks. And I think, if you're looking at this from a Western standpoint, and you're looking at the risks of further Russian aggression, those are unacceptable risks. If you can do everything you can in the present moment to get to a place where Russian capacity to aggress is lower, you're going to get a more secure world. So that's what you're trying to do.

Richard  46:35
Olya, thanks so much again for coming on today and really thanks so much for all your appearances over the past few months. It is always illuminating. 

Olga  46:45
Thanks for having me again. Looking forward to doing this again next season.

Richard  46:49
And if people want to hear more of Olya, you can also catch her on our sister podcast War & Peace, which she hosts and which focuses on European security. So, I’m now very happy to welcome Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s president and CEO. As it’s the last episode of the season, we thought we’d take the opportunity to look back a bit, take stock of the past season, some of our episodes, and more broadly reflect on what has been some pretty turbulent and troubling months in world politics. Comfort, welcome back on. Thanks for joining. 

Comfort  47:24
Thank you, Richard, nice to be back on in the last episode of the series.

Richard  47:29
So, obviously, there’s a lot that’s happened over the past six months. It’s not all about Ukraine but obviously a lot has been overshadowed by Russia’s war in Ukraine. We’re recording this the day after I recorded the interview with Olya. I know Comfort you’ve seen the transcript. So let’s start there. Any reflections looking back and on where things stand now?

Comfort  47:51
Yeah, thanks Richard. And I read the transcript from Olya. I mean, when I look back to just even before the invasion, so in December, we anticipated some kind of military adventurism. The scale of that adventurism, the timing of that and the duration, we couldn't predict. But we also said, you know, take Putin at his word,  so to see how that has unfolded, I think he's been worrying. The other sort of surprising element in this is the assumptions that a number of people went into, including on the Russian side, that this would be a very quick victory within days, that Ukrainians will capitulate, and the Russians will roll in victorious, regime change, and all those things. And in fact, we've all been struck by the way in which the Ukrainians have been able to resist, push back and fight. And of course, we've all talked about, especially on the various podcasts, that there are a number of miscalculations such as poor assumptions, poor intelligence on the Russian side. Six months down the line, Richard, I think what worries us now is that this is a protracted long drawn out conflict. Olya – and I was struck by what she said – said it's not very clear where this is going to end. There's no clear path toward the settlement. That obviously, is just worrying in terms of what it means for Ukraine, for Europe and for the world in terms of the ramifications from the conflict.

Richard  49:29
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, reflecting back on some of our episodes over the past season. Obviously we've had Olya on the podcast a lot, which has been great. We've had a lot of other colleagues come on, looking at the implications in areas that they work. There are nuclear talks, Venezuela, Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya. We've also had different trustees on which I think has been, you know, also really interesting. So, Andrey Kortunov, you may remember, quite a moving episode on the view from Moscow. Gérard Araud who gave us a tour de force of geopolitics after Ukraine. Alexander Stubb, Shankar Menon over the last couple of weeks – two very articulate expressions of views, respectively from Finland and India. So that's also been, I think, interesting and I hope useful for people to hear about the war, about its global fallout through different lenses and different angles. You know, thinking back to the end of February, I don’t know if you remember, we talked in the first podcast after the invasion, about this sort of sense of dread, of foreboding about what this meant not just for Europe, but for the world more broadly. What it said about the mindset in the Kremlin, to views of Russia's interests, Moscow's relations with its neighbours, the sort of general lawlessness. And you know, of course, we need to be careful with double standards. I should say that the team around President George W. Bush, when they went into Iraq, was also pretty unsettling. But this just felt very, very shocking. It felt as though we were entering a much more dangerous era. And sort of fast forward to today, I was sort of thinking, is that sense of foreboding still there? Should it be? And was it justified at the time? And maybe people are now sort of getting used to this fighting in Ukraine's east and south. And obviously not if you're, if you're there, and you're in the areas affected. I mean, it's a war that's killed, we don't really know, but tens of thousands of people at least. Displaced maybe as many as twelve million. It’s caused enormous destruction and suffering. But when you're sitting further away, I think the shock has to some degree worn off. Ukraine is going further down the front pages. Plus, of course, Russia has got bogged down for now. The nuclear brinkmanship has to some degree subsided, as we talked about. The risk of direct war between NATO and Russia is still there, but maybe doesn't seem quite so immediate. But you know, all that said, I think it's important to sort of keep reminding ourselves what a game changer this is. The mood so far in Western capitals, understandably, hasn't softened in any way. Maybe it will change over time within electorates and politicians will then sort of have to respond to that. Maybe. But relations with Russia under President Putin won't recover. I mean, absent a real change of heart in the Kremlin. The hostility between Russia and the West is set to shape European security, maybe global affairs more broadly for years to come. And, of course, the danger of escalation between nuclear powers, that danger hasn't gone. It could happen over Ukraine if there was an unexpected turn of events. It could happen, as Olya said over the next crisis, but it is still there. Plus, the war comes on top of a lot of other things over the last decade or so, some of which I'm sure we'll talk about in a moment. And so I think it's reasonable, as you argue that the past six months have really set the stage for a much more disturbing future, certainly, but I don't think only for European security. That's the first thing. Second, maybe I'd say that the Western response, as we've talked about before, overall, and we'll talk about some of the exceptions to this generally has been pretty good. I mean, Crisis Group, we're certainly not shy to criticise Western policy, hopefully constructively, where we feel that it is deserved. We haven't pulled our punches on Afghanistan, for example, which maybe we'll come back to a bit later. But on Ukraine, the Western response has been pretty good. Western powers have stayed largely coherent and united. Broadly speaking, they're all singing from the same sheet. Notwithstanding some differences in nuance, Western intelligence has been accurate. I think the question, if you're sort of looking ahead is, you know, how much has that depended on having President Biden in the White House or a reasonably conventional president? One that values that the U.S. has traditional alliances, values NATO? How different could things have looked with a different leadership in Washington and frankly also if Marine Le Pen had been elected in France, for example, when there's this strong show of unity within NATO, more precarious than it seems. And again, as winter approaches, higher energy costs, you know, is the mood going to change? I think that's certainly something to watch. But maybe, you know, I think it's important to recognise the positive side of the Western response. But there's also an element that, you know, we've been more critical about, and that's the way that the G7, for example, the way that Western powers have managed the global fallout. And so Comfort, I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. I mean, in particular, to sort of return to this theme that we covered in previous episodes, that many countries across the world – especially in the “Global South”, to use the sort of least offensive catch-all term – have distanced themselves from the West's efforts to isolate Russia.

Comfort  54:34
On the whole question about the Global South and how it has reacted and its own position on this. I think there's one thing that Shivshankar Menon said in his conversation to you, Richard, that I'd like to open with which and I think it's important just to re emphasise this, and coming from somebody who was a former foreign secretary of India, you know, and a national security adviser. He was very clear that what is not being questioned here by any of the countries that come under the umbrella “Global South”, what is not being questioned is the territorial integrity of Ukraine. There is recognition of Ukraine's sovereignty and its right to decide its path as well. But what was interesting about his conversation was that he wasn't going to be bound up by what he called the moral argument, that one could almost say he was referring to double standards about where we stand here. The other thing that I found very interesting about his conversation was that he challenged this notion that the global order was being usurped as a consequence of Russia's invasion. And he said what is up for debate, or what is under threat, Is the current European security architecture. My own caveat to what he said and I think he would agree is that when we say that when Europe sneezes, the rest of us, the rest of the world catches a cold. And how have we caught that cold? Well, first is the food crisis, then is the debt, then is the energy crisis. And this is against the backdrop of the pandemic. And then also climate change. The international environment, as we all acknowledge, was already in a precarious dilemma before Ukraine. The fundamental issues that we've talked about, whether it's around debt and climate change and pandemic, these were already fraught before we entered into Ukraine. I think what is at the heart of the criticism or the concerns from the Global South – and you know one thing I should emphasise that it's not homogeneous – but nonetheless, one of the concerns that has come out of the Global South is the unevenness. I mean, Iraq is not lost on the Global South, they continue to use that to beat the West, in terms of its own reactions to Ukraine. They also, as you rightfully note, questioned the way in which the West has been maximalist on Ukraine. They mention other files that haven't been addressed, and we should talk about those other files later. But I do want to unpack the issue around the food crisis, Richard, and sort of want to agree with one of the points that you made. The high prices are not all about Ukraine, and that the economic environment was already fraught before this. But this is one of the things that has been exposed yet again by Ukraine. It was already there because the pandemic was just the inequality of the international financial architecture. So it's not just European security architecture that needs to be reformed. One of the sort of op-eds that I think speak clearly to the concerns was written by our board member, our founding chairman, Lord Malloch-Brown. And the title I think aptly captures the concerns of the Global South when he says, “the world needs more than crumbs from the G7 table”. And, you know, that article itself is worth reading. And it's again a perfect example, I think the conclusion is yet again, the global powers meet the give the impression of care and concern about the issues of the rest of the world but yet it's really much about their agenda, and less about the rest of the world, paying secondary attention to all that sort of bread and butter livelihood issues that have been exposed yet again by Ukraine. If we thought the world was an equal as a result of the pandemic, yet again we've seen that as a consequence of of Ukraine.

Richard  58:43
Yeah, such a great point. And as you know, I agree very much with with all of that. I thought as you said Mark Mallett-Brown’s piece in The New York Times on the G7 meeting captured it very well. I mean, Western leaders say they recognise why views in many other countries are different, right? I mean, I remember the German foreign minister gave a speech, I think, during the early days of the war in New York, and she said something like “we hear you”. It was a very good speech. But generally, there seems to be this sort of tone deafness, in some ways, to the concerns of other parts of the world, and especially the G7. In some ways, it was even more striking because the leaders of India, Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa and Senegal were there. You know, there's this, this sort of very stark contrast between the time and money spent on Ukraine and those that Western leaders are spending on things that the rest of the world cares, equally or more about. And of course, Ukraine is going to be and should be important for Western capitals, but it's going to be very hard to win support in the Global South for Ukraine, for other things that the West cares about, if Western leaders aren't prepared to demonstrate more firmly that they're ready to act on the things that the rest of the world cares about: the commodities crisis, in particular the debt crisis, climate crisis, climate funding. And it's not just winning over the global South, I mean, especially the food and the fuel price hikes, they're potentially going to lead not just to a lot of suffering, but also potentially to instability. I mean, we've talked about this on the podcast before. That price hikes don't necessarily cause unrest. You know, some countries might be able to intimidate or buy their way out. But clearly, in places where relations between people and their governments were strained, even before the pandemic, even before the Ukraine war, the commodities crisis is going to be potentially extremely destabilising. So there are strong reasons for Western capitals, you know, in their own self-interest to do more, to commit more resources to try to help. And, you know, in some ways the sanctions policy is part of this, and it probably deserves a longer discussion, because, of course, there are very good reasons for the sanctions. It's what Western leaders threatened Russia with if it was going to invade. And it's also not right to blame sanctions alone or even mostly for a commodities crisis that has, you know, many causes, not least Russia's blockade of Black Sea ports. But it's also not accurate to say that sanctions don't contribute in some way, which, you know, some Western capitals sort of assert. And it's also not really clear that sanctions are going to curb the Kremlin's behaviour. So, it's a difficult one, and I'm sure something that we're going to come back to. But Comfort, I wonder what you think of the argument that, you know, that it's not just Western capitals here that we should be calling out? I mean, there are also questions we can ask of leaders in the Global South themselves, right? And I mean, of course the Iraq invasion was a violation of international law. There was Libya – also a source of a lot of frustration and in parts of the world. That disgraceful vaccine inequality, climate finance, this sort of injustice of climate politics, and you can obviously go further back. But Ukraine isn't responsible for any of that, right? I mean, Zelensky didn't invade Iraq, Ukrainians aren't to blame for the unequal vaccine distribution. And Russia's invasion is clearly a massive violation, as everybody says, of Ukraine sovereignty, of its territorial integrity by a belligerent bigger neighbour. And of course, countries have many different reasons for not wanting to break ties with Russia, but my sense is that – you know, maybe you could argue this both ways – but my sense is that the Kremlin would care more, might even be more willing to take a step back, if more of the world was prepared to take a stronger line on on its aggression.

Comfort  1:02:49
I don't think we should rule out the importance of interest. I think, often Western powers tend to talk about the Global South as a bloc, and I leave China out of this for the moment. And often talk about Africa as though each of these countries doesn't have very clear national interests as well. I think the other issue, Richard, is these are countries that have choices. Those choices are based on their own strategic imperatives. Some of them are short term calculations that we shouldn't dismiss as well. The other thing that's worth pointing out, Richard, is that despite everything that we've said, Something significant happened in the last few months. President Zelensky was talking to a number of key capitals, talking directly to their parliaments, talking to U.S. Congress, to the Security Council, talking to the UK Parliament. And finally, he spoke to President Macky Sall. And significantly, also he spoke to the African Union. Now, it's not clear, if you asked me, what did we gain from that, beyond symbolism? It's not quite clear. But he put a case forward to the African Union, something that we said was very important. That he's got to come and talk to the continent. I'm speaking to you from Nairobi, Richard, where we know that the Ukrainian ambassador also tried to make a case for their own position. I think the other point that I think is worth emphasising is that this is not about Ukraine. This is about the West's own history in a number of the countries that we're talking about. So I think many sympathise with the Ukrainians’ plight, but they don't want to get caught up with – I mean in the African continent, different countries, but I speak here also of others in the Global South and Latin American countries, countries in Asia – many sympathise with Ukrainians, with Ukraine's plight, but they don't want to get caught up in a fight they perceive as pitting Russia versus the West. Also, they may simply prefer not to antagonise Moscow because of those interests that we're talking about as well. But finally, Richard, I also think that this should cause some soul searching in Western capitals about their own record over the past decades. This is also an indictment against Western capitals. And I think that's an important point, you know, that the West has to engage better with a number of the countries and engage more.  

Richard  1:05:31
Yeah, and it matters right now especially because of something that’s come up in previous episodes. That the world is in this moment of flux. That clearly the post-Cold War, this brief unipolar moment, the U.S.-led order is over, but it’s not yet clear what’s coming next. It’s likely to be shaped to a large degree by China’s rise and how others in Asia and elsewhere respond to that. Competition between the U.S. and China. It’s probably going to matter on which side of those influential countries the Global South sits. It matters for the West of course, but probably also matters in terms of international institutions, to some degree norms, notwithstanding all the inconsistency that we’ve talked about in Western support for those norms. Comfort, you talked about not everything being about Ukraine, although obviously the Ukraine war and its global fallout have reverberated across a lot of other crises. So could you say a word or two about what else is on your radar?

Comfort  1:06:32
I mean, yes, though I mean, the important point about Crisis Group – the reason for which Crisis Group exists – is that this is an organisation that doesn't just focus on the conflicts that are the headlines. But we do focus on those forgotten conflicts and those that are not on the radar. So, interspersed within the episodes, I'm really glad that we zoomed in on Afghanistan. We ended 2021 with a very, very, just a very sad situation in Afghanistan, that  messy withdrawal by the United States and various allies. We warned about the terrible humanitarian crisis. The big concern today in Afghanistan, Richard, drought and hunger coupled with a very devastating earthquake in a country that really already is in a very precarious and delicate situation as well. So the country is still in danger. You just have the grim humanitarian challenges but also the reality check that we also have to deal with the Taliban, they are the ones ruling the country and we have to find a way in which to work with them to deal with the dire humanitarian consequences. So that was an important one. Richard, I know you talked about Syria, another important issue for us. And that is one that we're watching. And I know that we're recording on the eve of an important Security Council renewal conversation at the Security Council about, you know, allowing UN agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held areas in Idlib, a reminder again, of the humanitarian crisis there. And if you're looking for a way in which Russia's invasion of Ukraine becomes a test for important files before the Security Council, the fate of this resolution and whether it will go through hangs in the balance. Two important episodes, Richard's that you did, that I really sort of thought was important to remind our audience about were Ethiopia and Yemen. People were concerned that in the midst of the crisis of Ukraine, we would lose some important dividends, peace dividends, but international actors have managed to secure a truce in Ethiopia and in Yemen. The key is whether they will hold it up, particularly, you know, we wrote just this week alone, as we're recording, about the fate of that welcomed decision by both Tigrayan leaders and the federal government to pursue peace talks. Whether it will hold, it's not clear. But both sides have come to the conclusion that they can't fight their way through peace at the moment. And then the other one that I think is worth mentioning, Richard, and also because he brought it to my attention. When I went to meet the Secretary General, I mean, it wasn't on my talking points. And he was the one who raised it, since then we've continued to focus on the Sahel. Very worrying developments there, but also for the entire West African region. And the podcast that struck me at the beginning of the year was one that you did with our Deputy Africa director, Rinaldo, who, you know, did a very good sort of analysis of the  two coups in Mali, one in neighbouring Burkina. Then, you know, we have the coup in Guinea, in Conakry and it just shows you that after ten or fifteen years of heavy investment in West Africa by the UN and international actors, that this region is far from being out of the woods in terms of crisis. And in fact, you know, as I speak, you know, the worrying situation is Burkina where just daily news of more attacks by jihadi forces just shows you just how feeble that country is. And as a reminder, Richard, of how one conflict bleeds into another. Burkina is in trouble because of Burkina, but also because of the precarious situation with his neighbour, Mali.

Richard  1:10:36
Yeah and on that theme of trouble spilling over, you could also flag the Great Lakes, something else on our agenda that we talked about a few weeks ago and where things have really been heating up over the past few months. Just this week, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi warned Paul Kagame, his Rwandan counterpart, not to get involved again in eastern DRC. There is this real danger that we’ve highlighted of not just a return to proxy conflict, but maybe even direct fighting involving Rwandan, Ugandan, maybe even Burundian forces. With the risk of that playing up again in the Congo’s long suffering east. There’s already been this uptick of violence related to the ADF, a Ugandan militant group now declared itself part of ISIS. There are these mutual accusations by governments in the region about their support for various armed groups in the east. Maybe the other one I’d highlight is the Iran nuclear file, which is really sort of depressing. It looks increasingly unlikely now that the U.S. and Iran can get back to the nuclear deal. The contentious issue for some time, as listeners will know, has been the terrorist designation by the U.S. of the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards, which Iran wants lifted. But from what I understand, the U.S. has put pretty favourable conditions to lifting that designation on the table, which Iran has rejected. And I think it seems now that Tehran has just decided that actually getting back to the deal may not be worth it, in large part because if Biden does sign up, it only guarantees that the U.S. is going to be part of the deal for the next couple of years. If you have a change of administration in 2024, the Biden administration can’t guarantee the U.S. stays in the deal, that the sanctions stay lifted after that. I think it’s politically difficult for anyone in Tehran to put their name to it. It’s this sort of “fool me once” type of thing, it’s just too politically contentious. And to remind people, this really matters. I mean, we talked about this earlier this year. It’s very unclear how the U.S. – even under this administration but especially under a different administration – Israel, others would respond to an Iran with an ever shorter break out time. With an ability to weaponise its nuclear program and very, very quickly. I think that’s really something to worry about. And that’s just sort of tragic because the deal, the JCPOA, for all its flaws, did put the nuclear issue for some years in a box and now it’s well and truly back out.

Comfort  1:13:23
Of course, you started your “career trajectory” – for lack of a better choice of word – in Latin America, and the one that put a smile on my face, partly because, you know, one of the things that I've been doing the last six months is going to various programme, regional retreats and I enjoyed the podcast on the eve of the elections in Colombia. And I wanted to get your take that good news, you know, a peaceful transfer of power but I'd be interested in your views now with a leftist candidate and former guerrilla, Gustavo Petro, coming through.

Richard  1:14:00
Yeah, yeah. The episode on the “TikTok King”, Rodolfo Hernández, who as you say in the end lost. So, I think it’s a really nice one to include because so far in Colombia I think there’s some good news in that Gustavo Petro, this leftist president has just assumed power. I mean, potentially he really represents a shake-up to the political establishment, some real potential changes. His candidacy along with Hernández who was also a sort of political outsider is representative of the anger many Colombians, like many other Latin Americans – indeed many people round the world – feel at their ruling elites, at their political establishment. That they’re not able to address the problems that are affecting people’s daily lives. So they really represent potential change. Yet the establishment really seems to have accepted his win very gracefully. I mean, it’s not just the outgoing president, Iván Duque, but there are also these quite amazing pictures with the former president, Alvaro Uribe, who is really the establishment kingmaker – bitterly opposed to everything Petro stands for and there are these pictures of him hugging Petro. How long all this will last is unclear, but for now that’s definitely good news. And I mean maybe, I don’t know if you want to say something about Somalia, another transition that could have been quite bumpy but ended up being quite a smooth transfer of power, again, in Somalia? 

Comfort  1:15:28
Yeah, you know, this offers Somalia a chance for a reset, after, you know, incredibly divisive and, you know, tense period. Significant reconciliation now amongst political elites, at the community level. So this is really good news. Now, contrast that, you know, in terms of other elections we're going to be watching. While we've got the good news coming out of Somalia, the one that we're deeply worried about, is the U.S. elections. First, the midterm elections, but it's not the elections per se, but just the polarising nature and the tensions that we're seeing in the United States today, and I recall our report in 2020. And it's clear, it's clear to me that we need to revisit some of the things that we said there and get ourselves ready for a very volatile period ahead for the United States. 

Richard  1:16:23
Yeah absolutely, and you could look at the way the political establishment in Colombia or losing parties in Somalia accepted their defeat reasonably gracefully and how that contrasts with the refusal of former U.S. President Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party to accept his defeat in 2020. And I couldn’t agree more that it’s hard to talk about things we’re worried about without talking about what’s happening in the U.S. Obviously all the revelations of 6 January committee, the dangers of far right violence, what was an attempt to violently overturn an election result and it’s hard to think of a Western democracy where that’s happened in recent history. But beyond that, there’s also this basic erosion of U.S. democracy, that with some of the Supreme Court decisions, the curtailment of voter rights, this looming danger – call it what it is, basically minority rule – and what that means for U.S. democracy, avenues for democratic change, the longer term health of U.S. politics, the legitimacy of U.S. institutions. And that’s something frankly that’s sad to end the season on this note but something that should make everyone uneasy.

Comfort  1:17:36
I'd like also to use the opportunity to, you know, say a big thanks and appreciation to our staff that, you know, even in the darkest moments, are always teasing out ways in which to help conflict actors, policymakers think of ways to sort of defuse tension. So always looking for a way out and never collapsing around the old line that there's no political will, but finding a way out of all the conundrums and dilemmas that we see in our work.

Richard  1:18:05
Very good. Yeah, we've had a lot of those colleagues on the podcast, of course, over the last season, which has been great, but we should say also that there's a huge number our colleagues that you know, do a wide array of different things behind the scenes to keep things afloat, so big thanks and a shout out to them too. Comfort, what I wanted to do to end because you're always making fun of the way that I do the outro. So I'm going to ask you for this last episode to do it with me. Over to you.

Comfort  1:18:37
Thank you. So, Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I’m Comfort Ero.

Richard  1:18:44
And I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter, @CrisisGroup. We have transcripts for the shows if you want to reference, check up on anything you’ve heard, they’re also on our website. 

Comfort  1:18:57
Thanks to our producers, Sam Mednick, Kevin Murphy and Finn Johnson.

Richard  1:19:02
Thanks also to Alex Figurski who helps out with production. Thanks very much to all of you, to our listeners. And thanks, also, I should say, reflecting back, to all our guests. Thanks very much also, Comfort, for joining.

Comfort  1:19:15
Thanks for having me on again, Richard, I look forward to the next season. 

Richard  1:19:20
And a huge thanks to everyone who has tuned in today and over the past season and if you're away over the next few months, have a great and restful break. And if anything big happens, we’ll be back with a special episode I’m sure but let’s hope there’s no need for that and you can all tune in again for Season Three.


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