Hold Your Fire! (Season 3)
Hold Your Fire! (Season 3)
Podcast

Hold Your Fire! (Season 3)

Join Crisis Group Executive Vice President Richard Atwood as he dives deep into the conflicts that rage around the globe. He speaks with Crisis Group field analysts and special guests to get their unique, on-the-ground perspective. Episodes from past seasons of Hold Your Fire! can be found here: Season 1 and Season 2.

Season 3

Episode 13: No End in Sight in Ukraine?

Winter is setting in as the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches. Recent months have seen Ukrainian forces advance, but whether front lines will continue to shift as the weather changes remains unclear. Russia, which has mobilised some 300,000 new soldiers in recent months, has reportedly sent them to the front lines with little preparation. It claims to have annexed large parts of its neighbour, brandishes nuclear threats and has embarked on a weeks-long bombardment of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, causing blackouts across much of the country. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking from a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Bucharest, accused Russia of “weaponising winter” to break the Ukrainian people’s will and the unity of Kyiv's Western backers. For now, however, Western capitals appear in no mood to reduce their support to Ukraine. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood speaks with Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia program director, about where Russia’s war in Ukraine might be headed next. They talk about how the winter might affect battlefield dynamics and the impact of Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian energy infrastructure. They discuss whether Russia might yet gamble on using a nuclear weapon and what Western and other governments can do to deter that. They ask whether opinion around the world toward the war is changing. They look at NATO policy and what an acceptable settlement for Ukraine and Western capitals might look like. Finally, as U.S. President Joe Biden says he would be prepared to meet his Russian counterpart to talk about Ukraine, they ask whether any space exists for diplomacy to find a way to end the war. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Ukraine, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Ukraine country page.

Episode 12: Football and Politics in the Gulf

The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off this week in the Qatari capital Doha. The tournament comes at a time of fast-evolving politics in the region. Just a few years ago, a spat within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) saw Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) break diplomatic ties with and blockade Qatar, frustrated in part by Doha’s support for Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa. The crisis was mostly resolved in early 2021, and diplomacy ahead of the World Cup has further calmed intra-GCC relations, though differences remain, particularly between Qatar and the UAE. The World Cup also comes amid other changes nearby: Iran is convulsed by mass protests; talks involving Tehran and world powers over Iran’s nuclear program have fizzled out; and Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to return to power in Israel at the helm of the most right wing government in the country’s history – all at a time when Gulf monarchies have taken some steps to calm tensions with Iran and, in some cases, improve relations with Israel. It also comes amid Saudi-U.S. friction. Riyadh’s decision, together with other oil producers, to cut oil production against Washington’s wishes has further tested relations that were already strained over the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which U.S. intelligence blames powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Joost Hiltermann and Dina Esfandiary, Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa director and senior adviser, respectively, to talk about the World Cup and Gulf Arab states’ external relations. They discuss how ties between countries in the region have evolved since the GCC spat and their different interests in the region. They examine how Gulf Arab countries view developments in Yemen and Iran and the changing relationship between some Gulf capitals and Israel. Finally, they look at the ups and downs of U.S.-Saudi ties during U.S. President Joe Biden’s tenure in office thus far. They talk about how Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are navigating Washington’s changing role in the region, big-power tensions and multipolarity. They discuss Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans for Saudi Arabia and ask what the future holds for relations between Riyadh and Washington. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in the Gulf region, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Gulf and Arabian Peninsula regional page.

Episode 11: Finland's FM Pekka Haavisto on the Ukraine War, European Security and Peacemaking Elsewhere

In this episode of Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto for a wide-ranging discussion on topics ranging from the war in Ukraine to peacemaking efforts in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. They talk about Western support for Ukraine and the danger that Russia uses nuclear weapons. They discuss the role of diplomacy and prospects for a mediated settlement to the war. They also look at how the Ukraine war has affected popular opinion in Finland, the country’s application for NATO membership and the war’s impact on Europe’s security architecture more broadly. They discuss its global reverberations, including on peacemaking efforts elsewhere and how Western capitals have competed with Russia and China in their efforts to shore up support in the Global South. They discuss crises in the Horn of Africa, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s role in the region and prospects of peace in Ethiopia and Somalia. They also talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict and European policy in the Middle East. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the topics discussed in this episode, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our website.

Episode 10: Ethiopia’s Tigray War: After the Cessation of Hostilities, What Next?

On 2 November, the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan forces reached an agreement to cease hostilities and end almost two years of bloody war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. The truce came after the Ethiopian army, together with Eritrean troops and forces from the Amhara region, which borders Tigray, made rapid advances into Tigray over  recent weeks. It raises hopes that peace in Tigray might be within reach and that the region’s humanitarian crisis – amplified by a federal blockade on aid throughout much of the war – can finally be addressed. However, peace talks did not include Eritrea, despite its involvement in the war, and the deal includes no provisions about what will happen to the Eritrean forces in Tigray. It does involve other major concessions for the Tigrayans, who agreed to fully disarm within a month.  

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Murithi Mutiga, Crisis Group’s Africa director, to talk about the cessation of hostilities and its implications. They talk about the events leading to the truce, Ethiopia’s recent offensive in the Tigray region, Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict and how all sides are likely to view and respond to the agreement. They address the role of the African Union and its envoy, former Nigerian President Olesugun Obasanjo, in brokering the agreement. They also talk about the influence of external actors in Ethiopia and how the support of countries like the United Arab Emirates and Türkiye for the Ethiopian government shaped battlefield dynamics. They ask what went wrong with a transition in Ethiopia that had generated enormous optimism in its early years, and what the coming years might bring for politics in the Horn of Africa at a moment of considerable flux. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Ethiopia, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Ethiopia country page.

Episode 9: Lula and Latin America’s Leftward Lurch

Last Sunday in Brazil, former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won a tightly fought presidential run-off against incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s supporters took to the streets in angry protest against Lula. Although Bolsonaro narrowly lost out, he and the populist movement he has whipped up enjoy considerable support, hold a legislative majority and several key governorships, and remain a powerful force in Brazilian politics. Lula’s success comes at the heels of another leftist victory in Latin America – that of Gustavo Petro in Colombia. Petro promises “total peace” in Colombia, pledging to talk to the country’s remaining guerrilla movement and even drug traffickers to bring peace to the country’s violence-torn countryside. Lula and Petro are part of a crop of new leftist leaders across the continent, which though themselves diverse seem to mark a departure from the old authoritarian left at the helm in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. To some degree, their coming to power narrows the polarisation in Latin America that has undercut regional cooperation and could reinvigorate efforts to resolve Venezuela’s protracted political standoff, curb the political repression by Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua or tackle Haiti’s violent collapse. At home, though, Latin America’s new leftist leaders face huge challenges, with stagnant economies, big hikes in living costs and, in places, rampant criminal violence driving the discontent that right populists tend to profit from.  

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood speaks with Ivan Briscoe and Renata Segura, Crisis Group’s Latin America director and deputy director, about Lula’s victory in Brazil and what the leftward shift in Latin American politics means for the region. They talk about the future of Bolsonaro and his movement. They also talk about Petro’s ambitious plans for Colombia but his seeming pragmatism in rolling them out, his restoration of relations with neighbouring Venezuela and how the U.S. has responded to his policies so far. They discuss if the new political leadership on the continent can help address some of the continent’s worst crises. They also talk about the continent’s political future – will left-wing governments endure or will the populist right bounce back? 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Brazil and Latin America, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Latin America and Caribbean regional page.

Episode 8: After the Crackdowns, is Chad’s Transition Unravelling? 

On 20 October, Chadian security forces killed more than 50 protesters on the streets of Chad’s capital N’Djamena and other cities and towns. Demonstrators had taken to the streets in anger at an extension of the country’s transitional period that allows President Mahamat Déby to hold power for another two years and then possibly contest elections, despite his previous pledges to stand down. Mahamat Déby assumed power at the head of a transitional military council after his father, Idriss Déby, who had ruled Chad for 30 years, died when Chadian forces were fighting rebels in the country’s north. Initially, Mahamat Déby seemed to mark a break from the past: space for political debate opened up, some exiled opposition leaders returned to Chad, and talks with rebels got under way. Over the past few months, though, the most powerful rebel groups have rejected the deal that emerged from those talks and, when a national dialogue started in N’Djamena, the main opposition party and civil society organisations chose not to participate. Then came the announcement that junta members, including Déby, could run for elections, which triggered protests and the crackdown. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood speaks with Enrica Picco, Crisis Group’s Central Africa director, about where Chad’s transition is headed. They look at the violence against protesters and what options remain for the country’s political opposition. They also talk about the various Chadian rebel groups, many based in Libya and some of whose leaders are part of Deby’s family, that arguably pose a graver threat to Deby’s rule than his civilian opponents. They discuss Mahamat Déby’s ascendancy to power after the death of his father, the influence of Chad’s powerful military in backing him and how Déby has shaped politics in the country thus far. They also look at how regional actors, including the African Union, and other foreign powers, notably France, which traditionally enjoys close ties to the Chadian government, have responded to the violence. They discuss what people should be watching in the months ahead. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Chad, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Chad country page.

Episode 7: Can a New UN Envoy Help Resolve Libya’s Political Crisis?

Clashes between rival factions rocked Libyan capital Tripoli over the summer. The fighting pit forces loyal to UN-backed Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba against supporters of Fathi Bashagha, who last March was appointed prime minister by Libya’s eastern parliament and has formed an alliance with Khalifa Haftar, a powerful commander from the east. The clashes were triggered by a march on Tripoli by Bashaga’s loyalists, the latest in a series of attempts to oust Dabaiba, initially through political means and now by force. Armed factions in Tripoli came to Dabaiba’s defence and violence has now largely subsided, but Libya remains divided into rival governments. Foreign powers, who two years ago appeared to be putting aside their differences over Libya, are again divided on what the way forward should be. Turkey and Egypt, in particular, appear to be viewing the crisis in zero-sum terms, with Cairo particularly incensed by a maritime deal Dabaiba has just signed with Ankara. The new UN envoy, former Senegalese Minister Abdulaye Bathily, who formally starts his role this week, has his work cut out. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood talks with Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group’s Libya expert, about the country’s impasse. They discuss prospects for resolving the standoff between Dabaiba and Bashagha and what their next moves, and those of Haftar, might be. They look at how foreign powers view the crisis, and the impact of Egypt-Turkey tensions and the latest maritime deal. They assess how likely another flare-up of violence is. They also examine whether the new UN envoy can mend the deep rifts that continue to divide the country and what his immediate priorities should be. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Libya, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Libya country page.

Episode 6: An Escalatory Spiral in Ukraine?

The war in Ukraine took another nasty turn this week. Last Saturday, a blast destroyed parts of the Kerch bridge, which links Russian-occupied Crimea with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the explosion and announced retaliatory strikes on cities throughout Ukraine. This latest escalation comes after Ukrainian military gains in September prompted Putin to announce a partial mobilisation of fresh Russian forces and the annexation of several partly Russian-held regions in eastern Ukraine. He also made his most explicit nuclear threats yet. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood speaks with Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia program director, to discuss where things stand on the battlefield, where the conflict might be headed and the peril of further escalation. They talk about Russia’s recent escalatory steps and Moscow’s announcement of General Sergey Surovikin, who led Russia’s brutal campaign in Syria, as new commander for Russia’s Ukraine operations. They also look at the growing criticism in Moscow of Russia’s war efforts. They examine what Putin’s repeated escalations in response to Ukrainian gains means for the risks of a direct confrontation with NATO and nuclear weapons use. They also discuss the divided response from European countries on whether to welcome in Russians fleeing the Kremlin’s mobilisation. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
 

For more on the situation in Ukraine, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Ukraine country page, our EU Watch List entry Walking a Fine Line in Ukraine and last week's episode of War & Peace Taking Stock of Russia’s Military Performance in Ukraine with RAND Senior Policy Researcher Dara Massicot.

Episode 5: Coup in Burkina, Russia in Mali and a New Chapter in the Sahel?

On 30 September, a group of young army captains, led by Ibrahim Traoré, seized power in Burkina Faso. They ousted Interim President Paul-Henri Damiba, who himself had come to power in a coup last January. In a televised speech, Traoré blamed Damiba for failing to check terrorism and violence. A few days before the coup, Islamist militants had attacked an army convoy carrying humanitarian aid to the besieged northern city of Djibo. The coup comes at a difficult moment not only for Burkina but also for the Sahel more broadly. Mali has also seen successive coups driven partly by anger at the government’s and its Western partners’ failure to contain rampant insecurity. Mali’s authorities have turned to Russia for help, with forces from the Russian security company, Wagner, which allegedly has close ties to the Kremlin, now reportedly fighting alongside the Malian army. Partly as a result, relations between Bamako and Western capitals, notably France, have tanked. French troops have pulled out of Mali after almost a decade of operations against militants. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group’s Sahel Project Director Jean-Hervé Jezequel to discuss what’s happening in Burkina Faso and the rest of the Sahel. They talk about Ibrahim Traoré, the coup leader, and why he seized power. They discuss how militant groups continue to extend their reach and recruit across rural areas of Burkina. They look at the legacy of a decade of French military operations in the region. They also explore Russia’s increasing influence and how governments should navigate the increasing acrimony between Russia and the West and avoid the region becoming a battleground for major powers. They explore what a strategy against Islamist militants that subordinates military operations to politics might look like. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Burkina Faso and the Sahel, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Sahel region page.

Episode 4: The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

Episode 3: Back to War in Ethiopia

Just a few months back, a humanitarian truce in Ethiopia offered a glimmer of hope that an end might be in sight to the war in and around the country’s northern Tigray region. Fighting pitted the federal government, forces from the Amhara region, bordering Tigray, and Eritrean troops on one hand, against Tigrayan forces on the other. In March, the federal government and Tigrayan leaders announced a cessation of hostilities. Formal peace talks were supposed to follow. But the last few weeks have seen the truce collapse and conflict resume across several front lines, with Tigrayan leaders accusing Eritrean forces of advancing en masse. The return to the battlefield marks another nasty turn in a war that has had a catastrophic human toll – a UN report this week points to war crimes by all sides – but garners relatively little international attention. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood catches up with Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Ethiopia William Davison to make sense of what’s happening. They discuss why the truce failed to hold over the summer, and notably why Tigrayan leaders chafe at the federal government’s refusal to restore basic services – electricity, telecommunications and banking – in Tigray. They talk about the war’s human toll and this past week’s UN human rights experts’ report. They examine the thorny challenges to peace talks, especially the disputed territory of Western Tigray, part of the region since the 1990s but captured by Amhara forces in the war’s early days. They talk about Eritrea’s role and whether the Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki would accept any deal that left the Tigrayan leadership in place. They also talk about both sides’ apparent goals – for the Ethiopian government and allied forces, subduing the Tigrayan leadership; for Tigrayan forces, breaking the siege – and why neither is likely to prevail militarily any time soon. Finally, they discuss the prospects for bringing the parties back to the table, and what foreign diplomats involved can do.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Tigray, check out Crisis Group’s recent statement: Avoiding the Abyss as War Resumes in Northern Ethiopia.

Episode 2: What to Watch at the UN General Assembly, plus Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive and the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Clashes

World leaders are gathering this week in New York for UN General Assembly week, in an event that looks set to be overshadowed by Russia’s war in Ukraine and skyrocketing food and fuel prices. In a two-part episode, Richard talks first to Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director Olga Oliker to get the latest on Russia’s war in Ukraine, particularly how Ukrainian forces recaptured large chunks of Russian-held territory in the Kharkiv region in a matter of days, and what their advance might mean for the war. They also catch up on the recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and whether the fallout from the Ukraine war might have emboldened Baku.

Richard then talks to Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan about what we should be watching during UN General Assembly week. They talk about UN Security Council politics over Ukraine and how the world body, including the Secretary-General, has responded to the crisis more broadly. They also discuss other crises the UN is dealing with, from peacekeepers struggling in parts of Africa to UN envoys’ efforts in the Middle East and the UN’s role in Afghanistan. Lastly, they look at prospects for UN reform, what appetite there is on the UN Security Council, particularly among its permanent five members, for change and – more broadly – what we can expect of the world body in an era of fraught geopolitics and resurgent nationalism.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more analysis ahead of the UN General Assembly’s 77th session, check out Crisis Group’s special briefing: Ten Challenges for the UN in 2022-2023.

Episode 1: Iraq’s Political Crisis, Moqtada al-Sadr and a Divided Shia House

Almost a year since Iraq’s parliamentary elections in October 2021, the country’s political parties have struggled to form a new government. Despite doing well in the vote, the Sadrist Movement, led by powerful Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, has been thwarted in its attempts to build a governing coalition, thanks to a decision by Iraq’s Supreme Court. The court required a two-thirds quorum to convene parliament to select a president, who in turn would nominate the prime minister. In protest, al-Sadr threatened to quit politics and withdrew his deputies from parliament. Days later, his supporters, who had occupied parliament and entered the presidential palace, clashed with paramilitary groups loyal to al-Sadr’s Shia rivals. The fighting was the worst the capital Baghdad had seen in years. Violence has abated for now, but it is far from clear whether Sadr and his rivals can reach agreement on a way forward.

In our first episode of Season 3 of Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group’s Senior Iraq Analyst Lahib Higel to make sense of the political turmoil engulfing the country. They talk about how the crisis came about and why Sadr’s attempts to form a government have failed. They discuss the opposition he faces from his main political rivals, the coalition of Shia parties known as the “Coordination Framework”, which is backed by Iran, and look at Tehran’s hand in the crisis and Washington’s influence on Iraqi politics more broadly. They talk about the prospects for rapprochement between al-Sadr and his Shia rivals, as negotiations on a new government look set to resume amid calls for early elections. They also assess risks of another bout of fighting. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Iraq, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Iraq country page.

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