Peacemaking After Ukraine: A Look at Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya
Peacemaking After Ukraine: A Look at Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya
Podcast / Europe & Central Asia 20+ minutes

Peacemaking After Ukraine: A Look at Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood asks Crisis Group experts how the Ukraine war has affected peacemaking elsewhere, notably Nagorno-Karabakh, where Moscow plays a major diplomatic role, and Libya, where the Kremlin backs one of the conflict’s main protagonists.

How much have the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reverberated across other warzones? Moscow is involved in several of the world’s conflicts, and the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West could endanger peacemaking elsewhere. In Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, Russian peacekeepers monitor a ceasefire brokered by Moscow between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the 2020 war. Moscow is also co-chair, along with France and the U.S., of the Minsk Group, the main format for peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh. In Libya, the Kremlin backs military commander Khalifa Haftar, who leads forces in Libya’s east. Moscow is the only capital in the world to recognise as Libya’s prime minister Fathi Bashagha, who heads a rival cabinet to the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group’s teams on Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya respectively to discuss the Ukraine war’s impact on these crises and diplomatic efforts to resolve them. First, he talks to South Caucasus experts Olesya Vartanyan and Zaur Shiriyev about the role of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, how their presence is perceived by Armenians and Azerbaijanis in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how diplomacy around the conflict is evolving. After that, he speaks with Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group’s Libya expert, about Russian involvement in Libya, the role of Russian private contractors from the Wagner Group and what motivated the Kremlin’s recognition of Bashagha. They also discuss how the Ukraine war has changed prospects for international diplomacy, given Russian involvement in previous talks aimed at helping resolve the conflict.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on these crises, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Caucasus regional page and our Libya country page.

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 and welcome to Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. Today, we’re going to talk about peacemaking after Ukraine. What impact have the war and the broken relations between Russia and the West had on multilateral diplomacy? On collective efforts to end crises? We’re going to look at a couple of places – Nagorno-Karabakh, where Moscow has led diplomatic efforts, and Libya, where the Kremlin has backed one of the conflict’s main protagonists.

Clip  00:30
Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis. Russia alone, despite the Kremlin's campaign of lies and disinformation.The Kremlin is targeting grain storages and stealing grain in Ukraine, while shifting the blame on others. This is cowardly. This is propaganda. Pure and simple propaganda. You may leave the room. Maybe it's easier not to listen to the truth, Ambassador.

Richard  01:04
That was Charles Michel, the European Council's president laying into Russia's ambassador to the UN who stormed out of a tense Security Council meeting. But despite the anger over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, much Security Council business has continued largely as usual. Russia has only vetoed one non-Ukraine resolution – on North Korea a couple of weeks ago. Still plenty could go wrong. But so far, the impact has arguably been less than many anticipated, given the depth of hostility. Nor have tensions between Russia and the West been proving a major obstacle in the Iran nuclear talks, as we talked about some weeks ago. A return to the nuclear deal looks increasingly unlikely, but that's due to disagreement between Iran and the U.S. over Washington's designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organisation. It's not due to Russian obstruction. There have even been some positive diplomatic developments in the past few months. The truces in Ethiopia and Yemen for example that we talked about a few weeks ago. They weren't in any way related to Ukraine, but they do show that peacemaking can trundle along and opportunities come up even as geopolitics break down. All that said, the bad blood over Ukraine looks almost certain to spill into collective efforts to end other crises, and today we're going to take a look at how the Ukraine war is shaping two conflicts and the diplomacy around them.

Clip  02:13
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev celebrated what he called the restoration of his country's territorial integrity. Both countries signed a Russian backed peace deal that ended six weeks of fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.  Now Russian peacekeeping troops are on the ground, where they've cleared a road expected to become the only access Armenians will have to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Richard  02:37
First, we’ve going to talk about Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia about eighteen months ago, which Russian peacekeepers now monitor. 

Clip  02:48
People in Libya are voicing fears of a return to civil war. Two rival governments signed a ceasefire last year, to end years of fighting following the fall of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. They were supposed to work together and hold elections, but that hasn't happened. On Tuesday, the prime minister of the administration in Tobruk tried to install himself in the capital Tripoli. That triggered street battles which killed at least one person and wounded five.

Richard  03:19
We'll also talk about Libya, where the Kremlin backs military commander Khalifa Haftar, who commands forces in Libya’s east and Moscow is the only capital in the world to recognise as prime minister Fathi Bashagha, who heads a rival cabinet to Libya's internationally recognised government in Tripoli. We're going to start by talking to Crisis Group’s experts on the South Caucasus, on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and I'm very happy to welcome on Olesya Vartanyan and Zaur Shiriyev. Olesya is based between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Zaur is in Baku. Olesya, Zaur, welcome.

Olesya  03:55
Hello. It's good to be with you.

Zaur  03:57

Richard  03:59
So we want to concentrate in this conversation mostly on what the Ukraine war and the collapse in West-Russia relations means for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But perhaps let's start Olesya, Zaur with a sort of quick recap of where things stand in Nagorno-Karabakh. So, towards the end of 2020. There was this last outbreak of war. Azerbaijan in essence launched this offensive, capturing much of the territory it had lost three decades or so ago. So it recaptured what are called the adjacent areas, these seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands of Armenian settlers fled those areas. Azerbaijan also captured back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and after about six weeks of war, Russia eventually persuaded the two sides, or mostly persuaded Azerbaijan, to stop. There was a ceasefire agreement signed in Moscow by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. And this left in essence Azerbaijan in control of areas it had captured, and those parts of Nagorno-Karabakh it didn't capture stayed in the control, in principle, of what are known as the de facto authorities, the Armenian-backed government based in Stepanakert. Russia deployed peacekeepers, basically to protect those areas, monitor frontlines and also keep open a corridor, the Lachin corridor, which connects areas in Nagorno-Karabakh held by the de facto authorities to Armenia itself. So that was sort of the ceasefire, what, a year and a half ago. You both follow what's happening on the front lines very closely. Olesya maybe we could start with you? I mean, sort of what have things looked like since that ceasefire agreement, but before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February this year?

Olesya  05:45
People were very fast to go back home. Like thousands of people. And to be honest, it was a bit surprising to people like me, you know, who had to witness and to see details of his brutal war, how fast people were to board their cars, buses, and to go back home. And Russian peacekeepers, they provided security guarantees, but in addition they were also helping with rebuilding the houses, you know, changing the windows. So, in a way people started adjusting to this new life after the 2020 war.

Richard  06:20
And Olesya, when you say home, these are not the people that lived in the adjacent areas. These are the people that lived in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the areas still held by the de facto authorities?

Olesya  06:30
Indeed. But you know, what's interesting is that many people who became displaced as a result of this war – including from the adjacent territories but also from Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the parts that are now controlled by Azerbaijan – they also went back to Nagorno-Karabakh just because probably, you know, family ties, networks, and it's always kind of better to live in the place that you know well. And many of them had to and in fact, they still live in basements, in sports gyms, you know, they had to rent apartments. Basically, everything was occupied by these displaced people who went back and now had no place to live. And during this year and a half, what has been happening is that the de facto authorities were making attempts to facilitate construction of new apartments with people, but in addition to that, people were basically adjusting to their new life when you have Azerbaijani forces right next to your houses, next to your farming places.

Richard  07:39
And this is in essence because the front lines shifted, so the Azerbaijani controlled areas went right up then into Nagorno-Karabakh and very close, even crossed through villages that were partly held by the de facto authorities and partly then held by Azerbaijan. But, so what then were the sort of Russian peacekeepers doing? There are not that many of them, right? But how much of a presence are they along those frontlines?

Olesya  08:01
In the beginning, there were many more Russians present on the ground. And these were not just peacekeepers, but also those who were helping with rebuilding, like the houses, you know, and providing humanitarian support. And our sources were telling us that in the beginning, there were up to 4,000 people. But then their numbers went down. And the very latest updates that we got from the Russian-affiliated sources, it was less than 1,600, which is a really very small number for Nagorno-Karabakh and for this very long frontline. But it also indicates, in a way, the confidence that probably the Russian side has in its ability to keep stability on the ground even with a small number, which is there not to fight, but rather to observe the ceasefire.

Richard  08:57
So it's not there, as you say, to fight, but in reality it is a deterrent, right? Because the idea is that neither side, but particularly Azerbaijan, is not going to risk another offensive which would have to go through, in essence, Russian peacekeepers, which would anger Moscow. I mean, it's that deterrent factor that is the sort of the idea behind the peacekeeping force.

Olesya  09:19
This is what we got in the very beginning, right? I mean, right after the 2020 war, everyone understood that it's just impossible to imagine attacking the Russian peacekeepers. And in fact, we had the Russian President Vladimir Putin who went kind of public, you know, and in one of his interviews, he even kind of, I would say, warned, the Azerbaijani side. But I guess, with the Ukraine war taking place, some of those perceptions started changing. And I would not go as far as saying that the Azerbaijani side is now ready to attack the Russian peacekeepers, but definitely many more people are paying attention now to the fact that Russia is distracted. Russia is kind of focusing all its attention and resources in Ukraine, and there is less appetite to support the Russian peacekeepers if, for example, something goes wrong in Nagorno-Karabakh just because of the current reality that we're having in the broader neighbourhood.

Richard  10:19
And we'll talk in a moment about how  perceptions on the Azerbaijani side of the Russian peacekeepers might be changing. But before we do that, Olesya, I mean, how about people in the areas that are held by the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh? I mean, how do they view the Russian peacekeeping presence?

Olesya  10:36
They definitely look at them as the only real guarantee for their presence on the ground. Many people would say that if, for example, the Russian peacekeepers are gone, they will have to leave as well. So they look at them as the only guarantee for their ongoing stability. And these are not only words, in fact, because as a result of the 2020 war, Armenia withdrew its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh. And whatever heavy weaponry was left on the ground, much of this was taken with Armenian soldiers. What we currently have in Nagorno-Karabakh are a very poorly armed and small number of local forces. It's nothing compared to the Azerbaijani side. So I mean, the locals, they understand that the Russian peacekeepers are basically the only hope that they have.

Richard  11:34
And Zaur, so I mean, before we talk about sort of what's happened since Russia's latest invasion of Ukraine, both sides but especially Azerbaijan have always sort of resisted the idea of Russian peacekeepers, how did it sort of come about that Aliyev agreed at the end of this fighting in late 2020, to this, this sort of Russian peacekeeping presence?

Zaur  11:59
Richard, I think this was a shock to large part of Azerbaijani society, the deployment of the Russian peacekeepers, and that’s because the majority saw the Russia had taken away an Azerbaijani full military victory and that people were disappointed because they believed that Russia troops did not act as peacekeepers in areas where they were deployed and did not leave the territories. And also most importantly, the deployment of the Russian peacekeeping puts an end to one point of pride: the absence of any Russian military presence on its soil since it regained independence. But for the government, the Russian-brokered ceasefire cemented Azerbaijan’s gains and set out the contours of the new Caucasus. And therefore, it was very important. And Baku didn't get all it wanted. So Baku would have preferred clear direct control all over the former Nagorno-Karabakh. But, but, as of right now, the region remains stuck in limbo. But overall, I think Baku officials believe that what they got during the war, they couldn't achieve during 26 years of diplomacy. So that's why this was important. And also, they believe that the Russian role, whether in peacetime or war, will be instrumental.

Richard  13:22
So even before this year, but then sort of starting in a more intense way over the course of the past few months, there have been flare ups along the new frontlines despite the Russian peacekeepers. Do you want to talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Zaur  13:37
As you know, before February, there were skirmishes in this area. I think the most violent things happened in the Azerbaijan-Armenia international border areas. This part of the border was much more vital, I will say. 

Richard  13:55
So there have been these skirmishes on the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, so not Nagorno-Karabakh, but there have also been clashes along the new front lines in Nagorno-Karabakh, right? In the areas held by the de facto authorities and those held by Azerbaijan and particularly near Aghdam, this strategic area in eastern Nagorno-Karabakh?

Zaur  14:20
Yeah, near Aghdam. So, as you know, ceasefire violations happened more in this area and the biggest skirmish was also in this area, since the 2020 ceasefire. 

Richard  14:40
And Zaur, what justification does Azerbaijan give for crossing into areas nominally held by the de facto authorities?

Zaur  14:46
So I mean, Azerbaijan deny that they are violating the ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijani officials. So while publicly they say that the movement was necessary to help Baku secure its civil works and infrastructure projects in and around Aghdam in order to prepare the region for the return of Azerbaijani communities displaced in the first Karabakh war. And also the officials in Baku publicly denied that there was any connection between the actions and the war in Ukraine.

Richard  15:23
But hasn't Baku also said that Russian peacekeepers are allowing the de facto authorities to build up their own forces? Isn't that also Baku’s version of events?

Zaur  15:30
I think this is the case since the end of the 2020 second Karabakh war. Because Baku interpreted the peace statement and ceasefire statements to mean that Armenian troops, whether those of Armenia proper or those of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh, are also required to leave the region itself. And this was Baku’s policy since the end of the war. But this line intensified this year since February, and Baku officials started talking more about this necessity of disarming the local defence forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. And also they do believe that the Russian peacekeeping forces’ mission is to disarm them. They also often claim that this is what happens in the region and skirmishes are because of this new fortification, military fortification lines built by the de facto authorities. This is the explanation from Baku.

Richard  16:30
But in reality, I mean, there doesn't seem to be an awful lot of evidence of sort of major military buildups on the de facto held areas?

Olesya  16:38
In fact, right after the 2020 war on both sides, you could see people digging trenches, and establishing new positions. The whole frontline, and it's quite a long thing, you know, now in the region, and you could see people doing all this construction work. And, and it's, it's fascinating in a negative way, you know, I mean, to see how fast it's all happening and has been happening and how fast it was becoming so solid, you know, with people kind of first starting by digging trenches in the earth, and then, you know, like, turning it into the concrete. But yeah, I mean, the process has been going on since the ceasefire. I think what was kind of a pretext that we have been hearing in the recent weeks, it's more that it has to do with the fact that, on the Azerbaijani side, they're kind of starting to have much more frustration with the Russian peacekeepers. And on the Armenian side, I can tell you that they clearly see the recent clashes as a Azerbaijani side making use of this good opportunity with Russia being kind of busy in Ukraine, and not able to enter an open confrontation with Azerbaijan at this very moment. Even more, I remember talking to some specialists, right after the 2020 war. And when we were looking at the map, and also kind of photos, of the new frontline that we got, after the 2020 war, they were telling me that there are two critical locations that they would expect the Azerbaijani side to take when the opportunity comes. And in fact, the location where it happened in Farukh village near Aghdam with mountains was one of these areas that they named. And that area is critical not just to sustain and protect Aghdam and for Azerbaijan to rebuild right now. It is also critical because on the other side of the mountain, you see Armenian-populated areas inside Nagorno-Karabakh. And even more, right next to it from that mountain, you can see the airport which is not functional but which is where the Russian peacekeeping base is located. So I mean, it's clear that that move was not spontaneous. And on the Armenia side they believe that this was something that the Azerbaijani side would have wanted to do from the very beginning. And yeah, and I think this is another reason why, on the Armenian side, they are so worried about what is to come in the coming weeks, because they understand that if it happened here and they succeeded, then there is nothing to prevent them from doing something similar in some other areas.

Richard  19:47
And Zaur, Baku says that, you know, this has got nothing to do with the Ukraine war, and it's about stopping the military buildup on the other side of the frontlines. But, I mean, it is hard not to see this sort of increased military activity on those frontlines as sort of related in some way to changing perceptions in Azerbaijan, about Russia's peacekeeping role. Do you think that's fair? I mean, do you think that perceptions in Azerbaijan about the Russian peacekeepers, and the sort of deterrence that they actually pose, do you think those are changing?

Zaur  20:22
I think the mood is changing, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And this is related to Baku's new alliance agreement with Moscow, which was signed two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it gave Baku the belief that there's an additional rationale to request that the mandate ends in 2025. Because now both countries have confirmed they will respect each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty. And even President Aliyev highlighted the first provision of the declaration, which says that relations between these two countries shall be based on respect to each other's independence and sovereignty.

Richard  21:02
And just so people are aware. I mean, the Russian peacekeepers are mandated to deploy for five years, right? So that brings it up to 2025. That was in the ceasefire agreement.

Zaur  21:11
From this point, yes, the mood is changing. There's a belief in Baku that right now with the new partnership with Moscow, they will have much more rationale to ask the Russians to leave. So some people in Baku sees that it would be suicidal, say to, to attack or to do something different with respect to Russian peacekeeping forces. So this could antagonise Moscow. But I think Ukraine is also changing the mood in Azerbaijani society, about Russian peacekeeping forces. So right now people are talking more negatively about Russian peacekeeping forces in the public space. And they're demanding that Russia is becoming an occupying power. And so that's why the mood is changing all over the world. So Russia cannot serve as a peacekeeping force. So there's also some kind of societal pressure about this issue. But I think we haven't seen any officials in Baku saying controversial things about the Russian peacekeeping mandate so far.

Richard  22:15
And so that's the peacekeepers. But the other thing that Moscow has been doing is sort of mediating between Azerbaijan and Armenia. And it's been doing this on a number of levels. So there's broader talks on trying to get back to a peace process, which we'll talk about in a moment. But there's also the simple mediation between the two sides on the ground, right? About sort of resolving incidents, stopping them from escalating. Do you want to say a word or two about what that looks like?

Olesya  22:43
So for almost thirty years, before the 2020 war, Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the ground had very limited or almost no contact. And in many cases, you can have an Azerbaijani military that is stationed right next to an Armenian village in Nagorno-Karabakh now, without really kind of understanding who these people are. And the same is for the other side. You can have kids who for the first time in their life, they see an ethnic Azerbaijani. And, in addition to this legacy, we basically lack any kind of proper mechanism or like a line between the de facto authorities and Azerbaijan and this has to do not just because of these kinds of, you know, problems that they had in the past, but also due to the political considerations. Baku does not want to give any kind of legitimacy to those authorities on the ground. And what has been happening since the 2020 war is that many of the things that previously were done by the de facto authorities are now in the hands of the Russians. So you could see Russians like chasing cows, returning people, helping to fix irrigation channels, fixing electric lines, and many, many other things that they're absolutely not, not mandated to do.

Richard  24:09
The ceasefire agreement didn't include chasing cows?

Olesya  24:12
Definitely not. But just because again, Baku didn't want or didn't know how to speak to the other side, they were left with the Russian peacekeepers doing all these things in these areas along the front line. And there were some situations when you could see Azerbaijanis and Armenians coming together and cooperating like, for example, when they were trying to collect remains of soldiers that were killed during the 2020 war, or for example when they have to coordinate the convoys that have to use the Armenian roads inside Nagorno-Karabakh for construction materials that they're transporting. But almost 100 per cent, all of this, is still happening with the Russian peacekeepers. And since the Ukraine war,  we have started seeing a situation where Azerbaijan does not allow the Russian peacekeepers to do some of these functions that they have been doing since the 2020 war. For example, there was a gas crisis. A gas pipeline that is delivering natural gas from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh exploded either next to Azerbaijani positions or in the area that is controlled by those by the Azerbaijani side. And naturally, you would see Russian peacekeepers going in there and doing some work, or escorting local Armenians who would fix the pipeline, which is how it has been working since the 2020 war. But it took a number of days to figure out that the Russian peacekeepers will not be allowed to do that on the Azerbaijani side, and we heard the Azerbaijani side wants to do it itself, you know, to demonstrate that it's kind of its territory, and it wants to do it. Why I'm saying all these things? I mean, first, of course, it left the locals for about like a month with absolutely no heating, the local Armenians. But even more, it demonstrated that the Azerbaijani side at some point can just say no to this established the cooperation mechanism that goes through the Russian peacekeepers, due to many reasons.

Richard  26:28
And so that's the Russian role on the ground. But then there's also the peace process, such that it exists, has traditionally been the Minsk, another Minsk process, like the one that went nowhere in eastern Ukraine. This one is led by the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and its co chairs are Russia, France, and the U.S. – so, has there been much to that both since the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, but then especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Olesya  27:03
Since Ukraine, what we have been having is many more people openly saying that they are not able to cooperate with the OSCE Minsk Group format. And it has mainly to do with the fact that Russia feels much more isolated, you know, in different forums, international forums. It believes that the West is trying kind of to do everything possible to make it leave different international organisations and all of that. And we had, in fact, the Russian foreign minister who openly accused the West of undermining the format. The thing is that just a couple of days after that, we had the Russian president who signed a statement with the Armenian prime minister, again confirming the Russian kind of, you know, support to the OSCE Minsk Group. So I would say that what has been happening is almost no coordination between the sides. And this is really very bad because everyone understands that in the end, no matter how Armenians and Azerbaijanis are to reach any kind of agreement, they will have to receive a blessing in the international forum, and that international forum will have to include both Russia and the West.

Richard  28:17
And for now, though, Armenia supports the Minsk process in principle and Azerbaijan rejects it. Is that right for now?

Zaur  28:25
Yes. I think since the end of the 2020 war Baku says that there is no role for the Minsk Group, because this group is dysfunctional, and they don't have any role in a new settlement. Because they couldn't force the sides to reach a peace agreement. And Baku says the Minsk Group can play only the role of confidence building measures between the sides, but nothing more. And it was the case even before the Ukraine war. And even some people in Baku say that even the Russian cooperation in the Minsk format was only symbolic, because they never discussed any hard questions. So even before the 2020 war, questions like the peacekeeping forces or any security arrangements. It was easy to claim that they cooperate, without these questions. Moscow always was a leading actor in this format.

Richard  29:20
So some questions about the utility of the Minsk process from Azerbaijan's perspective, with or without Ukraine, because again from Baku’s perspective, the Minsk process wasn’t really working for years. That it had yielded little was part of the reason for the 2020 war. But beyond that Minsk process, the European Union recently brought together Pahinyan and Aliyev in Brussels at the beginning of April. What happened there?

Zaur  29:48
I think the European Union did really great work even before the meeting of the leaders in Brussels, even before the Ukraine war. So it first started in November of last year, 2021. So they already started to help to reestablish the hotline between the respective defence ministers, which helped to reduce tensions in the border areas. So between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In March, also, the EU started a new process between high level officials of Azerbaijan and Armenia, they met before the presidents met in Brussels. So then, the EU  has been facilitating meetings between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia – and at least what I can say from Baku, is that there's a bigger respect to what the EU is doing. For various reasons. The first reason is that they like this approach, because they see that the EU is facilitating, and the EU is not telling them what to do and how to do it. And the EU supports a bilateral contact with Azerbaijan and Armenia, which is important for them. And in March, Baku announced their principles, how they see the peace agreement, and they believe that this EU facilitation will help them to, let's say, to work on that format. So, for these reasons, I think the EU’s role is becoming much more important. And also the EU played a role in terms of the detainees, so the EU is also touching the humanitarian issues. The EU doesn't have any formal format to act, but the EU is actually trying to support the sides on many important issues. At least, this is how it was seen in Baku.

Olesya  31:36
You know, during the 2020 war, I think one of the institutions that received so much criticism was the European Union. For the response that they had, for the fact that the war finished with Russian peacekeepers, Russia brokering the ceasefire, and the EU being unable to do anything. And since then, I think the leadership of the European Union has been trying to figure out what could be the entry points for them. And I agree with Zaur that the European Union has been doing a great job, because they have been so engaged between Armenia and Azerbaijan, trying to figure out where these entry points are for them, to start discussing things. And I believe that this is really a very positive development, and not just from the perspective of the conflict resolution, but also for the region itself. For them, it's also an opportunity to engage with the European Union.

Richard  32:35
So what is the best approach now for talks between the two sides? Tell me if this is wrong but from what I understand there is very little chance of Azerbaijan and Armenia talking about the big issue, which is Nagorno-Karabakh’s status – the issue at the core of the conflict. Armenians living there declared independence decades ago, Baku obviously believes the enclave is part of Azerbaijan. So, little chance of talking about that now but what about talks to improve relations, get the sides to a point where they might be able to talk about more serious issues in the future? 

Olesya  33:08
You know, there are two approaches to that. To be honest, I mean, in the context of the Ukraine war especially, one would say that it's better not to touch such a difficult topic. And, in fact, after the 2020 war this has been the approach – look, let's discuss some other topics, you know, let's try to find ways to communicate, how to reestablish transportation roads, or at least kind of establish a stability on the ground. And later after that, let's kind of revisit the issue of the status.

Richard  33:43
And that was an approach that was promoted by Moscow as much as it was by Western capitals, right? I mean, there was a general consensus around building better conditions, improving the economies, building links between the two countries, and then moving on potentially to talks about Nagorno-Karabakh status.

Olesya  34:00
This is very much the case. And I believe that, especially in the current environment, it should stay as the main strategy. While saying that, it should not mean that Armenian Azerbaijan should absolutely put aside the issue of the status. They haven't even made an attempt to have a proper conversation about the status in 30 years. And probably this is the very time for them to start at least kind of constructing the conversation around the issue. And for that, I would imagine having the conversation but the problem there is kind of expectation of the timeline, because in Baku, they would want this conversation to be very short, precise and with a concrete decision in the end, while on the Armenian side, they say: hey, it's really very complicated. The environment is really very bad. Let's have a conversation. But let's not rush. And I think we are currently at this very moment when either Baku or Yerevan will have to change their stance.

Richard  35:08
And for the moment Zaur, Baku's position is that if there are talks they have to move more quickly because the talks in the decades before 2020 went nowhere. And its position is that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, and the Armenians living there will be given the same rights that all Azerbaijanis enjoy?

Zaur  35:30
Yes. Before the 2020 war, Baku always talked about this readiness, offering to Karabakh Armenians a high level of autonomy, self rule inside the region. But it was revoked unconditionally after the end of the war.

Richard  35:48
So the idea of self rule, some say over policing, language rights, all the sorts of things that might come with self rule – none of that is on the table anymore?

Zaur  35:57
Yes and no. Mostly Baku is talking about consular rights, some local self-rule, and the line is that they will become Azerbaijani citizens, and they will use all benefits that Azerbaijani citizens are using. But other than that, we haven't seen any other articulation of how they see integration. So, for example, there is also some criticism in Baku by some people, I mean mainly experts and public intellectuals, that ask what integration means. So I mean, why is there no plan as to how the Baku government sees integration plans, we haven't seen these kinds of plans. But in private there's an indication that they are ready to discuss  a small degree of self rule and some cultural rights. There might also be security guarantees to Karabakh Armenians. Also, as you know, with the security guarantee they also probably will discuss the Russian role. And also, as Olesya pointed out, for Baku, one of the concerns is that this timeline can be a disadvantage for Baku, so there is no need to wait another five, ten years, to wait for the right moment because in the past, the last 26 years showed that the waiting and delaying issues is not solving anything. So that's what they are rushing.

Olesya  37:19
Let me say something about the way they see the status issue on the Armenian side. What Zaur has been saying, I mean, about like a different consideration and different ideas. The problem is that in the context of the grander Karabakh conflict, we have never ever had a paper that would describe different scenarios and different ideas for the status, that will be proposed for the discussion to the Armenian side, and to the public. And because of that, we are stuck with exactly the same thinking and exactly the same stance that was there when the conflict just started. So on the Armenian side, you will hardly find a person who, I mean, if you ask the person what should be the status, you can, I mean, almost no one will ever say that they will be part of Azerbaijan, and especially after the 2020 war. I think it is really very important to take into consideration that we're, in a way, seeing an absolutely new stage of this conflict. And one has to find a way to kind of, you know, to find the right approaches and the right wording, to communicate both to these two leaders but also to the public, so that the public can understand what exactly is getting discussed which is directly affecting their security and their lives. So, I mean, I would certainly not expect lots of enthusiasm on the Armenian side about the status discussion altogether, but I think you can find the people who understand that that conversation and those talks, they will eventually have to take place.

Richard  39:12
Olesya, do you sense that, presumably, the perception must have changed in Yerevan? There must be fresh anger about the war and what's just happened. But presumably there's also a sense of the reality that time probably isn’t working in Armenia's favour, and that for now, the de facto authorities' control of Nagorno-Karabakh relies on Russia's peacekeepers  and the strength of Russia overall. And with the mandate sort of up for Russian peacekeepers in 2025, generally there's pretty strong reason for Armenia at least to try to find some way of getting as much for Armenians living in those areas as possible before that date. Is that the sense of the sort of precarity of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh? How strong is that sense in Yerevan?

Olesya  40:09
I would add a couple of more factors to this kind of thinking that contributes to these increased fears. Certainly what Zaur previously said, like Azerbaijan being more critical of the Russian side but certainly, Armenia hasn't rebuilt its army after the 2020 war. And if, for example, Azerbaijan is to start a new offence, Armenia will not be able to resist and Russia is busy now. So I mean, this is really a very kind of precise thing, you know, that any Armenian leader will have to take into account. And the second thing is that Azerbaijani importance in not just in the South Caucasus, but in this whole kind of broader neighbourhood, is only increasing with the Ukraine war, because Azerbaijan is now one of the key providers of alternative oil and gas to Europe. But, you know, the problem is that on the Armenian side, while realising all this kind of a long list of factors that should contribute to kind of having to go in for the compromise, for some people, it just goes to another extreme. And they say that, that's it, it's not working, let's just stay the way we are and let's see how it goes. And if Russia is able to go for annexation of Crimea, now it recognises DNR and LNR, before that it recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and look, I mean, it's a huge country and its economy, yes, it suffers, but it's not collapsing, so let's just align with them 100 per cent. And we see more and more conversations like this, and we're not able to find a way to facilitate normal dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a good faith, including on these very critical issues. And with proper communication to those who are directly affected by this, I'm talking about people who live in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Richard  41:56
And I mean, correct me if this is wrong, but the normalisation so far – the idea of building relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, trade relations, contact – hasn't gone very far yet.  And nor actually has the normalisation between Armenia and Turkey, which was also part of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. That would be this sort of rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan. And despite some initial sort of initial signs that might happen, in fact for the most part it hasn’t.

Olesya  42:24
Yeah, and I think it's just becoming more elementary that kind of, you know, conversation between Armenia and Turkey. And then this is, again, kind of a result of first, the lack of any kind of progress between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And then secondly, also the fact that no one wants to make any major steps while Russia is still fighting in Ukraine, when we do we do not really understand what the broader eastern neighbourhood will look like. And the issue there is that Turkey should take the decision to go for opening the border and establish diplomatic relationships. Right after that, we would imagine having the conversations about allowing people crossing directly between two countries, having trade, transit and all of that. And you know, if you look at economic studies, you understand that it would lead to such a major economic boost in the South Caucasus and both for Turkey, in fact, and in Armenia, but especially for Armenia. But on the other hand, even politically, you know, If Turkey opens the border with Armenia, in the longer term, Armenia is going to become even more dependent and more interested in sustaining this relationship, including by maybe taking a softer stance in Azerbaijan.

Zaur  43:49
I think before the war, the role of Turkey and closed borders was important for Baku. But I think at the end of the war, I think there was at least a formal support for Turkish-Armenian normalisation. But the problem is that there is no agenda. So how do they want to normalise and what are the first steps that they should take? And also, I found some people in the government believe that opening the border will benefit Baku because it will make Armenia too dependent on Turkey, and there will be much more of a Turkish role. So it can also, let’s say, it can also reduce the very harsh rhetoric or hardline voices in Armenia which are sceptical or don't believe that there could be normalisation between Armenia and Baku and also Turkey, so this is also happening in Baku. And I think, as Olesya said, there's no rush on the Turkish side to open the border. I think also the Ukraine war, I'll say, impacted somehow this process. 

Richard  44:50
And so perhaps then we could sort of end on some broader reflections on the impact of the Ukraine war. I mean, clearly, as we've talked about, the Russian peacekeepers play this crucial role for now in sort of keeping frontlines reasonably stable and reasonably static in Nagorno-Karabakh. Even though there are signs of things heating up, it’s hard to imagine what it would look like were the Russians not there to keep a lid on things. And then you’ve got the political talks – whether it’s Minsk, whether it’s something else, whether it’s a combination – clearly somehow Russia, which has played a lead role in diplomacy in the past, will need to be involved. It’s also that, correct me if this is wrong, Nagorno-Karabakh is one of few areas where in fact Russian and Western interests largely overlap for the most part. They all want to rebuild relations to some degree between Armenia and Azerbaijan on one hand, between Armenia and Turkey on the other, improve economic connections and interdependence in the region and then try to get the parties back to talks on the bigger issues – status, basically. None of them want another war in Nagorno-Karabakh. And yet despite these sort of shared interests, given all the bad blood over Ukraine and the understandable reluctance of Western capitals to work directly with Moscow, how do you see this in the months ahead?

Olesya  46:13
You know, Nagorno-Karabakh has been probably one of the few, if not the only topic where Russia and the European Union continued discussing in a constructive way since the beginning of the Ukraine war. There were at least three calls at a very senior level. And when even if you look at the official statements, you know, they can say different things about Ukraine. But when it comes to Nagorno-Karabakh, you clearly see that they are on the same page. And I think, I mean, there are a number of reasons for that. But one clear reason is, of course, that both Russia and the European Union, at least for the moment, share the interest of no escalation in this part of the world. And Russia is not interested in dispersing its resources, because it's so much focused on Ukraine. The European Union, just I think people there, they understand that if we are to have another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, that is not good. That is going to be devastating. For Armenia, yeah. But in fact, unfortunately, the practice that we have been having is that anytime we have a war here, it just increases the Russian influence and Russian presence, you know. For the European Union, in fact, they cannot really proceed with mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, without really at least kind of keeping Moscow informed. Russia has been the leading mediator between Western countries, Russia is the immediate neighbour with lots of trade going on, influence, links, and not to mention Russian peacekeepers, Russian border guards, I mean, lots and lots of infrastructure on the ground. And in that sense, you have to be a forced ally when it comes to Nagorno-Karabakh. Before the Ukraine war, it was much better between Brussels and Moscow, because they had a number of layers of officials from different institutions talking and discussing, comparing notes. And that was really very helpful. Right now, much of that again has to happen at the very top and senior level. And then this is risky because, you know, they may have a kind of a statement on Ukraine, and on the other side, they just don't pick up the phone. But it also puts Armenia and Azerbaijan at an additional risk. If the European Union, if anyone in the West tries to put Armenia or Azerbaijan against the wall, I'm afraid we all know the result. They will have to be with Russia, you know. And so it's better not to do that. And then the only way to do that, I mean, it's to continue experimenting and finding the way to sustain contacts and sharing information either directly or trying to mitigate the potential problems by asking Armenian and Azerbaijani colleagues to inform and then keep Russia updated. 

Richard  49:20
Olesya, Zaur, thanks so much for coming on.

Zaur  49:22
Thank you, thank you for inviting me.

Olesya  49:24
Yeah, thanks for having us.

Richard  49:28
And so now we’re going to turn to Libya and I'm delighted to welcome back Claudia Gazzini, who is Crisis Group’s Libya expert. Claudia, welcome back on.

Claudia  49:37
Thank you, Richard. Great to be back.

Richard  49:40
So, again, we'll try to focus mostly on the impact of the Ukraine war on Russia's role in Libya and sort of the implications of its now broken relations with Western governments. But maybe we could first, Claudia, sort of recap where things stand. So about a year ago when I think when you were last on the podcast, things were sort of looking up for Libya. The country had previously been divided in two, in essence, with an internationally recognised government in the capital Tripoli, a rival government in the eastern city of Tobruk. General Khalifa Haftar leading forces loyal to Tobruk had seemed poised to seize Tripoli. Turkey then got more involved, in essence helped to push back Haftar’s forces. The shift in the balance of force created space for a deal between the rival sides that created an interim government, a roadmap to elections. But then over the past half year, things have, again, taken a turn for the worse. So again now, Libya is stuck in a standoff between two rival executives, one still based in Tripoli, this time led by Abdulhamid Dabaiba, and the other now operating from the coastal city of Sirte in central Libya, rather than Tobruk, and it's headed by Fathi Bashagha who is now supported by Haftar. So I mean, what's gone wrong? Do you want to sort of tell us a little bit about what the latest disagreements are about?

Claudia  51:01
Yeah, I mean, when a year ago this unity government was formed as part of a UN-led mediation, there was great optimism. They had also agreed on a roadmap that was supposed to culminate within a year – so by the end of last year – in elections, and essentially the problem was that these elections didn't happen. They didn't happen because there was controversy over the law. So, the whole electoral process was cancelled at the very last minute. So this essential standoff over the elections is what caused the rest of the political roadmap to then collapse. Because the interim government that was appointed last year was supposed to only stay in power until elections. Then the controversy became: well, now that we're not having elections anymore, what happens? Should the interim government stay? Should it be replaced? The government that was in place, which was the Abdulhamid Dabaiba-led government said – well, you know, I was mandated to lead the country until the election. So I'm going to stay until those elections take place. The others who opposed Dabaiba and wanted to see him out included members of the parliament and included General Haftar. And sort of a broad array of people who essentially were disaffected by Dabaiba’s leadership. They said – no, we can't have you stay in power, even if these elections are not taking place, and we need to appoint a new government. And that's what led them to form a coalition. It's a weird coalition, if you think about it because Fathi Bashagha, who is the appointed premier, was once – not very long ago – an enemy of Khalifa Haftar yet the two created this coalition. The parliament on 1 March moved forward to hold a vote of confidence and to empower this new government.

Richard  52:53
And Bashagha himself is actually from Misrata, right? And Misratan forces have traditionally been aligned to Tripoli. So that's sort of a reconfiguration of alliances in some ways.

Claudia  53:05
It's a total reconfiguration of alliances, first of all because Bashagha was the one who brought in the Turkish intervention to fend off Haftar’s attack. Secondly, he is from Misrata. And there is this traditional animosity between eastern Libya and Misratans. But, essentially, Bashagha was trying to pitch this idea that – OK, we had a war, we were on opposite sides. But now the time has come to join hands. And it was a very alluring proposition if you think about it. This idea that two former enemies could come together and create an alliance. And let me say, there was international support to this idea that, well, you know, Libyans want to take matters into their own hands. Let them go ahead with the appointment of a new government. This was not at all part of the UN roadmap. Let's remember the UN-led roadmap still envisaged holding elections, yet you had a parliament that said, well, maybe we're not going to hold elections anymore. Maybe we're gonna go forward with a new government. But problems really kicked in over a procedural issue. Some would say it’s a bureaucratic issue that the vote of confidence did not appear to have sufficient votes. It was murky, it was not clear. It was televised. And honestly, those of us who had followed the vote of confidence, were very puzzled at the end of it because it was really not clear how many people had actually voted for this government.

Richard  54:38
And this was in the Tobruk legislature.

Claudia  54:41
This was a vote of confidence in the Tobruk legislature, exactly. Members of the parliament and the chairman subsequently said that the vote was sound, they tried to show papers, they redid the count of names, but the position of the UN remained that there was a lack of transparency and there were essentially doubts on the legality of this vote. So the UN expressed reservations and this meant that many other countries, including those who the day before were supporting this Haftar-Bashagha deal, didn't turn to recognise this new government. Yet, Bashagha and his ministers and the parliament continue to say that the vote is legitimate, that they are the legitimate government. This, you know, tension over the vote of confidence provided an opportunity for the Tripoli-based government to stay in power. They completely called the vote a fraud, and reiterated their position that they will only hand over power to an elected government. So first, you need to have elections, and the government should be appointed, and then they will step down. And this is the feud where we're still in now. Three months have passed since that day, and Dabaiba remains the internationally recognised cabinet in Tripoli. Bashagha has continued to operate and to send public messaging as if he were the legitimate prime minister, but he still lacks international recognition and lacks access to state funds.

Richard  56:20
And so sort of, broadly speaking, most – as you say, except Russia, which we'll talk about in a moment – but most governments in principle still recognise the Dabaiba cabinet in Tripoli. But although in principle that's the case, in reality, the way that different governments line up behind Dabaiba or in some cases informally behind Bashagha, you know, there are differences, right? Libya a couple of years ago, it was very much feeling the impact of the GCC crisis, you had Turkey and Qatar very supportive of Tripoli. Emirates and Egypt very supportive of Tobruk. But there's been an evolution there as well, right? I mean, do you want to say a word or two about how the international politics has evolved?

Claudia  57:05
Yes, the geopolitical alignments have really changed in Libya over the past few months. So now we have, I would say, three main groups. We have one group that recognises Dabaiba and supports his roadmap, essentially saying, it's okay for Dabaiba to stay in power, it's better to go to parliamentary elections, and this is what Dabaiba is calling for, and then have a new government afterwards. This group of countries that I would call, like, the more active supporters of Dabaiba include Algeria, Turkey and, strangely enough, the UAE. As you mentioned, the UAE was only a year ago in the very pro-Haftar camp, providing military and logistics support but now has changed its diplomatic positions: a) because of economic ties with Dabaiba, b) because they do not want to recognise Fathi Bashagha because he was the one that less than two years ago ordered the bombing of an Emirati base in central Libya. So this is one group. The second group are those that are nominally supporting Dabaiba and recognising him but more in private, very supportive of the Haftar-Bashagha deal. And these include France, Egypt and to a certain extent even the U.S. – these are countries that want this alliance to mature into actually an internationally recognised government: a) because they were traditionally supportive of Haftar and remain supportive of that camp, and b) because they like Bashagha and they think he's the right man for the job now.

Richard  58:54
And as you say, it's easy to criticise countries for supporting Haftar in the past, but having someone from the east like half that and then a prominent Misratan politician in some sort of alliance together, I mean, there is something attractive about that.

Claudia  59:05
Yes, exactly. I mean, on paper, it looks very good. This idea that you have two former enemies that are able to create a coalition, a broad coalition, and work together. And then you have a third group that consists of Italy, Germany, and the UK. So European countries that are, you know, not adamantly supportive of one or the other government, they're taking a more neutral position. Essentially, they believe that there's no other option but to work with the Dabaiba government, and they vow to support whatever UN-led process for elections will be charted out. They seem to have a preference for parliamentary elections, but nothing is set in stone for them. So this is the third group and as you can understand the very fact that we have three separate groups of where, you know, the international community stance isn't in itself a problem because if you don't have a united position, then Libya's rival factions, of course, will be pulling the country in different directions and feel legitimised to do so because they have their own foreign sponsors to pursue one course of action or the other.

Richard  1:00:23
And so you spoke about three groups, but in reality there's sort of a fourth, right? With Russia in its own group, formally recognising Bashagha, but I mean, how did that come about? I mean, why did Moscow take a step that no other country has taken?

Claudia  1:00:40
Yes, Moscow is an outlier in the sense that it's the only country that has formally recognised the Bashagha government. Essentially, when that 1 March vote of confidence took place, Moscow was the first one to issue a statement congratulating Bashagha for his victory. It's easy to think that there's a plot behind this and that Moscow was cooking something that led to this recognition. But actually, what we understand is that it was much more serendipitous, this recognition, in the sense that they knew that the vote of confidence was going to take place, probably they didn't even follow the vote itself on TV, like I did, and many other chancelleries did. And so they didn't realise that there was a problem in the way the vote took place. And they just issued a statement, and they thought, and they were told by their friends, the Egyptians, that it was a done deal that Bashagha would be appointed prime minister. So they issued a statement. And, you know, we were told by a Russian diplomat subsequently that, that they hadn't realised that there were going to be problems in the parliamentary vote, and they issued that statement fast and there was no walking back from it. But it created problems. It created problems for Bashagha to have immediate Russian recognition, whereas the other countries didn't. It meant that even Cairo, that was very eager to recognise and support Bashagha, and Paris, certainly didn't want to recognise a government that had just been recognised by Russia and Russia alone. Barely a week after the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine. So, as a UN diplomat put it, the Russian recognition of Bashagha was a kiss of death for him.

Richard  1:02:35
What now then is the relationship between Moscow and Khalifa Haftar? This has traditionally been close. I mean, as you talked about, the Russians have traditionally, like other governments, supported Haftar. You have these Wagner forces, you know, the Russian private security company, reportedly close to the Kremlin, fighting alongside Haftar but how much is the recognition of Bashagha tied to Russia's relationship with Haftar?

Claudia  1:03:07
Well, Russia has been supporting Haftar through Wagner forces, as far as we know, since 2018. Probably it started off with just training of some of the Haftar-led forces in the offensive against Tripoli in 2019. They took on a more combat role. Their numbers, first of all, have gone down. During the war, there were an estimated 2,000 Wagner operatives in Libya. Now they're believed to be under 1,000. There were some withdrawals again, as far as we know, after the commencement of hostilities in Ukraine. So several hundred, 700-800, this is sort of an estimate. They control at least two air bases in Libya. One is the Ghardabiya air base outside Sirte, and Jufra air base in the centre of the country. These are air bases controlled by Haftar-led forces where we understand Wagner is also present. They have a presence in the south of the country as well. Remember, Wagner is not just operating in Libya, it is an arch of Wagner presence in the region, Mali, presumably also Chad. So it's possible that they're using this north-south corridor through central Libya to also reach other destinations where they are operating. As far as we know, they used to be paid by the UAE, at least that was what the U.S. was alleging two years ago. But now they seem to be on the payroll of the Haftar forces. What is the relation with Haftar? It's always an uncomfortable relation, I would say, in the sense that Haftar is an unpredictable ally. There's a sort of need-relationship. Haftar needs Wagner because he doesn't have enough forces. And the alliance with Wagner is necessary for that. But there's also a hate component in the sense that Haftar does not necessarily want to be seen as a Russian ally. Both Haftar and Bashagha are potentially very pro-Western individuals. They would want the U.S. to provide them security guarantees so that they can get rid of the backing of Wagner, but they are still not in a position to be able to push out Wagner forces. So it's a very complicated relationship. And in the eyes of Western countries now in light of the war in Ukraine, it's very difficult to decide whether you trust what Haftar and Bashagha tell you. I mean, what they're telling Western chancelleries, which is oh, don't worry, we are not wedded to the Russians. We're not wedded to Moscow, we want them out. But we want you to recognise us first. So they’re saying, recognise Bashagha, and Bashagha is the right man to kick the Russians out eventually. Some Western chancelleries say, well, that's a leap of faith, too much of a leap of faith. What they're seeing is that this alliance between Haftar and Bashagha is an alliance also with Wagner. And that is problematic.

Richard  1:06:27
And some of the Wagner numbers have declined. Again, maybe because there's less money, but is that also, to the extent we know, is that also because some of them have gone to Ukraine?

Claudia  1:06:38
We don't know where they've gone. We know that some people have tracked flights back to back to Damascus, from eastern Libya to Damascus. But we don't know if they're actually in Ukraine. And so I should also add a word that when talking about Wagner, we're talking about yes, you know, Russian individuals, but we're also talking about a body of Syrian pro-Moscow mercenaries that are operating in the country. So those also seem to have withdrawn to a limited extent.

Richard  1:07:21
And I mean, it's not just the Russians there over. Turkey also brought over some of its quote unquote Syrians.

Claudia  1:07:29
Yes, exactly. We have Turkey. Turkey has a military presence in western Libya. Again, it also controls military bases. It also has Syrian mercenaries alongside them. So in a certain sense, I mean, going back to Wagner, it creates a balance of power, right, having the Russians on one side and the Turks on the other. Their sort of influence over the country is clearly divided between the two of them. And then we have other sorts of forces, again, foreign forces. We have Chadian mercenaries, Sudanese mercenaries, that are essentially guns for opposition groups that have been exiled out of their countries and that are cheap guns for hire that are operating in Libya.

Richard  1:08:12
And so Claudia, broadly speaking, I mean, how would you define the way Moscow sees its interests? To the extent that it's possible to decipher the way that Moscow sees its interests in Libya?

Claudia  1:08:24
Well, first of all, I must say, when I started following Libya in 2012, for several years Moscow was nowhere, right? You would look at all these other foreign countries operating in Libya. And really, Russia was not there. We only heard Russia just condemning the 2011 NATO-led intervention. So what is remarkable is how we've gone in these ten years from absolutely zero interest and zero involvement to very, very visible involvement. And this is not only for Libya, it's the rest of Africa. It’s essentially that the door was open to them in 2017-2018, when Haftar-led forces were trying to build up and there was a request for training and more military cooperation. And Moscow entered that door very quickly. For them, it's a zero-cost, high-yield investment, because they don't pay for the operations themselves, at least not for Wagner forces. And yet, they have been able to create a network around the country, have military bases under their control, they brought in fighter jets at the end of the war, and reestablished themselves as a key actor. We know that Russia had always had this dream even in the Gaddafi days and they went to Gaddafi asking for this, this dream of creating a port on the Libyan coast. And it's possible that this is still their end goal. So presumably they want to stay in Libya. And they want to have a say in the future of Libya. But unfortunately, now there's little room for diplomatic engagement with Russia. And this is also then complicating the situation on the ground.

Richard  1:10:14
And we'll talk about precisely that in a moment. But before we do that, Claudia, so I mean, when we talked about Armenia and Azerbaijan, we talked a little bit about Azerbaijan's hydrocarbons production, how that could change its foreign relations in light of Ukraine and the energy crisis, potentially give Baku more leeway in its relations with Western governments, for example. Libya, obviously also a big oil producer, I mean, how do you see in any way calculations in capitals around the world, Western capitals and others’ calculations changing related to Libya because of its status as an oil producer?

Claudia  1:10:56
Libya is a big oil producer. But because of the political feuds that have kicked in over the past few months, oil production has gone down. And actually, it's the Haftar-Bashagha camp that has leveraged its control over oil facilities and installations to close them and has been pegging their reopening to political concessions and greater control over the finances of the state. So from the foreign point of view, foreign capitals, especially European capitals, Libya is in theory, a big producer, they want to see production of oil and gas increase to make up for the loss of Russian gas, but it's essentially considered an unreliable partner. There's also speculation that these oil closures are intentionally driven. And there could be a Russian hand behind this. The theory goes – and we don't know if this is a conspiracy theory or not – is that, you know, Russia has an interest to keep the production in Libya low. It benefits, essentially, Russia and is detrimental to European powers. Now, this is just, you know, this is pure conspiracy theory, but you can see why these dots would link and there is a veneer of realistic probability that that is also happening.

Richard  1:12:26
Although the sort of accidental recognition of Bashagha doesn't suggest a great strategic mind behind Russian policy, right?

Claudia  1:12:35
No, certainly you're right. A lot of what Russia does is accidental. There's always an element of Libyan agency in all of these events that we've been talking about. There’s Libyan agency in the appointment of the Bashagha government, there’s Libyan agency in the closure of the oil ports. But you can see that these moments do provide a further opportunity for Russia to insert itself, or prolong this certain crisis, if it wants to.

Richard  1:13:06
So, let's talk a little bit then about sort of ways to break the impasse, to sort of bridge these differences between the two rival governments. So first, there's the appointment of a new UN envoy, which sort of requires buy in from the Security Council. At the moment, Stephanie Williams is sort of acting envoy or advisor, she played this very instrumental role in the deal of last year, but her time is going to be up fairly soon. So that's first and then secondly, there are, as you've described, sort of the international politics of different governments with different positions. So really, you need some sort of new international track, I mean, something like the meeting in Berlin that helped set the stage for the previous deal. But on  both those counts, it's easy to see how the sort of fraught Russia-West relations are an obstacle to both of those.

Claudia  1:13:57
Yes, of course. Russia is key to the appointment of a new SRSG to Libya. And as things stand now, Russia is not invited to the negotiating table or consultation, exchanges between foreign countries. But there are problems that aren't necessarily related to where Russia stands. I mean, the first problem, as you said, is an SRSG. But what is the UN plan? We need a workable UN plan. And currently, I'm not sure that that's there on the table. The UN-led negotiations are, from my point of view, trying to find a roadmap for elections and they might go through a constitutional referendum. They're trying to review the constitution draft that was written in 2017 and go to a referendum. This is a dead-ended process. Also, the UN hasn't tackled head on the issue of the two rival governments. It hasn't proposed new negotiations. So, when we talk about the importance of having a new SRSG, it's not just the physical person. It's the importance of having a UN-led plan that can be implemented in the months to come. And now, Stephanie Williams is due to step down on 30 June and we're expecting many months of vacant UN leadership actually. What we know is that the Russians have echoed the demands of some African countries to have an African SRSG. The Egyptians wouldn't mind that. Certainly, we know that Russia said we do not want an SRSG from a NATO country. So that's that's the one request. And it's very hard to find the right person available, qualified, interested in picking up the Libya file. But yes, Russia's sort of tensions with the West are a hurdle, but they're not the only problem that we're facing. Also over the issue of international consultations, it's always been key to have international support to the UN-led process. And in fact, if we're now talking about different groups in the capitals – one, you know, supporting one premier, the other premier and the third group – if we have this situation now, it's because there hasn't been enough confidence also amongst the foreign actors on the UN-led plan, and this has pulled them then in different directions. So in order to have unity amongst foreign actors, yes, we need the convening of an international summit, like the one in Berlin that was successfully held in 2020 and then again last year.

Richard  1:16:53
And Putin was at the Berlin meeting, right? 

Claudia  1:16:55
So Russia was involved in the international consultations on Libya, at a very high level. First in the Palermo meeting. Remember this predates even the whole Berlin track. This was before the 2019 offensive, right. Putin actually put big planes that flew Haftar into Palermo at the time. And he was there at the meeting. In Berlin as well, so post-Tripoli offensive, early 2020, Merkel really managed to bring heads of states around the table to settle the Libya war. Putin was there. Sisi was there. Erdoğan was there. Now, why did that happen: a) because we had Merkel, b) because Germany saw it as a national security issue to bring the Libyan parties to an agreement because from Germany's perspective, an unstable Libya and Libya war meant potentially the risk of more migrants to Europe. And three, there was from the backers of Haftar really an interest to end this war, that they had finally realised that they were not going to win. So they wanted out. And this sort of combination of factors is what allowed for this very high-level engagement on the Libya file. Everybody wanted to find a solution. And you needed the sort of creation of an international consensus to push a UN-led process forward.

Richard  1:18:36
And this time around, it’s much harder to see that sort of international track? At least, at the sort of track that would include Russia? 

Claudia  1:18:43
Now, Russia is not at the negotiating table, the U.S. clearly doesn't want Russia at the consultation, it's a consultation table more than a negotiating table. European capitals do not want Moscow at the table. So they've relapsed back into this old format, which is the “P3+2+2”. So it's the UK, U.S. and France, plus Germany and Italy, plus Turkey and Egypt. So this is the consultation process. Even if you have to use this type of format, be sure that at least the consultations with the Russian indirectly are still happening, you know, behind the scenes. But we're not sure that that is actually happening. We're not sure the Turks could be the vehicle for a conversation, we're not too sure that they're actually talking about the Libya file with their counterparts in Moscow. So this is a problem. But again, we also need a plan that the international community can rally around. So it goes back to the first problem. You need international unity, but you also need a workable plan – be it from the Libyans, be it from the UN – you need a positive and conceptual way forward that can actually be implemented for the internationals to rally around. 

Richard  1:20:02
So Claudia, as you said, the Russia-West tensions are not the only obstacle or, even, they're not the main obstacle. The main obstacle is the UN trying to get Libyan parties to agree on some sort of roadmap that international actors can throw their weight behind. But at the same time, Western powers at the moment loathe to sort of sit at the table in any way with with Moscow – you talked about the P3+2+2 – you know, very reluctant to involve Russia in the way that Russia was involved even just a year ago, at the Berlin meeting. I mean, is it possible to see Libyan parties reach some sort of roadmap and then progress along that roadmap? Is it possible to see that, you know, if Russia itself opposes? I mean, how much of a spoiler role can Russia play?

Claudia  1:20:58
In the current state of affairs, I think it'll be difficult for the Libyans to come up with a plan. And so there's passive spoiling in the sense you don't need to actively spoil if you're a foreign state or if you're Moscow, because many people inside the country are already by default spoilers of a consensus. But it would help to have Russia on board with a way forward, whatever that way forward is because, see, Russia in the past, for example, printed currency for the eastern authorities. This was in 2015 to 2019. The fact that banknotes were coming from Moscow helped fund the parallel executive in eastern Libya. So, the question that many people have now is how is this parallel government based in Sirte going to fund itself? Is it going to start parallel financing? And if you have money, you can fund war. If you don't have money, you cannot fund war. And the same goes for a government. If you have money, you can fund a government. If you don't, then the government sort of expires and dies on its own legs. So the big question that we have in mind now is how, you know, in order to push Libyans towards agreeing on a way forward is to try to ensure that: a) their funding is limited, be it the Internationally recognised government or the rival government. Curb their access to finances in order to ensure that then they agree on a roadmap. So potentially, Russia could play a big spoiling role if tomorrow it were to say, I'm going to start printing banknotes again, because this would put in motion the process of parallel financing that we had in the past. It could also, you know, help support Haftar forces logistically if they were to try a new Tripoli offensive. Fortunately, for now, this is off the cards, we don't see that there is that appetite. But there could be spoiling potential on the horizon. That's for sure.

Richard  1:23:24
Claudia, thanks so much for coming.

Claudia  1:23:27
Oh, you're very welcome. Always a pleasure.

Richard  1:23:32
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter @crisisgroup. We also now have some new transcripts for our shows. So if you want to reference or check up on something you've heard, that should make it easier. You can also find those on our website. They're up usually a few days after the episode comes out. So check those out too. Thanks, of course, to our producers Sam Mednick, Kevin Murphy and Finn Johnson. And thanks very much as ever to all of you, to all our listeners. Thanks especially to those of you who are still listening after what has been a monster episode. Next week will be shorter I promise! We're also getting towards the end of this second season of Hold Your Fire!, but we'll have Kenyan elections and Ukraine again for sure. Maybe some reflections on the past six months before we break for the summer. Please do get in touch if you have any suggestions. You can write to me directly, [email protected], or use the [email protected] address. If you liked the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review. Tell your friends and colleagues about us. And I hope you'll join us again next week.


Executive Vice President
Senior Analyst, South Caucasus
Former Analyst, South Caucasus
Senior Analyst, Libya

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