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Tarek Megerisi: Libya's Crises


23-09-19 21:05

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Jon Alterman: Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa team at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Tarek, welcome to Babel. Tarek Megerisi: Thank you very much for having me. Jon Alterman: Libya slid into civil war more than a decade ago, and it’s had competing national authorities for all that time. Why has that continued for so long? Why has political leadership still not consolidated in the country? Tarek Megerisi: I’ll start with an anecdote. After the most recent war in Tripoli, I was speaking with a military man, and he was reflecting to me that Libya is the only conflict he’s ever seen where none of the participants have national aspirations. All of the military officers are incredibly local in their perception of things. They want to be the ruler of their neighborhood or, at most, their city. A lot of the political and elite class don’t have much of a political ideology. They don’t have a vision for what they would like Libya to look like or how they would like to lead or govern it. This class really cares about access to Libya’s oil wealth and the massive amounts of corruption. It’s more of an administrative game of how they can access different avenues of the state and dominate and take control over different budgets of the state. The ultimate goal is to maximize, firstly their personal wealth and then secondly, the number of people that they can put on a payroll and who, therefore, will be loyal to them. Despite all the civil wars, despite all the strife, despite a revolution in the country, there has yet to be a political vision or a political movement. It’s all just different forms of corruption. Jon Alterman: If you look at other oil states, a country like Iraq, for example, it is the centralization of the oil wealth that allows you to have political centralization. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hyper centralized because somebody got control of the oil wealth. It seems that in Libya, after more than decade, no one has complete control of the oil wealth. It’s puzzling to me why this situation hasn’t consolidated more. Does that tell you more about Libya? Or does it tell you more about the outside powers who themselves have interests in Libya? Tarek Megerisi: I think it’s a split story there. The common theme between them is a balance of power, where nobody is quite as good as they think they are. Libya under Gaddafi was to Iraq under Saddam. Everything was completely centralized in Tripoli. Gaddafi constructed a weird balance of power, but he sat at the top of the hierarchy. Still to today, Gaddafi’s administration survives in the sense of the political set-up which he had. All of Libya’s oil wealth goes to one central point, and what everybody is fighting over is the Central Bank of Libya and Tripoli, to a lesser extent. The difference is, firstly, in Libya no one really has a monopoly on violence because it’s hard to rule through violence alone. No one is politically savvy. The other side of this is that they all have powerful foreign backers. The most successful militarily of these have been the Turks, as decided in the last war but, the Russians, the French, the Italians, the Emiratis, the Qataris, and the Turks are all involved . . . Jon Alterman: And the Egyptians. Tarek Megerisi: And the Egyptians. They all tend to balance each other out to a certain extent, where nobody becomes quite capable of taking it all for themselves. Jon Alterman: The principal split is between the east and west, a historic split in Libya. Do you think that there might be some wisdom in trying to stabilize that split? Is it important, in your mind, that Libya be unified again? Tarek Megerisi: Yes, it is. I mean, this concept of formalizing the separation of the country pops up in policy circles every couple of years or so. But, to me, it doesn’t actually solve any problems. Instead, you would simply move from a paradigm of a civil war to a paradigm of two nation states fighting with each other. There weren’t many things that Gaddafi did right during his time in charge, but one thing he did is that he united the country through infrastructure: oil infrastructure, water infrastructure, electricity infrastructure. These span the three regions, the west, the east and the south. Firstly if you were to formalize the division, it becomes difficult to draw the border because each side would want to take as much of the oil as possible for themselves. Secondly, it would be hard to separate that infrastructure. It would take a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of acrimony. And you wouldn’t really achieve anything, so it seems like a red herring to me. Jon Alterman: The United Nations (UN) has long focused on trying to get a national electoral process underway. To your mind, what will elections do? What will elections be unable to do? Tarek Megerisi: People like to look at elections like a silver bullet, like you will just have a vote and then everything will be fine afterward. I think that if we want to be more sanguine and apply the lessons of the last 12 years, elections are important for two things. Firstly, it allows Libya to move beyond the current political infrastructure that exists. Libya’s political system consists of two parliaments, like it’s two governments. It’s essentially a hodge-podge of agreements that have been formed and semi-constitutional documents that have been created over the past 10 years. This has created an environment of corruption and stagnation. What Libyans are desperate to do, and what really needs to be done for any kind of political progress to happen, is to just do a clean sweep. To create a new political system, a more functional political system. That brings us to the second point of what elections might hopefully achieve, which is to create a road map for the country. In former elections, it’s been noticeable that no candidate really had a manifesto. There were no real policy plans. The last time there was any sense of political direction for the country was with the Constitutional Declaration of 2012. A new election would offer the opportunity to create a mandate for a future government that is elected. This allows some clarity, in a sense of, “Okay, what would we like a government to achieve?” Given that Libya is still in transition, you have a few key jobs, like unifying the country, finalizing a constitution, holding a next round of elections. From there, you can work backwards from there to create the political set-up you need. Jon Alterman: Some people told me that Libya needs a whole new political class, but I’m not sure how we get to having a new political class. I’m not sure how we get to having politicians who are different from the existing politicians, might I say warlords, in Libya. Do you see any way toward changing the mix of people who are involved in politics? For example, taking power away from warlords and giving it to people who are interested in ideology, and platforms, and policy, and things like that? Tarek Megerisi: I mean, it has to be a gradual process. All these guys are right, Libya desperately needs a new political class. The events of the past week have shown that more clearly than ever before, but it’s a bit hopeful or naïve to believe that you can just get there in one hop. Which is why I speak of the importance of a government mandate and some kind of sense of direction. Not only to guide Libya’s political process, but to constrain whoever wins that election. It’s highly likely that the MPs or whoever wins the next election will be somewhat worse than the MPs who won the previous election. They will be individuals who have become either more successful at corruption or more successful at violence. We see a lot of militiamen starting to prepare for a political campaign. The only way we can really hope to keep improving and not slide backwards instead is to have a clear mandate for this government, a clear set of goals for them to create an atmosphere of public pressure and international support, which will ensure that those goals are being hit and being worked toward. Then gradually, you can have baby steps toward improvement. Jon Alterman: Let me ask you about the international piece. The UN has been involved in Libya for many years, increasingly under criticism and considered ineffectual and ineffective. You’ve written before about the possibility that other parties might come in. Can you talk a little bit about the role of international institutions and international players coming into Libya. How acceptable are they to the different parties? What should they be doing? How can they move things in a positive direction? Tarek Megerisi: Ironically, much like how the Libyan political system is messy, the international system that’s meant to constrain, to control, to guide the Libyan system is equally messy. Nominally speaking, at least, everything is supposed to be channeled through the UN support mission in Libya and the UN special representative. In reality, the UN support mission has been tremendously hampered over the years by one of two problems that it seems to bounce between. Either you have a great SRSG (special representative of the secretary-general), who’s got a vision, that wants to achieve something, but none of the countries that are supposed to be supporting the representative are doing so. Rather, they are only representative in word. Because of this, they are continuously undermined until their plan fails and they are driven out or, in the case of poor Dr. Ghassan Salame, his health deteriorated to such an extent that he needs to leave for his own sanity and livelihood. The other side is that one needs to have a modicum of international cohesion, a lack of fatigue with Libya’s instability, and a willingness to change something. I think we saw that most recently in 2022. Then you get an SRSG who is almost like the UN version of a company man. Abdoulaye Bathily, the guy who’s there now, he’s there to do a job, he’s there to tick boxes. He talks about the need to talk, to convene, to have a dialogue, to have a political process, but you don’t see much activity or action on the ground until the international community either gets bored and re-focuses on a different country, or they just try their own policies instead. We end up in a scenario whereby individual states drive the situation on the ground, usually toward their own ends. In the last ten years, at least, it’s never been in a positive direction for Libya. Jon Alterman: I want to ask two related questions. First, who do you think the principal international actors in Libya should be? And secondly, how should they be organized? Tarek Megerisi: I mean, frankly speaking, in mid-2022, so this time last year or maybe just before this time last year, I was really happy because we didn’t have a special representative in place. This means that for the first time in maybe 10 years, all of the main countries involved had to own up to their own Libya policy. They didn’t have any UN to hide behind and to just come out and say, “Well, we support the UN process.” It was a lot easier to work with them, and it was a lot easier to push toward some kind of a new coherent, cohesive policy. They had their own mechanism, and they called it the P3+2+2, which in typical diplomatic terms is not the catchiest name, but it essentially meant the three permanent members of the Security Council involved who are the United States, the UK and France, and then two additional European nations, the Italians and the Germans, who had hosted the Berlin process previously. After that, two of the most prominent regional actors involved were Turkey and Egypt. This process actually made sense to a certain extent because if you could get an agreement between them, even a majority decision between them on a way forward, they had enough gravity and push in the country to actually implement that policy. When you either start to grow the group from there or shrink it into one or two countries, then interests start to get involved. Either the group becomes too unwieldy, like the UN support mission, or the group becomes driven by the national interests of only one capital, which is also problematic. Jon Alterman: There are other actors. Russia is an important actor in Libya or has been. The UAE, as you mentioned, is an important actor. Can you help us understand what both Russian and Turkish national interests are to the extent to which they overlap in Libya, the extent to which they’re different? For example, the UAE’s interest in Libya. I was in the UAE earlier this week and people said, “Well, it’s just about supporting Egypt,” but my understanding is that it’s a little nuanced and it’s not just about supporting Egypt in the minds of many. These are countries that I think a lot of people would say, “I don’t understand why they care about Libya except they do care about Libya, and they are consequential in Libya.” Tarek Megerisi: All of these countries have a kind of layer to their policies and to their interests in the country. Abu Dhabi seems as good a place as any to start. The UAE were one of the initial interventionists in Libya. From as far back as 2011, the days of the revolution, NATO intervened from the skies and there were Emirate and Qatari special forces on the ground to help the revolutionary actors become coherent fighting units. The Emirates have a host of different ideological, economic, and regional political interests in Libya. I think if we start with the ideological, they have largely satisfied that at this point. They greatly feared the Arab Spring, and Libya was the worst representation of that because, from their point of view, you had a country with a huge oil wealth and a small population who suddenly pushed to become a democracy but also started asking questions of their rulers saying, “What right do our rulers have to decide on our behalf how our oil money is spent?” Jon Alterman: And there’s a strong strain of political Islam in Libya that has become quite sensitive for the Emirates. Tarek Megerisi: Yes. I believe that the specter of political Islam and fighting Islam was always a useful dummy or bogeyman for the Emirates and the Egyptians to put out in front to distract from what essentially is a war on democracy in the region. The language of fighting Islamism is a lot more palatable to the Western world, and it’s a lot smoother of an excuse to use as to why you would intervene, even intervene militarily in countries, and to say, “Well, I don’t actually like the idea of democracy over there.” Because in many of these countries, especially in Libya, the political Islamic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. They are not as coherent, as powerful, as big, and as organized of an organization. But they were the only political opposition there. With enough time, they would have been voted out of office, or they would have been watered down, as we saw in Tunisia. I really think it was more about stopping that conceptualization of democracy. I think for the Emirates, after the last 10 years in Libya, they’ve gotten a bit tired. I mean, the dream of democracy is clearly dead. Their initial sponsor of Khalifa Haftar is clearly not as competent as they would have liked him to have been or as effective either at governing or at being able to control the country as a whole. With the last round of UN government picking, for want of a better term, with the process that they hosted in 2021 to organize a new unity government, I think they found in Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, the prime minister who came out of it, somebody with whom they could work; somebody through which they could satisfy their economic interests in the country, whilst realizing that the political situation is beyond their control and probably beyond anybody else’s control for now. We’ve seen the Emirates be a lot more active in trying to make unity governments between Dbeibeh and the Haftar family or his children and investing in economic opportunities. Again, you see this interest from the Emirates in ports and in the logistical space that connects the UAE as a middle ground between China on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You see that economic vision from them. On the ground, the Emirates have had to surrender a lot of control of military activity to the Russians. That began during Haftar’s war in Tripoli in 2019–2020. The Emirates threw everything in support of Haftar. There were tens of billions of dirhams of support, and he was incapable of making progress until the Wagner Group arrived on the front lines. I think that there was a realization by the Emirates that this is what the Wagner Group are good at doing, so they could pull back and save a lot of money and let the Russians lead on that front. The Russians took it and ran. I don’t think they were loyal allies to Haftar, in that sense. Once the Turks intervened, I think they realized that game was up, and they moved to secure their own interest in the country, which is to maintain control over Libya’s assets, in particular its oil assets. You could see in the weeks leading up to the end of the war, when Haftar’s army was going to collapse, Wagner forces started to leave the front lines, and they moved toward Libya’s oil fields and Libya’s oil installations to be able to dig in and secure them. The other side of this is to maintain Libya’s division, to create a sense of chaos and also a lack of unity that allows for having two different sides, which allows Russia to play sides off of one another, maintaining an environment of a lack of control, which they happily exploit to facilitate a lot of their shadow economic activities, mainly smuggling and figuring out ways to support Bashar al-Assad, connecting those two shadow economies in eastern Libya and in Syria. Jon Alterman: And the Turks? Tarek Megerisi: There is this balance now between Turkey and Russia, and it’s based on this economic geopolitical balance. When the Russians abandoned Haftar, they drew the new front lines or the new division of the country in the city of Sirte, which is in central Libya. As much as people say that there was a cease-fire negotiated between the Libyans, in reality, there was a cease-fire negotiated between presidents Putin and Erdogan. That is what made the peace in Sirte. It’s certainly what has kept the peace in Libya since. Libya has become another kind of piece on the chessboard between them, especially if we include Syria, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and now Ukraine, as well. The Turks, like the Russians, have their own economic interests in the country. I think they also have geopolitical interests, like the Russians and a few other states, actually. Libya, given its geographical position, is a useful launchpad for other African policies. We see the Russians use Libya as the African logistics hub of the Wagner Group. Initially, Turkey had similar plans to use Libya as a launchpad into the Sahel and also into East Africa. The more unique driver for Turkey’s intervention was the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. In terms of its own national security, Turkey has this vision of challenging Greece’s claims to the waters around Greek islands and also, to the vast oil and gas fields that are underneath. Libya became a useful partner to kind of legally challenge that claim. Turkey created their own maritime boundaries with Libya. They found an ally to back up its claim that there are different ways to draw these maritime boundaries. They found a new energy partner. I think the way the Turks envision their future partnership with Libya is that Libya will provide them the rights to start drilling for oil, and then they will start drilling for gas and try to help Turkish energy independence in that way. As you can see, it’s a huge overlapping of geopolitical, economic, and ideological interests from all involved, as well as just simply playing to the moment and being an opportunist. Jon Alterman: And it feels a little bit like these countries, which are not part of the P5 (permanent members of the security council) in the UN, seem to have greater ambitions for Libya than larger countries in the world. Tarek Megerisi: Yes, in terms of some of the members of the P5 who happily piggybacked on the activities of the Emirates or the Turks. In the modern day where Western states don’t like to get their hands dirty in public, I think the interventions of a lot of these other non-P5 states are useful partners for them. Those who are willing to get their hands dirty, to create facts on the ground that they once hoped that they could take advantage of. But I think now, if they look back on the last 10 years, all they will see is that it fomented more chaos and it took all of them further away from their interests. Jon Alterman: Let me go from the international to the national. Libya had about $22 billion in oil revenues last year. And while the revenues are handled by the government in the West, 75 percent of the oil is pumped from areas controlled by the government in the East. Do you think there are ways to handle oil revenues differently that will help Libya get to a political settlement? Tarek Megerisi: Absolutely. We spoke earlier about how the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli is a prize for everybody to fight over. I think that’s largely because of how the oil money is collected and then distributed. It makes that a prize for everybody to fight over. Libyans believe that they have a right to the oil wealth and that the oil wealth is their right, but how they conceptualize that right or access that right is through government jobs through being able to access government tenders. That creates a system of corruption and of power in the country, whereby he who can hand out government jobs becomes powerful. It structurally creates the dysfunctional state that we have today, and there have been teams of Libyans in more peaceful times who worked on new ways for Libyans to conceptualize their right to the oil wealth and their ability to access it. There’s the idea of a sovereign wealth fund, much like in other oil rich states, or the idea of a universal basic income. If you can find a platform like that, which suddenly equalizes Libyans as citizens and gives them rights as citizens rather than by where they come from in the country, then I think you can undercut a lot of the insecurities that drive conflict and that allow greedy people sitting in the elite to keep fermenting conflict. Jon Alterman: I want to turn to the most internal issue, which is the floods that have devastated Derna in the last week. Why have they been so destructive? When we were talking earlier, you said as much as half of the city may have been washed away. Tarek Megerisi: Yes, this is the real legacy of decades of negligence toward maintaining infrastructure because those who are responsible for maintaining that infrastructure would rather simply make money through corrupt government tenders instead of performing the job. What happened in Derna, just to explain, firstly is that there were two dams higher up the mountain that kind of regulated water flow into the valley that led to the sea. Derna sits at the bottom of the valley. Because of Hurricane Daniel, the dams filled up, causing the dams to break and a huge force of water just rushed down. I think some local scientists have calculated the force that it created as being greater than that of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. Jon Alterman: And they talked about a wall of water that was more than 20 feet high. Tarek Megerisi: Absolutely. It washed entire districts of the city straight into the sea. There were warnings last year by a Libyan hydrologist that the dams required urgent maintenance or that in any case of flooding, there could be disastrous results. The warnings were ignored. In the build-up to the storm, the authorities knew it was coming but the gates of the dams weren’t opened, and they knew that it could create problems. Civilians and senior civilians in the city were calling for an evacuation, but the military administration, because Derna has been under a military administration since 2019, refused them that right of evacuation because the military wanted to stay in control of the situation. You can see these kinds of failures in decision making. I mean, even up to an hour before the dams burst, the local ministry of water resources was issuing statements on its Facebook page saying that the dams were fine and that anybody worrying about them was just spreading fake news, essentially. All these poor people were told to stay at home, to lock themselves in to what eventually became their graves, and it’s a natural disaster, but it’s a manmade catastrophe because there were real instances of political negligence, of corruption over doing their jobs, and of contempt for the people that created this scenario. Jon Alterman: What kind of opportunities does this disaster create? And what kinds of enduring challenges does it create as we look toward Libya’s future? Tarek Megerisi: Libya has been a failing state for a long time in the sense that infrastructure is not maintained, government services are not provided, and things are steadily degrading. What’s happened now in eastern Libya is that it’s no longer a steady degradation, but that overnight or over two nights, the quality of the road network, the electricity network, the water network, has gone down significantly. There are extremely valid doubts and concerns that the current authorities will care, let alone do anything to bring that back up to scratch. This reduces the society of Libya, it reduces the functionality of Libya as a state, and I think that those challenges will endure. The opportunity or the hope that I think comes from this for many people is that it might be the drive for political change. There is shock, there is grief, but also, there is real rage amongst Libyans from all over the country that this was allowed to happen. The clumsiness and the callousness of Libya’s politicians and elite class is only stoking that rage higher. Libya’s parliament, which in times of a crisis is supposed to remain in continuous session, did not even meet until yesterday. And when they met, the speaker of the parliament spent quite a while telling off the Libyan people, saying that they shouldn’t be blaming them for what happened. They say that the people were being unfair to them, and that this was an act of God. Their one move was not to create a crisis committee or show any kind of leadership or organization for the relief effort, their one decision was to create a new fund of 10 billion Dinars for Derna’s reconstruction to be managed by the speaker of the parliament. People are furious, because they see the same callousness and the same corruption just being thrown back into their faces, whilst they are still burying their dead. On a daily basis, people are still washing up on the shore, morgues are still overflowing, the relief work has barely started, let alone finished. And they are already planning their corruption. At the same time, the military of Haftar, which is to blame for so much of this is, is trying to dominate the scene. There are reports coming in that aid convoys from western Libya, from southern Libya, are being stopped, and that Haftar’s military are having the aid taken off them because the military has to be seen as the ones who are distributing the aid. There are people now who are still starving in Derna and in other cities, and the aid is being stolen. There is a lot of anger, there is a lot of resentment and frustration, and the question is, whether this can generate enough of a popular outrage that these people feel like they have to resign. What is being called for is that everybody should resign, from the president down to the mayor. Whether the people will succeed in that or whether, these politicians do what they do best and they ride out the storm whilst the military in eastern Libya and the security services in western Libya start arresting the dissenters and rounding them up and preventing any protests from forming, and so on. Time will tell on that one. There is a real hope that this can finally create the push for change that Libyans have wanted for a long time. Jon Alterman: Well, we will have to have you back to see how that all evolves. Tarek Megerisi, thank you very much for joining us on Babel. Tarek Megerisi: Thank you for having me on the program. (END)


Zelensky urges unity in dramatic UN address


23-09-19 20:52

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly urging a global front against Russian aggression. Zelensky accused Russian leaders of terrorism and genocide, specifically citing the removal of Ukrainian children from the country. Russia has admitted to forcibly deporting Ukrainian children and placing them in Russian families. Zelensky also accused Russia of weaponizing the global food trade and turning other countries' power plants into "dirty bombs." He warned other nations about "shady" cooperation with Russia and referred to the recent death of Russian Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. Zelensky is scheduled to meet with US President Joe Biden and travel to Washington later this week.

Before he died in a fiery crash, Prigozhin's family lived a life of opulence. Now they have a choice


23-09-19 20:11

The family of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian warlord who died in a plane crash last month, is reportedly in danger following his death. Prigozhin co-founded the Wagner mercenary group, which committed crimes in Ukraine in 2020, and was a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin had three children with a glamorous businesswoman, with the family living a life of opulence. Experts believe that Prigozhin’s family assets will be targeted by the Russian authorities. The family’s situation is described as precarious, with Dr Leonid Petrov, from the International College of Management in Sydney, stating that he did not believe they would be safe in Russia. Petrov described Prigozhin’s stage of a mutiny against the Russian military in June as “unforgivable and humiliating” for Putin and said it would lead to his death. Prigozhin’s wife, Lyubov Prigozhina, and their two daughters, Polina and Veronika, have not been seen since his death. The family is believed to have two choices: to leave Russia and risk detention, or to remain in the country and face constant surveillance.

Ukraine latest: Zelenskyy tells U.N. that 'occupier must return to his own land'

Nikkei Asia

23-09-19 19:55

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly to stand united against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, calling for Moscow to be pushed back and for the world to turn its attention to global challenges. U.S. President Joe Biden also appealed to world leaders to stand with Ukraine against Russia, saying that Russia alone bears responsibility for the war and has the power to end it immediately. Meanwhile, Ukraine has appealed to three neighboring EU countries, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, to engage in "constructive dialogue" to resolve a dispute over agricultural trade. Ukraine has also taken the first step in a trade dispute with the World Trade Organization by filing a complaint against the restrictions imposed by the three countries. In addition, Ukraine has told the International Court of Justice in The Hague that Russia justified its war against Ukraine by invoking a "terrible lie" about an alleged genocide, calling on the court to decide that it has jurisdiction to hear the case fully and eventually rule that Russia must pay reparations.

Biden’s efforts to court India challenged by assassination claim

Washington Post

23-09-19 23:58

US President Joe Biden is attempting to balance relations with Canada and India after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of being behind the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia. The Canadian investigation alleges that Indian officials may have been involved in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who advocated for a separate Sikh state. The White House has voiced support for the investigation but has avoided any repudiation of India or Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The US is seeking strong relations with both countries as it tries to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Zelensky tells Trump to share idea on ending Ukraine war now

The Independent

23-09-19 23:13

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has criticized former US President Donald Trump for his promises to swiftly end the Russian invasion in Ukraine without providing any specific details. Zelensky expressed concern that Trump's idea of peace would involve ceding territory to Russia. Trump had previously claimed that he could end the Ukraine war in a matter of days or hours by facilitating negotiations between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zelensky's comments come as he is in the US for the United Nations General Assembly and a series of meetings in Washington.

Kim's Russian spaceport visit: The rocket science of hiding poverty

Nikkei Asia

23-09-20 02:35

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's recent visit to Russia and his stop at the spaceport in Amur Oblast reveals his interest in space technology, which is rooted in his ambition to make North Korea a "scientific and technological power." The North Korean government has been promoting science and technology through various policies, and the development of satellites and rockets is a priority. Kim hopes that successfully launching a satellite will help win the loyalty of the younger generation and distract from the country's internal problems, such as food shortages and flooding.

Putin ‘weaponising’ food as troops target cargo ship in Black Sea

The Independent

23-09-20 07:30

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russian society has "raised a second Hitler" in a powerful speech delivered at the UN General Assembly. Zelensky urged the world to unite against Russian aggression and claimed that Russia was using tactics more catastrophic than nuclear destruction. He argued that while nuclear weapons remain in place, the "mass destruction is gaining its momentum" through the weaponization of food, energy, and children. Zelensky's speech comes ahead of a face-to-face meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the UN Security Council, where Zelensky is due to speak about Ukraine.

Zelensky’s speech at the UN General Assembly emphasized the need for collaboration and peace in the face of Russian aggression. He accused Russia of using tactics that are more destructive than nuclear weapons, claiming that food, energy, and children are being weaponized. Zelensky’s warning about the dangers of Russian aggression comes ahead of a meeting with Lavrov, where tensions are expected to be high. In their last encounter at the UN Security Council, Lavrov called Zelensky a derogatory name and stormed out of the room.

Zelensky’s speech and upcoming meeting with Lavrov highlight the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian president is calling for international unity against Russia and warning of the catastrophic consequences of Russian aggression. As tensions continue to escalate, it remains to be seen how the international community will respond and what actions will be taken to address the situation.


Time for a rethink


23-09-21 08:39

The war in Ukraine has entered a stalemate, with the counter-offensive launched in June failing to make significant gains against Russian-backed forces. As a result, both Ukraine and its Western supporters need to rethink their military strategy and economic approach. Ukraine’s soldiers are exhausted and the country lacks the manpower to sustain a large-scale counter-offensive. Instead, Ukraine should focus on new tactics and technologies, such as drone production, to degrade Russia’s military infrastructure. Ukraine also needs to boost its resilience by improving its air defence capabilities. Economically, Ukraine should shift from relying on aid to attracting investment, with a focus on boosting output and capital spending. The country needs to tackle corruption, make doing business easier, and offer war insurance to firms. Ukraine’s Western supporters also need to step up their efforts, both in terms of military assistance and financial aid. Ultimately, the best guarantee of Ukraine’s security is NATO membership or the prospect of EU membership, which would offer hope to Ukrainians and accelerate economic reforms.

Russian peacekeepers broker deal in Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian separatist army to disband


23-09-21 08:14

Azerbaijan has achieved a major victory in the conflict over the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, as separatist forces agreed to lay down their arms following a rapid military operation. A peace deal, backed by the Kremlin, has sealed the fate of the mountainous enclave, but it has emerged that several Russian peacekeepers were ambushed and killed. A formal peace deal is expected to be signed on Thursday by ethnic Armenian forces in an Azerbaijani town. The majority of Nagorno-Karabakh's population is ethnic Armenian, although the territory is considered to be Azerbaijani.

Zelenskyy makes his case at the U.S. Capitol for more war aid as Republican support softens.

The Toronto Star

23-09-21 14:11

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Washington to meet with Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Zelenskyy’s second visit since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 comes as Biden’s request to Congress for an additional $24 billion for Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs is under review. Back home, Russia launched its heaviest strikes in a month, killing three people. Zelenskyy is meeting with US military leaders at the Pentagon and will speak with President Joe Biden at the White House.

‘Need to breed’ fear of Nato conflict risk among Russian military, peers told

The Independent

23-09-21 13:45

A former NATO Secretary General has warned Russia's military hierarchy must be aware of the possibility of "an actual and not fictitious war" with NATO if they escalate matters in Ukraine. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen said that instead of the West being nervous of Russian escalation, the West needs to breed in the Russian military hierarchy the worry that if they overdo what is being done in Ukraine, then a war with NATO might be the result. This comes as Ukraine is pushing for NATO membership, although this remains a controversial issue among current NATO members.

Talks begin between Azerbaijan and breakaway Armenian republic


23-09-21 12:38

Negotiations have been held between Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh officials over the future of the disputed region. The talks followed a 24-hour Azerbaijani offensive in which it claimed to have fully taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethnic Armenian forces agreed to disband as part of a ceasefire agreement. The talks ended without any public statements or breakthroughs, and no final agreements were reached. Thousands of protesters have criticised the Armenian government for failing to protect ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Don’t be surprised if Xi is a no-show at US Apec summit

South China Morning Post

23-09-21 12:30

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent speech on American foreign policy, titled "The Power and Purpose of American Diplomacy in a New Era," has been described as idealistic and self-righteous. Blinken declared the end of the post-Cold War period and highlighted Russia and China as the most immediate threats to the international order. His speech also warned against dangers posed by elected leaders who exploit resentments and stoke fears. The article suggests that Blinken's speech is consistent with President Joe Biden's views and does not bode well for improved Sino-US relations.

In Spat With India, Canada Gets Muted Allied Support


23-09-21 11:15

Canada's allies have not echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's allegations that India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen. Mainly, this is because of China, and the priority among the allies to bolster ties with India as a counterweight to Beijing’s rising power and assertiveness. India has a fast-growing economy that many analysts believe will overtake Japan and Germany to become the world’s third-largest by 2030. It has become a major power in world affairs, with more than 1.4 billion people and one of the world’s largest militaries. All that makes it hard for Canada’s main allies — which are also some of India’s main partners — to loudly speak out. Trudeau discussed the slaying with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden in recent weeks, according to Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly. The US has a vested interest in its relationship with India “remains vitally important, not only for the South Asia region but of course for the Indo-Pacific.”

Zelensky shares hope for more US aid to Ukraine in meeting with Biden

The Independent

23-09-21 21:15

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his gratitude for US support for Ukraine's defence against Russia during a visit to Washington. Zelensky called for continued US support and appealed to members of Congress to maintain funding for Ukraine's efforts to repel the Russian invasion. He also discussed a new US defence package with a focus on air support during his meeting with President Joe Biden. Biden reiterated his commitment to standing with Ukraine, stating that no nation can be truly secure if Ukraine's freedom is not defended. Zelensky's visit comes as Republicans in the US House of Representatives oppose giving more aid to Ukraine and threaten to vote against any bill that includes defence assistance for Kyiv. Some Republicans argue that the US should prioritize domestic needs rather than funding Ukraine. Despite this opposition, Zelensky's visit was well-received by many members of Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans who expressed their commitment to Ukraine's defence. Zelensky also visited the Pentagon and met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Biden is expected to announce a new arms package for Ukraine's defence forces, including more cluster munitions.

Ukraine latest: Zelenskyy urges U.S. to keep aid flowing

Nikkei Asia

23-09-21 20:13

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged US congressional leaders to continue providing aid to Ukraine, as some Republican lawmakers call for limitations on further assistance. Zelenskyy met with Senate and House leaders in Washington ahead of a meeting with President Joe Biden. He emphasized the importance of air defense and urged unity in the face of Russian aggression. In a separate meeting with senators, Zelenskyy acknowledged concerns about the transparency and accountability of US aid money and stressed the importance of oversight. The Biden administration requested an additional $24 billion in aid for Ukraine in August, which is currently caught up in a broader fight over the federal budget.

North Korea's Kim sets forth steps to boost Russia ties as US and Seoul warn about weapons deals

The Toronto Star

23-09-22 01:39

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered steps to further develop relations with Russia following his recent visit to the country. Experts believe that North Korea and Russia likely discussed banned arms transfer deals and other cooperation measures during Kim's trip. The two countries are seeking to boost their ties while engaged in separate confrontations with the West. During a Politburo meeting, Kim emphasized the need to expand bilateral cooperation in every field. Kim's visit to Russia raised concerns among South Korea and its allies, who warned that any weapons deals between Russia and North Korea would be in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. Many experts believe that North Korea would seek Russian help to complete the development of high-tech weapons systems.

North Korea’s Kim sets forth steps to boost Russia ties as US and Seoul warn about weapons deals

Associated Press

23-09-22 01:38

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered further development of relations with Russia following his recent visit to the country. Experts believe that banned arms transfer deals and other cooperation measures were likely discussed during Kim's trip. Kim emphasized the need to expand bilateral cooperation in all fields and make a substantial contribution to the well-being of both countries. The United States, South Korea, and their allies have warned that any collaboration between Russia and North Korea on military weapons would be dangerous and would violate UN Security Council resolutions. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol stated that such action would be "paradoxical" and pose a threat not only to Ukraine but also to South Korea. Experts suggest that North Korea may seek Russian assistance in developing high-tech weapons systems to gain more concessions from the US and South Korea.

The Elusive Figure Running Wagner’s Embattled Empire of Gold and Diamonds


23-09-22 01:00

T-shirts have appeared on the streets of the Central African Republic’s capital recently picturing a bearded man with flowing hair and an almost saintly look. The image, reminiscent of a revolutionary Che Guevara, is of 34-year-old Dmitry Sytii, the current frontman of the Wagner paramilitary group in Africa. Since his boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in an apparent assassination last month, Sytii has been thrust to the center of an emerging battle over the fate of Wagner’s sprawling multibillion-dollar African empire of mercenaries, gold, lumber and diamonds. With his intimate knowledge of Wagner’s front companies and smuggling networks, the polyglot, Western-educated Sytii is likely to play a pivotal role. The war-torn Central African Republic has been the nerve center of Wagner’s activities in Africa and the hub of its business operations. Sytii is so close to the nation’s politicians that he lives and works in a luxurious villa in the capital, Bangui, that once was the president’s official residence. It is surrounded by an army camp occupied by Wagner fighters. Sytii navigates the city’s teeming streets in a silver Toyota SUV with no license plates, visiting upscale restaurants and senior government officials. He travels regularly to neighboring countries such as Cameroon and Chad. It is unclear, though, whether Wagner’s African kingdom will stay intact and how long Sytii will retain his power. Russian government officials have told Wagner’s African allies—a collection of strongmen, junta leaders and warlords—that they will be taking tighter control. Other mercenary companies managed by oligarchs with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin are jostling for the spoils, with their representatives joining the Russian defense ministry’s recent tour of Wagner’s African fiefs. Sytii lacks Prigozhin’s connections to the Kremlin, which had opened doors for Wagner with African leaders. His ties to the deceased Wagner owner also raise questions for the group’s eventual new bosses over his allegiances. This account of Sytii’s role in Wagner’s African operations is based on interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with them, including Wagner operatives and business partners, politicians in countries where the group has a presence, and current and former international security officials. Sytii didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did Prigozhin’s holding company Concord, a catering firm that expanded into real estate, media and mining and holds assets in Russia and abroad. A spokesman for the Kremlin said that he couldn’t comment on the activities of private companies in Africa, and that the Russian government has cooperation programs with many countries on the continent. The spokesman previously said Putin had nothing to do with Prigozhin’s death. Sytii has managed Wagner’s corporate and propaganda ventures in Africa for the past half decade. His shaggy hair and slight build stand out among Wagner’s burly, often-tattooed fighters. He attended business school in Paris, and has said he is fluent in Russian, English, Spanish and French. People familiar with Wagner’s business operations said he oversees a network of front companies that the group has used to export gold, diamonds, lumber and other raw materials from his base in the Central African Republic. Sytii also directs Wagner-funded media outlets and social-media campaigns that share anti-Western propaganda designed to prop up Moscow-friendly leaders, these people said. U.S. and European authorities have blacklisted him for his work with Wagner in Africa, making it illegal to do business with him and freezing any assets he might have in those jurisdictions. Wagner’s business operations have helped subsidize some 5,000 mercenaries across at least four African nations, whom the U.S. government and international human-rights organizations have accused of raping, kidnapping and killing civilians. Wagner’s fighters have enabled the Kremlin to provide military support to Russia’s allies without stretching its regular armed forces. In turn, the arrangement bolstered Prigozhin’s personal wealth by giving him access to minerals and other resources. In the weeks after Prigozhin’s death, Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra communicated to Moscow that he wants Sytii and other longtime Wagner operatives to stay in the country, arguing that removing them would disrupt his government’s efforts to fight rebel groups, according to former and current European security officials. A spokesman for Touadéra didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Sytii T-shirts were first distributed in Bangui late last year by a Russian cultural center Sytii runs in that city, after Sytii was injured by a bomb mailed to him there, according to people familiar with Wagner’s operations. Recently, Wagner-friendly journalists and pro-government youth in Bangui have been wearing them. In an interview earlier this month with the Russian newspaper Pravda, Sytii said he continues to work for Russia. Asked by a correspondent visiting Bangui about Prigozhin’s demise, he replied: “We need to keep working and not lose heart.” Sytii explained, in a video posted on the Pravda website, why he returned to the country after the mail bomb blew off three of his fingers and injured his chest. He warned that pulling experienced agents like him from the continent could endanger the Moscow-friendly networks he helped create on behalf of Russia. “If we start to retreat, then everything that has been built will also crumble,” he said, a black leather glove hiding his mangled right hand. The Central African Republic is a landlocked former French colony of about five million people that, despite its natural resources, remains one of the poorest nations in the world. Wagner operatives arrived in the country in 2017 at the invitation of President Touadéra, a mathematician turned strongman whose government was under siege by rebel groups. Among the first to land was Sytii, who left behind a son and ex-wife in France. Sytii had studied international trade in St. Petersburg before earning a master’s degree in marketing and business in Paris. “Extremely interested in working in an international company in high-tech domain that will challenge my skills and competences with exciting tasks,” he wrote in a résumé he posted online after graduating in 2015. According to the U.S. Treasury, he was hired by Prigozin’s Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm.” The 2019 report by special counsel Robert Mueller said the Internet Research Agency used fake social-media accounts to spread propaganda and attempt to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. While the Russian government has denied that it interfered in the vote, Prigozhin appeared to admit to such efforts last year. Sytii’s first job in the Central African Republic was serving as an interpreter for prospectors looking for mining opportunities on behalf of one of Prigozhin’s companies, the now-sanctioned M Invest, and a band of Wagner mercenaries presented as unarmed Russian military instructors. Within months, Sytii registered Wagner’s first company in the country, Lobaye Invest, which got permission to begin mining for gold and diamonds. According to the European Union, Lobaye financed a new radio station that today broadcasts pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, and markets Wagner-brewed vodka and beer to Central Africans. Lobaye has since been sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU. A list of contacts from Sytii’s cellphone in 2018 obtained by All Eyes on Wagner, a nonprofit that monitors the mercenary group, suggests the extent of his involvement with Wagner’s corporate ventures. Among his contacts were a container-shipping agent and a South African company that sells diamond-mining equipment. In 2019, a man identified in those phone contacts as his driver set up Diamville, a diamond and gold trading outfit that the U.S. this year sanctioned as a Wagner front company. That same day, one of the driver’s Among the local politicians that Sytii befriended was Hassan Bouba, a rebel leader turned government minister whose fighters have run combat missions alongside Wagner mercenaries in the Central African Republic, and Touadéra’s security adviser, Fidèle Gouandjika. In an interview with the Journal, Gouandjika called Sytii one of his “very good friends” and said they bonded at dinners at the Central African official’s home over bottles of Stolichnaya vodka and local delicacies such as sautéed caterpillar, cow tripe in cassava leaf, plantain and Nile perch. Bouba didn’t respond to requests for comment. As Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic grew, it offered services to other African governments that were under domestic pressure and felt abandoned by the West, often because of sanctions or concerns over human rights. In 2018, Wagner started working with Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who at the time was part of the military leadership of Sudan, a country that was under U.S. sanctions for its alleged links to international terrorist groups. Now, Dagalo and his paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces are fighting a civil war with Sudan’s government. According to the U.S. and European governments, Dagalo also works with Wagner to exploit Sudan’s gold reserves. In 2019, Wagner fighters briefly deployed in Mozambique to help fight Islamist rebels, and two years later the group signed a deal with the military junta in Mali to combat jihadist insurgents. Each country that Wagner entered was pulled deeper into Russia’s sphere of influence. Sytii helped run the nonmilitary side of that operation. Social-media campaigns praising Russia and attacking the West began popping up in African nations, especially former French colonies. U.S. companies such as X Corp., formerly known as Twitter, and Meta’s Facebook have traced them to Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency. French officials have said Wagner-led disinformation has encouraged military coups and the subsequent expulsion of Western troops from several countries, including in Mali and Burkina Faso. Wagner was rewarded by its allies with access to natural resources. In 2020, a Wagner-linked company, Midas Resources, gained control of the Ndassima mine in the Central African Republic, whose previous owner estimated that it might contain as much as $2.7 billion in gold. A year later, Sytii was promoted to director of the Russian House in Bangui, an institution meant to promote Russian cultural values in the Central African nation. This year, Wagner began brewing its own beer, Africa Ti L’Or, or Africa Is Gold, in the Sango language. A competing brewery was torched in an arson attack that Western intelligence agencies have attributed to Wagner. When the group’s beer went on sale this spring, Sytii was back in Russia, recovering from the wounds he sustained from the mail bomb sent to him at the Russian House. Prigozhin claimed France was behind the bomb—an accusation the French government has denied. In interviews with Russian media, Sytii said the attack followed threats made against him, his son and ex-wife in France with the aim of forcing Wagner to withdraw from the Central African Republic. Around the time Sytii returned to Bangui, Wagner’s relationship with the Russian government was beginning to fray. In June, after Prigozhin had accused Russia’s military leadership of deliberately throttling the supply of weapons and ammunition to Wagner’s troops in Ukraine, his men marched toward Moscow. The aborted rebellion ended with a deal between Prigozhin and Putin, banishing Wagner’s fighters from the Ukrainian battlefields. Sytii publicly aligned himself with Prigozhin, releasing a video in which he pledged to keep working for Wagner despite a new round of Western sanctions. “We will continue to work, and we will continue to realize all our projects under the leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin,” he said in French. “With him, we will have results.” At that point, Prigozhin’s businesses in Russia were under attack. He was forced to shut down some of his prime assets, including his media and disinformation companies, and he lost lucrative catering contracts. In the Central African Republic, Wagner registered new front companies after existing ones had been sanctioned, according to people familiar with its operations. The group was intent on stopping details about its work in the country from leaking. Truck drivers transporting Wagner goods said they had to relinquish cellphones when making trips to and from the N’dassima gold mine. Those trucking lumber to the Cameroonian port of Douala said Wagner fighters rode in their cabins to monitor them. Freight-related documents had to be handed over immediately upon arrival at the port, said drivers interviewed by the Journal. Weeks later, Sytii accompanied Prigozhin on parts of what would be a final tour of his African empire. They attended an event at the Russian House in Bangui, where some of the last known photos of the Wagner founder were taken. Prigozhin died in a plane crash on Aug. 23, a few days after his final meeting with Sytii. Gouandjika, the security adviser to the Central African Republic’s president and Sityi’s friend, responded by posting on Facebook a photo of himself in a T-shirt that said, “Je suis Wagner,” French for ”I am Wagner.” Bouba, the former rebel turned government minister, flew to St. Petersburg to visit a makeshift memorial to Prigozhin. In the weeks since Prigozhin’s death, Sytii has worked to preserve Prigozhin’s legacy in the continent, according to a Wagner business partner and a European security official. He has traveled to Douala in Cameroon, Wagner’s main exit route for goods from Central Africa. That city also is the base of Afrique Média, a pro-Russian television channel that the U.S. government has said is tied to Prigozhin. Satellite images show that the N’dassima gold mine in the Central African Republic continues to operate. The Pravda correspondent asked Sytii about Wagner’s future in Africa. “I don’t have answers to these questions,” Sytii said. “I am coming from the assumption that everything remains the same and we are continuing to work.” Write to Benoit Faucon at [email protected] and Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]