A little over one year ago the world was given a foundational lesson in how an impartial press can unknowingly construct a partial opinion. The consequences of that lesson are still being heard today and much to the detriment of the Russian Federation.
March 16, 2014 marked the day when the people of Crimea went to the voting booths to decide whether they would be part of Ukraine or part of Russia. While the referendum was no doubt important to people living in Crimea, I for one remained highly skeptical that the results would actually be the ultimate arbiter on the territorial decisions made about Crimea. The outside players, namely Ukraine, Russia, the United States, NATO, and the European Union, were simply too big and too influential to let this small peninsula play an independent role far beyond the geopolitical football that it represented. I felt deeply for the people of Crimea, but the bitter reality and perhaps even more bitter truth was that high politics on the global stage will still come off in such a blunt manner. Unfortunately, this type of cynical maneuvering has been going on for literally thousands of years and will likely not end with the current crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine. We have seen this fact by potential American military initiatives today involving the Baltics and recent egregiously reckless comments made by US representative to the UN Samantha Powers about Russia and Ukraine.
Ending crises such as the one in Crimea is not only the work of governments, diplomats, and militaries. Reporters play a crucial role as well. While Western journalists as a whole tend to be a conscientious lot, simply pursuing an interesting story and often putting themselves in harm’s way in order to get it, the Cold War residue that remains between the United States and Russia has put a grimy film over more than just political actors. It often affects the way in which stories are told, the lens through which ‘impartial observers’ focus their attention. Unfortunately, this happens usually at a subconscious level, resulting in news stories that were meant to be ‘fair, free, and impartial’ instead having a decidedly biased perspective snaking its way from reporter to reader.
Look no further than the first reporting on referendum day from the highly respected and august news organization, Reuters. It reported how, ‘thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula and Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders have sought to ensure the vote is tilted in Moscow’s favor. That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, is expected to result in a comfortable ‘YES’ vote to leave Ukraine.’ These are actually two very different perspectives conflated into a single position. On the one hand, readers were given the distinct understanding that the referendum was basically rigged, commandeered by Crimean leaders, who were nothing but sycophants to the Kremlin. But the very next sentence also accurately mentioned that Crimea was majority ethnic Russian, which should have indicated to a reader that a free and fair referendum might end up producing the very result the reporters told us could not be genuine. So which was it? Was Crimea manipulated by local leaders and the Russian military or was its majority Russian population voting its free and voluntary will? By writing the piece so that the suspicious manipulation theory was conflated with the demographically true statistic, a reader was either left confused or pushed into thinking the referendum itself was irrelevant and that Russia was rather, well, evil.
The piece further reported, ‘the majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million electorate support leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, citing expectations of better pay and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage. But others see the referendum as nothing more than a geopolitical land grab by the Kremlin…Ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea’s population, said they would boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.’ Again, this deftly presented evidence in a manner that delegitimized the ethnic Russian majority by highlighting a small minority group, ethnic Tatars, and how it would boycott the referendum. This is playing a bit fast and loose with the complex ethnic makeup of the former Soviet Union, portraying a picture that is not entirely accurate: ethnic Tatars have a long and rich history WITHIN the Russian Federation. One of the most powerful ethnic republics and richest regions in Russia today is Tatarstan. The idea that ethnic Tatars in Crimea were protesting the referendum because they were somehow worried or fearful of being part of Russia was simply fallacious. Much more likely, given the present environment of political turmoil and open discussions about autonomy and self-rule (let us not forget that Crimea was itself a semi-autonomous region within Ukraine under the Ukrainian Constitution), was that the ethnic Tatars saw what Crimean leaders were doing and hoped to also earn their own piece of newly acquired political and economic power. Rejecting the Crimean offer of financial aid and proper land rights meant they weren’t arguing about principle anymore but just how big their piece of the pie would be. All of this background and subtle nuance would have made readers more informed and impressed at how complex and multi-layered the Crimean situation is. Instead, they were left with a picture that had Crimean authority mere puppets on Kremlin strings and oppressed minorities being politically stomped over in the process by Russian jackboots.
The Reuters piece continued to explain the situation, stating ‘the protests began when Yanukovich turned his back on a trade deal with the European Union and opted for a credit and cheap oil deal worth billions of dollars with Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord, Russia.’ I have written on this issue in the past and it continues to perplex me how the above transaction is only portrayed in Western media as Yanukovich simply being in the back pocket of Moscow. Entering into greater trade cooperation with the European Union, paving the way for closer relations, also means ultimately answering to European Union financial demands. Perhaps we could ask Greece, Italy, or Portugal how that goes at times? These realities, along with the inevitably cyclical and topsy-turvy nature of the global economy, mean not all paths to the EU are paved with gold. Given such, why did Western media portray acceptance for a credit, oil, and gas deal worth ‘billions of dollars’ for Ukraine RIGHT NOW as being akin to a Faustian bargain made with a ‘Soviet overlord?’ What was the impact on uninformed readers who did not know that the Russian credit deal basically meant Russia forgave a massive amount of oil and gas debt owed by Ukraine? If a country was truly looking to be an ‘evil overlord’ might it not be far easier to simply call in one’s chips without remorse, rather than offering deals that eliminate debt with no repayment?
Finally, the piece reported, ‘voters have two options to choose from – but both imply Russian control of the peninsula. On the surface, the second choice appears to offer the prospect of Crimea remaining with Ukraine. However, the 1992 constitution which it cites foresees giving the region effective independence within Ukraine, but with the right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants – including with Russia.’ The problem I have highlighted is not that such journalists are unprofessional or have some anti-Russian personal agenda. I have no personal knowledge of the journalists who wrote and contributed to the above Reuters piece and I am sure they take their profession with the utmost seriousness and have high personal standards of integrity. The problem, as I mentioned, is a pervasive subconscious Cold War residue that has major influence on how uninformed readers around the world learn about the situation in Crimea and Russia’s subsequent larger image even today.
For example, the 1992 constitution mentioned above is the UKRAINIAN Constitution, not the Russian. It does indeed grant the Crimean region effective independence within Ukraine AND the right to determine its own path and relations with whomever it wants. Ukraine wrote those words in the immediate glowing aftermath of Soviet dissolution, when, quite frankly, most in the West felt the true political and economic prosperity path shone brightest for Ukraine and NOT Russia. Many seem to have forgotten this but any simple source search back to the time period will reveal massive Western enthusiasm for Ukraine’s prospects while Russia was deemed too large, too ethnically diverse, and too dependent on decrepit and degraded Soviet infrastructure. It is easy to grant ‘autonomy’ when authorities feel confident that said autonomous chicken will never come home to roost. But now, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one makes comparisons anymore between Ukraine and Russia where Ukraine is the golden-child and Russia the basket-case. So yes, it was quite true that the constitution recklessly gave Crimea the opportunity to pursue the very path it was pursuing a year ago. But the hands that wrote that problematic constitution were Ukrainian, not Russian. This was a reality not revealed to readers. Instead, they were fed an opposite impression of the referendum as not only being illegitimate but manipulatively engineered by Russia and forced on the local people.
Russia, no doubt, was not guiltless. No state is in complex geopolitics. It absolutely took advantage of the turmoil and instability of the Maidan revolution in Kiev. But it took advantage of this opportunity by maneuvering with a small peninsula that had always been militarily important to and, quite frankly, politically and culturally aligned with Russia. Was this maneuver ‘nice?’ No, it was not. But was it geopolitically strategic? Yes, it most certainly was. Which thought process do you think matters most to states on the global stage, the former or the latter?
What I wish to see more of is reporting that testifies to this inherent nature of geopolitics and the admission that most states, no, ALL states will be strategic before they choose to be nice. Be warned: this won’t make for light or fun reading, per se. But it would make for more informed and more accurate reading than the quasi-impartial pieces that clearly push a psychological caricature of one particular side to readers who do not have the background to know what is fact and what is farce. The consequence, of course, is the creation of a Russian demon that is not entirely deserved and most certainly does not serve anyone’s enlightenment or the amelioration of conflict. There are enough real demons in the political world without the free media creating more absent-mindedly.
Context and Practice of International Politics: Experience in 2022 and Expectations from 2023
The dramatic events of 2022, centred on the military-political conflict between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian issue, are a vivid example of the interaction of context and practice in international politics. The global context, within which one cannot help but consider the most acute manifestation of the current clash of interests, is the end of a period which saw the relative monopoly of Western countries in world politics and economics, their ability to determine what the international order should be.
The practice of world politics is determined by the still-colossal resources of the United States and Western Europe, on the one hand, and by the obvious insufficiency of the forces that are their main opponents – China and Russia – insufficient for a real fight. As a result, if the objective factors in the development of international politics and the world economy speak in favour of the inevitable retreat of the former leaders to new positions, then the subjective qualities of their opponents, and indeed of the powers of permanent status, are such that the advent of a new international order looks like a completely uncertain prospect.
The change in context, which is very likely to be one of the factors underpinning Russian resolve, is quite obvious. First, it is easy to see this in the voting in the UN General Assembly on the resolutions adopted by Western countries as part of their anti-Russian campaign.
Despite the fact that, from the point of view of formal international law, condemning Russia would not be a problem for it, an increasing number of countries prefer to exercise moderation, by abstaining or avoiding voting on such resolutions. Of course, this contributes to the infrastructure of institutions created over the past couple of decades that are not oriented towards the West and are not subject to its will – BRICS, the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union. But first of all, many countries simply do not feel the need to unconditionally support the West in its campaign against Moscow. It does not meet their interests or their main goals of development; these states do not have their own claims against Russia. In general, it should be noted that the reaction to Russian actions since February 2022 has been extremely mild. For example, in 2003, the Indian Parliament passed a special resolution condemning the US and allied invasion of Iraq, which is now unimaginable outside of the West in relation to Russia.
Second, the change in context is underlined by the failure of the US and its allies to build a sustainable broad-based coalition against Russia early in the conflict. Now the list of states that initiate measures of economic war against Russian interests is limited to permanent members of the military-political blocs of the West – NATO and the European Union, with the involvement of Japan and Australia, which have strong bilateral allied relations with the United States. All other countries of the world, with the exception of the microscopic clients of the United States in Oceania or the Caribbean, only enforce “sanctions” at the state or corporate level under pressure. In other words, the circle of those whom the United States and the European Union do not have to force to carry out their decisions regarding Russia turned out to be extremely narrow. This means that relations between the West and the rest of the world are now based on a repressive policy of coercion, which in itself does not mean anything good for the global positions of the United States. First, because it inevitably forces a significant number of countries to strive to extricate themselves from American influence for purely practical reasons. The need to fear Western reprisals is gradually shifting relations with the West from factors that promote development to those that hinder it. Thus, we cannot have serious doubts that the context – the objective development of the international environment – is now very friendly for Russia and its main interests.
This allows Moscow and Beijing to look to the future with relative confidence and to assume that they are on the “right side of history”, while their opponents in the West resist inevitable changes. However, it is worth recognising that a favourable context is an important, but not the only condition for the survival of states in a chaotic international environment. No less significant is the ability of states to respond to current challenges that arise during critical historical periods. The fact is, what we are experiencing now represents just such an era.
Therefore, in addition to the realisation of its selfish interests, the whole world is closely watching the ability of Russia to survive and succeed in various aspects of its conflict with the West. In particular, attention is drawn to the ability of the Ukrainian forces to continue active resistance, especially in the context of a fairly stable supply of weapons from the West. Whether we like it or not, the pace at which Russian goals are being realised on the territory of Ukraine is becoming a factor that influences the behaviour of friendly states. In addition, the apparent concentration of Moscow’s efforts in one direction creates numerous temptations for third countries to solve their problems with less regard for Russian preferences. For example, we see the behaviour of Azerbaijan in its difficult relations with Armenia; it shows signs of haste, caused by the understanding that Russia is not ready for sufficiently decisive action in the South Caucasus. We find less striking examples in Central Asia, where the political regimes perceive the course of Russian operations in Ukraine as an incentive to achieve their own short-term goals. In short, Moscow’s justified delay in resolving the most important aspects of the Ukrainian problem creates nervousness in its environment, which would be better avoided. In a more favourable position is China, which has not yet joined the direct confrontation with the West. Despite the fact that the problem facing the leadership of the PRC is no less significant, as Taiwan is a constitutional part of Chinese territory, Beijing is still showing restraint. This helps to buy time, but increases the world’s fears that the Chinese authorities are behaving this way not because it is part of their long-term strategy, but because of the inability to act more actively. At the same time, one must understand that restraint is good for the time being: for example, the United States 105 years ago chose the moment to enter the war with the Central Powers, and did not experience fears about its consequences. Although, of course, every historical comparison is an oversimplified vision of the situation due to the change in that very context.
In summary, as conflict grows over the structure of the future international order, the tension between context and practice can grow as much as it shrinks. However, in any event, it will be the most important systemic characteristic of the confrontation, which we had the opportunity to observe throughout 2022 and will continue to do so. In this sense, 2023 may turn out to be, in a certain sense, a turning point – the opposing sides will begin to run out of accumulated reserves and the question will arise of mobilising the resources that they originally planned to save for the purposes of future development. In this regard, it will be important for Russia to use a favourable context not only as a confirmation of its strategic rightness, but, first of all, as a source of resources for its own stability. This means making relations with the World Majority a central part of our foreign economic relations and making real efforts.
from our partner RIAC
The Status of Crimea between Russia and Ukraine: The Reason Why China Stands to Neglect
The status of Crimea is a contentious issue between Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a move that was widely condemned by the international community. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that affirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over Crimea, and many countries, including the United States and European Union, have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation.
Since then, Russia has been controlling the region and has been accused of human rights violations and suppression of the Crimean Tatar minority by several countries and international organizations. Ukraine, on the other hand, considers Crimea as an integral part of its territory and has not recognized the annexation. The issue remains unresolved and is a source of ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine, as well as between Russia and the international community. However, it’s worth noting that China has not taken a clear stance on the issue and has been trying to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine.
China has not taken a clear stance on the issue of the status of Crimea between Russia and Ukraine for a few reasons:
Diplomatic strategy: China is known for its “non-interference” policy in the internal affairs of other countries, and it may choose not to take a clear stance on the issue to avoid offending either Russia or Ukraine, with whom it has important economic and political ties.
Strategic Interests: China has a strong economic and trade relationship with both Russia and Ukraine, and it may not want to risk damaging those relationships by taking a clear stance on the issue.
International politics: China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and it may not want to isolate itself from other members by taking a clear stance on the issue.
While China not taking a clear stance on the status of Crimea may help it maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and avoid isolation from other members of the international community, it could also pose potential threats for the countries in the international borders. Some of the potential threats include:
Escalation of tensions: If China’s non-interference policy is perceived as support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it could further escalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and potentially lead to more aggressive actions by Russia in the region.
Loss of trust: If China is perceived as not standing up for its own principles, especially when it comes to international law and sovereignty of other countries, it could lead to a loss of trust among other countries, and make it harder for China to achieve its foreign policy goals.
Economic sanctions: If China’s non-interference policy is perceived as support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, other countries may impose economic sanctions on China, which could hurt its economy and trade relationships.
Loss of reputation: If China is seen as not standing up for the international laws and principles, it could harm its reputation as a responsible stakeholder in the international community.
Military Conflicts: If tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalates, China might be forced to take a side, and it could lead to military conflicts in the region which might have an impact on China’s own security and stability.
The issue of the status of Crimea between Russia and Ukraine is a complex and longstanding one that has not yet been resolved. A few possible solutions to this issue could include:
Diplomatic negotiations: Both Russia and Ukraine, with the support of the international community, could engage in diplomatic negotiations to find a solution that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.
International mediation: An international mediator, such as the United Nations, could be brought in to facilitate negotiations and help find a peaceful solution to the issue.
Economic sanctions: Economic sanctions against Russia, imposed by the international community, could be used to put pressure on Russia to withdraw from Crimea and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Military intervention: Military intervention could be used as a last resort if diplomatic efforts fail to resolve the issue, but this would likely lead to a much more serious and prolonged conflict.
As for China, it could play a role in resolving this issue by:
Supporting International Laws: China could support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and respect the international laws and principles.
Mediating: China could act as a mediator in resolving the issue, by bringing both Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, and help find a peaceful solution.
Taking a clear stance: China could take a clear stance on the issue, and this would show that it is a responsible stakeholder in the international community and that it respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries.
It’s worth noting that resolving this issue will require a coordinated and multilateral effort from the international community, and China could play a key role in resolving the issue of the status of Crimea, by being a responsible stakeholder in the international community, and taking a clear stance on the issue. China is also known to follow a policy of “One country, two systems” which means it would not like to interfere with other countries internal affairs thereby China has been trying to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and avoid taking sides on this issue. It would evidently mean that China is not able to exert any direct influence on the situation in Crimea, and it may be perceived as not standing up for its own principles, especially when it comes to international law and sovereignty of other countries.
Asia, Eurasia and the European Crisis: Results of 2022
The military-political crisis in Europe has created demand for the most important quality of the vast majority of the countries of Asia and Eurasia — the comparative autonomy of their political systems, free from external interference and control to a much greater extent than what is typical, for example, of Western or Eastern Europe, or, for that matter, Latin America, or small countries in Oceania or the Caribbean. This means that with the exception of Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, all countries in this vast region have the ability to conduct a foreign policy based primarily on their own selfish interests or ideas of justice or injustice within the existing international order. As a result, practically all the states of Asia and Eurasia have ended up in that Global Majority — the totality of countries that make up 85 percent of the world’s population — which are not allies of the West in its struggle against Russia.
However, at the same time, most of the countries of the region are faced with a serious challenge that will test the sustainability of their socio-economic systems and development policy instruments in the coming years. We are talking about the problems that the economic war of the US and Europe against Russia creates for the functioning of globalisation in the form we are used to. Almost all countries in Asia and Eurasia are growing economically with varying degrees of intensity, and focused on inclusion in the global trade and production chains. The keys to these ties and the main existing mechanisms for managing them are in the hands of the United States and its European allies. Therefore, now the countries of this vast region, which makes up a large part of the Russian neighbourhood, must look for ways to combine the preservation and strengthening of their political autonomy, on the one hand, and involvement in the system of economic ties that bring them obvious benefits, on the other.
We see that most of the countries of Asia and Eurasia behave with a great deal of restraint within the framework of international organisations; they do not initiate anti-Russian “sanctions” and they only comply with the requirements of the supervisory institutions of the United States and the European Union in this area under heavy pressure. This creates conditions for the gradual formation of a new infrastructure for trade and economic cooperation between Russia and its Asian and Eurasian neighbours. In the coming years, the important features of such an infrastructure may become its independence from the institutions of the West, including such areas as insurance of trade operations and transportation, transition to settlements in national currencies or creation of regional exchanges for trading those goods, where Russia will remain an important player in Asian markets, and it will also be able to oust Western suppliers from there.
As a result, the comparative political autonomy of the countries of Asia and Eurasia has turned out to be the most important factor to undermine the efforts of the West to exclude Russia from the world economy. It turned out to be fruitless in 2022.
Although here, too, the ability of Russia itself to remain open to foreign economic relations, as well as to act objectively as a supplier of critical goods, is of paramount importance.
At the same time, in 2022, serious factors arose compelling a change in the nature of Russia’s policy to develop relations with the countries of Asia, which received the generally accepted name “pivot to the East”. Now there are reasons to believe that this sphere of foreign economic policy has become a matter of prime necessity for Moscow, rather than mere choice. It had been precisely the problem of historical dominance, and the profitability of trade and economic ties with the West, primarily with Europe, that had been the most important hindrance to Russian efforts to develop ties with Asia over the past 15 years. Moreover, against the background of the advantage that the Russian economy received in the markets of the West, even the most interesting plans for cooperation with the states of the former Soviet space faded. Not to mention the gradual establishment of relations with Asian states located at a considerable geographical distance from Russia.
Now the “pivot to the East” seems to many observers, as well as the Russian state, to be the most important way to overcome a significant proportion of the negative consequences of economic aggression from the West. Indeed, over the past 10 months of the crisis in Europe, trade between Russia, on the one hand, and the countries of Asia and Eurasia, on the other, has consistently increased. To a large extent, this was due to the immediate reorientation of Russian exporters to new markets, and in part to the development of parallel imports, which made it possible to compensate for the cessation of deliveries to Russia of some goods from Western countries. The latter also leads to an objective increase in Russia’s trade with some of its closest neighbours, among which, of course, Turkey ranks first, but the countries of Central Asia also play an important role.
Russia is yet to realise that countries of the Global Majority, represented by Asian and Eurasian states, are not subjective, but objective allies of Moscow in its conflict with the West.
This means that their actions are not dictated by their leaders’ political preferences or special ties to Russia. The latter concerns, among other things, the countries of such an important region as Central Asia. The policy of the states of Asia and Eurasia is based on their natural desire to overcome the qualitative gap in development that remains between them and the leading industrial economies of the West. It is quite obvious that it is impossible to fully catch up after several centuries of colonial dependence in a short period of time. However, right now conditions have arisen when a change in the structure of the international order creates a higher chance of obtaining greater benefits from participation in globalisation, a revision of established practices that Russia defines as neo-colonial dependence, and the removal of the economy from Western control. To a certain extent, this can also occur due to the weakening of the main formal institutions of globalisation, where the West plays a dominant role.
However, such an objective coincidence of the interests of the countries of Asia and Eurasia with Russia, as a rule, does not lead to their readiness to join Russia in its conflict with the West. It would probably be a mistake to think that states which remain poorly endowed with everything except demographic resources and are solving the problems that come with the attempt to eliminate mass poverty would be ready to sacrifice their development goals for the sake of abstract strategic constructions. Russia, as a country that is fully self-sufficient in food and energy resources, can hardly understand the complexity of the position of even economically successful Asian countries, not to mention closer neighbours in Central Asia, where the political systems themselves are not fully established and are constantly exposed to serious internal and external challenges. It seems that in the future Russia will treat with understanding the fears of its Asian and Eurasian partners, taking into account their concerns and not making demands, the fulfilment of which could be detrimental to their interests.
Take India, which has a colossal population and economic potential, actively trades with Russia despite Western pressure, but is in no hurry to support Moscow in matters of international politics or the Ukrainian crisis. This is partly due to the Sino-Indian rivalry for the position of the leading Asian power. On this issue, the United States and, to a minimal extent, Europe remain India’s natural situational allies, since their pressure on China makes it behave more restrained than its economic and military capabilities allow. But to an even greater extent, this is true because India itself has not yet been able to gain the weight to talk with the West on an equal footing and put pressure on it where it is of strategic importance. In all other respects, India in 2022 has taken shape as one of the most independent centres of power in international politics, and this, of course, contributes to the realisation of Russian interests.
An exception in this regard is China. Over the past two decades, Sino-Russian relations have gone through an objective convergence of interests, both at the tactical level and in terms of a long-term vision of the international order. Now this allows the parties to cooperate very intensively on global platforms and, moreover, to cultivate positive expectations within themselves about the position of the partner and the future of bilateral relations. At the same time, Beijing itself is subjected to constant pressure and provocations from the United States, which has forced the Chinese leadership to behave with restraint even in its move to resolve the Taiwan problem, which is so important.
Summing up, we can say that the opportunities provided by cooperation with the countries of Asia and Eurasia amid an acute Russia-West conflict, have become the most important foreign policy discovery of the last year for Russia. At the same time, we have no reason to think now that the overall positive dynamics here can be slowed down by something other than internal Russian factors. For Russia, 2023 will be a period of strengthening relations with its natural partners outside the hostile West and forming with them a new infrastructure of international cooperation, which is necessary in the process of building a more just world order.
From our partner RIAC
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