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Will Jonathan Pollard’s release sooth U.S.-Israel tensions over Iran?

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Welcome to the Caspian Daily, where you will find the 10 most important things you need to know on Caspian Sea Region. We appreciate ideas, reports, news and interesting articles. Send along to Caspian[at]moderndiplomacy.eu or on Twitter: @DGiannakopoulos

1Congress is due to finish its review of the deal and vote on it in September. If that process gets completed, by November — when Pollard will go free — Netanyahu’s calculations might be different.”If Netanyahu wanted to climb down from the tree, if he wanted to make amends with the U.S., the Pollard … release would be a great way to do it,” Sachs, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy said. [CNN]

2Why the Iran deal is huge for Obama’s legacy. “From the moment he took office, the Obama doctrine — to the extent that one exists — basically boiled down to this: Diplomacy with so-called enemy countries can be effective, said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings Institute and former State Department aide. Obama has been testing that theory on Iran literally since Day One, in part because nuclear nonproliferation has also been a central focus of his presidency. He became the first U.S. president to use the word “Muslim” in his inaugural address, offering to extend a hand to world leaders “if you are willing to unclench your fist.” [Washington Post]

3If Russia breaks up. “If Mr Putin goes and the money runs out, Chechnya could be the first to break off. This would have a dramatic effect on the rest of the north Caucasus region. Neighbouring Dagestan, a far bigger and more complex republic than Chechnya, could fragment. A conflict in the Caucasus combined with the weakness of the central government in Russia could make other regions want to detach themselves from Moscow’s problems” [Economist]

4Kazakhstan trade likely to bloom. A full picture of the Kazakhstani market and its business opportunities was unveiled at a forum held in Ha Noi yesterday. Viet Nam and Kazakh-stan signed a number of framework agreements on economic, trade, diplomatic, education, investment, labour and energy co-operation in recent years, said Vice Chairman of the Viet Nam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) Doan Duy Khuong. According to Viet Nam’s General Department of Customs, trade between the two countries was almost US$230 million in 2014, with $219 million from Viet Nam’s exports, up 42 percent year-on-year. Exports consisted primarily of cell phones and electronic spare parts, machinery and farm produce. Imports, meanwhile, doubled, including ore and minerals.

5Navies of Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan has set to hold trilateral naval drills, RIA Novosti reported on July 30 with a reference to Igor Dygalo, the representative of the press service of Russian Defense Ministry on Navy.”As part of the preparations for the “Cup of the Caspian Sea – 2015″ competition, the ships of the Navies of Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan will conduct a number of preparatory artillery shooting on small maritime targets, on air targets and on a floating mine,” Dygalo noted.Holding joint naval drills among the CIS member-states’ navies was agreed in Astrakhan on November 9, 2014. An international competition called “Cup of the Caspian Sea – 2015” is the first ever joint exercises in the Caspian Sea.

6Turkey is ready to distribute gas not only from Russia but also from Azerbaijan and Iran in Europe, general director of Russia’s National Energy Security Fund Konstantin Simonov said in an interview aired by the Rossiya-24 TV news channel on Thursday.”Turkey also plans to transit gas from Azerbaijan and Iran. It appears that it may take the same position regarding this gas,” he said when speaking about the intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Turkey on 2-4 lines of the Turkish Stream to deliver Russian gas to European states.

7President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov and President of Russia Vladimir Putin expressed confidence in the prospects of intensifying mutually advantageous cooperation during a telephone conversation. As part of the conversation, which was held in a businesslike, constructive manner, the highest attention was paid to the discussion of the implementation of earlier agreements, designed to serve the deepening of partnership built on principles of equality, trust and mutual respect.Among the significant vectors of cooperation, the sides mentioned the trade and economic sphere, transport and communication, urban development, agroindustrial complex and other spheres.

8Russia is modernizing its S-300 missile system to supply to Iran, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, RIA news agency reported. “It has partially been updated, separate elements are still being updated,” said Vladimir Kozhin, a presidential adviser on military matters, referring to the S-300 system. “It will be that very S-300 complex that Iran wanted to receive.” Russia says it canceled a contract to deliver the advanced missile system to Iran in 2010 under pressure from the West. But Putin lifted that self-imposed ban in April following an interim nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

9The commissioning of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway will further increase the importance of Azerbaijan Railways CJSC and Georgian Railway JSC in freight transportation within the region and will enhance their business profiles, said Fitch Ratings July 30.Fitch said that the freight rail transportation volumes continued to decline in most former Soviet Union (FSU) countries over the first five months of 2015 and it is expected that the rail volumes are to remain weak in the second half of this year on the back of lower GDP growth across the region.“FSU rail transport companies that are reliant on crude oil transportation are also under competitive pressure as crude oil traffic continues to switch to pipelines from rail,” said the ratings agency.

10Seven start-up projects from Kazakhstan along with two start-up projects from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine have become winners of Technation acceleration program for start-up teams from CIS (post-soviet space), Europe and Asia. The winners will travel to Silicon Valley – a land of innovation and start-ups – in the United States in October 2015 for a one-month internship.

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine.

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Scholz and Macron threaten trade retaliation against Biden

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Image source: International Affairs

After publicly falling out, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron have found something they agree on: mounting alarm over unfair competition from the U.S. and the potential need for Europe to hit back, – writes POLITICO.

The German chancellor and the French president discussed their joint concerns during nearly three-and-a-half hours of talks over a lunch of fish, wine and Champagne in Paris.

They agreed that recent American state subsidy plans represent market-distorting measures that aim to convince companies to shift their production to the U.S., according to people familiar with their discussions. And that is a problem they want the European Union to address.

Both leaders agreed that the EU cannot remain idle if Washington pushes ahead with its Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax cuts and energy benefits for companies investing on U.S. soil, in its current form. Specifically, the recently signed U.S. legislation encourages consumers to “Buy American” when it comes to choosing an electric vehicle — a move particularly galling for major car industries in the likes of France and Germany.

The message from the Paris lunch is: ‘If the U.S. doesn’t scale back, then the EU will have to strike back. That move would risk plunging transatlantic relations into a new trade war.’

Crucially, Berlin — which has traditionally been more reluctant when it comes to confronting the U.S. in trade disputes — is indeed backing the French push. Scholz agrees that the EU will need to roll out countermeasures similar to the U.S. scheme if Washington refuses to address key concerns voiced by Berlin and Paris, according to people familiar with the chancellor’s thinking.

Before bringing out the big guns, though, Scholz and Macron want to try to reach a negotiated solution with Washington. This should be done via a new “EU-U.S. Taskforce on the Inflation Reduction Act” that was established during a meeting between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Pyle.

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Futuristic fields: Europe’s farm industry on cusp of robot revolution

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By Sofia Strodt

In the Dutch province of Zeeland, a robot moves swiftly through a field of crops including sunflowers, shallots and onions. The machine weeds autonomously – and tirelessly – day in, day out.

“Farmdroid” has made life a lot easier for Mark Buijze, who runs a biological farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Buijze is one of the very few owners of robots in European agriculture.

Robots to the rescue

His electronic field worker uses GPS and is multifunctional, switching between weeding and seeding. With the push of a button, all Buijze has to do is enter coordinates and Farmdroid takes it from there.

‘With the robot, the weeding can be finished within one to two days – a task that would normally take weeks and roughly four to five workers if done by hand,’ he said. ‘By using GPS, the machine can identify the exact location of where it has to go in the field.’

About 12 000 years ago, the end of foraging and start of agriculture heralded big improvements in people’s quality of life. Few sectors have a history as rich as that of farming, which has evolved over the centuries in step with technological advancements.

In the current era, however, agriculture has been slower than other industries to follow one tech trend: artificial intelligence (AI). While already commonly used in forms ranging from automated chatbots and face recognition to car braking and warehouse controls, AI for agriculture is still in the early stages of development.

Now, advances in research are spurring farmers to embrace robots by showing how they can do everything from meeting field-hand needs to detecting crop diseases early.

Lean and green

For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, farming in Europe will require far greater use of robots to be productive, competitive and green – three top EU goals for a sector whose output is worth around €190 billion a year.

One reason for using robots is the need to forgo the use of herbicides by eliminating weeds the old-fashioned way: mechanical weeding, a task that is not just mundane but also arduous and time consuming. Another is the frequent shortage of workers to prune grapevines.

‘In both cases, robots would help,’ said Pinel, who is research and development project manager at France-based Terrena Innovation. ‘That is our idea of the future for European agriculture.’

Pinel is part of the EU-funded ROBS4CROPS project. With some 50 experts and 16 institutional partners involved, it is pioneering a robot technology on participating farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.

‘This initiative is quite innovative,’ said Frits van Evert, coordinator of the project. ‘It has not been done before.’

In the weeds

AI in agriculture looks promising for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year such as weeding, according to van Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

‘If you grow a crop like potatoes, typically you plant the crop once per year in the spring and you harvest in the fall, but the weeding has to be done somewhere between six and 10 times per year,’ he said.

Plus, there is the question of speed. Often machines work faster than any human being can.

Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, coordinator of the EU-funded FLEXIGROBOTS project, is particularly impressed by a model robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this practice requires special care to avoid contamination, delivery to a laboratory and days of analysis.

‘With this robot everything is done in the field,’ De Santos said. ‘It can take several samples per hour, providing results within a matter of minutes.’

Eventually, he said, the benefits of such technologies will extend beyond the farm industry to reach the general public by increasing the overall supply of food.

Unloved labour

Meanwhile, agricultural robots may be in demand not because they can work faster than any person but simply because no people are available for the job.

Even before inflation rates and fertiliser prices began to surge in 2021 amid an energy squeeze made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, farmers across Europe were struggling on another front: finding enough field hands including seasonal workers.

‘Labour is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture,’ said van Evert. ‘It’s costly and hard to get these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to work in agriculture. We think that robots, such as self-driving tractors, can take away this obstacle.’

The idea behind ROBS4CROPS is to create a robotic system where existing agricultural machinery is upgraded so it can work in tandem with farm robots.

For the system to work, raw data such as images or videos must first be labelled by researchers in ways than can later be read by the AI.

Driverless tractors

The system then uses these large amounts of information to make “smart” decisions as well as predictions – think about the autocorrect feature on laptop computers and mobile phones, for example.

A farming controller comparable to the “brain” of the whole operation decides what needs to happen next or how much work remains to be done and where – based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.

The machinery – self-driving tractors and smart implements like weeders equipped with sensors and cameras – gathers and stores more information as it works, becoming “smarter”.

Crop protection

FLEXIGROBOTS, based in Spain, aims to help farmers use existing robots for multiple tasks including disease detection.

Take drones, for example. Because they can spot a diseased plant from the air, drones can help farmers detect sick crops early and prevent a wider infestation.

‘If you can’t detect diseases in an early stage, you may lose the produce of an entire field, the production of an entire year,’ said De Santos. ‘The only option is to remove the infected plant.’

For example, there is no treatment for the fungus known as mildew, so identifying and removing diseased plants early on is crucial.

Pooling information is key to making the whole system smarter, De Santos said. Sharing data gathered by drones with robots or feeding the information into models expands the “intelligence” of the machines.

Although agronomist Pinel doesn’t believe that agriculture will ever be solely reliant on robotics, he’s certain about their revolutionary impact.

‘In the future, we hope that the farmers can just put a couple of small robots in the field and let them work all day,’ he said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

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Energy News

Greek shipowners do not care about the boycott of Russian oil

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European sanctions against Russian oil will only lead to higher prices, it will hit the pocket of the end consumer, says Nicolas A. Vernicos, the largest Greek ship owner and president of the International Chamber of Commerce. He made this statement in connection with the decision of the European Union to impose a price cap on Russian oil.

The French ‘Liberation’ published an interview with N. Vernicos under the title “Russian oil: Greek shipowners, in whose hands half of the world’s  tankers, do not care about the boycott.”

Vernicos says: “Transportation costs, which are already skyrocketing, will rise even faster, but the embargo on the transportation of Russian oil by sea will have a positive effect on shipowners, because we will become richer.”

At the same time, he warns that Greece will comply with the new conditions. The European decision on sanctions will bring a net benefit only to maritime carriers. Nicolas A. Vernicos recalls: “The Greek shipping community is the strongest in the world… Nothing can be done without it, and the Greeks will definitely find a way around the sanctions.”

And on the fact that prices will rise, Russia will also earn.

‘Liberation’ writes that in the hands of the Greeks 21% of the world’s shipping tonnage and 40% of the world’s tonnage in the transportation of oil, their trade cooperation with Russia has existed since the 19th century, and they do not intend to stop it.

The EU countries have already agreed on the issue. An agreement was reached to set the price limit at $60 per barrel. The decision came into force on 5 December.

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