A new article by The Moscow Times revealed a mixed reaction to supposed FSB ‘vetting’ of academic scholarship.
The Times, which has largely become a holding repository of intense criticism of the Russian government (and no, the irony of a media organization sharply critical of the government for infringing on media freedom has apparently not sunken in yet in Moscow), is clearly siding high on the indignation side of this issue: for the most part the article is a not-so-thinly veiled accusation of Russian intelligence services trying to basically return the country’s academic community to a Soviet-era intellectual censorship system. And while it is true there are examples of Russian academics unfortunately being subjected to investigation and even arrest, there are aspects to this story that are importantly irresponsible and propagandistic.
The past is no help to the Russian Federation in this case. Older generation academics indeed remember all too well a time when literally all academic scholarship had to be ‘approved’ by the KGB. The article that the Moscow Times took from the prestigious journal Nature highlighted how scientists today need to seek ‘permission’ from their home university’s First Department, an entity that supposedly exists in all Russian universities and is meant to be ‘closely associated’ with the FSB. It is at this point that even the Times article gets a bit confusing. Administration officials in the powerful Moscow State University admit that faculty meetings had taken place discussing the need to have original scholarship reviewed, but that this process has long been in place as a source for improving the standards of quality and citation rate and in no way is associated with the FSB. In addition, even at MSU, the vanguard of Russian academic institutions, the practice of First Department vetting seems to be selectively engaged, where certain departments are required to submit scholarship while other departments are not. It is not readily clear, to the Times, Nature, or the faculty of MSU, what decision-making process is involved to determine which departments receive scrutiny. And as one might expect in this situation, wherever there is confusion or ambiguity, there goes suspicion and dread. Given the history of Soviet censorship and contemporary worries about academic freedom, it is not entirely shocking that academic and media groups in Russia would profess concern about the insidiousness of the overall process. But I cannot help but see some less sinister possibilities that explain this situation.
Anyone affiliated with university administration, ANY university administration, is well-acquainted with what can only be called an interminable and seemingly illogical bureaucracy that often eludes the principles of rationality and sanity. The idea that a huge institution like Moscow State University might make decisions that are not standardized or universal, that do not apply to all departments across the board, and even perhaps make decisions that seem contradictory and inexplicable to its faculty, is so commonplace all over the academic globe that it is almost not worth mentioning. The essence of academic bureaucracy often seems to be about good intentions badly performed. The inconsistency of First Department application across Russian universities could and likely is easily explained by this frustrating intellectual reality all scholars face, regardless of a country’s specific history with censorship. But even this is minor compared to the larger issue not being properly discussed in the Times article: standard procedures of oversight on scholarship that deals with sensitive topics and materials.
The Nature journal understandably focuses on the hard sciences, but this issue falls on all academics, even students, who produce material that engage national security interests. The idealistic utopia that some academics proclaim should be the standard for intellectual engagement has ALWAYS been a myth: there is no country and no university where professors and advanced students can simply ‘write whatever they want and go talk to whomever they want whenever they want,’ especially at institutions that have either a connection to government or have persons under their employ or guidance who are also affiliated with government agencies. This is not about Russia slowly creeping back into some weird form of Soviet revanchism. This is about all countries. For example, my own program has had issues with this challenge as it concerns the analytical commentary endeavor, The Caspian Project: given that I run an International Security and Intelligence Studies Program in the United States, it is not outrageous to learn that some of my students are already employed or were formerly employed by the US government or American military. Every single student in my program that has had this affiliation and wanted to contribute to The Caspian Project has had to submit their work ahead of time to ‘vetting services,’ either in the US government or the military, to simply ascertain that no classified information was accessed in order to write the pieces and no secret information was revealed in the pieces themselves. In America, some have derisively referred to this as a ‘post-Snowden reflex,’ implying the United States Intelligence Community still stings from the embarrassment of the theft and release of thousands of classified documents by Edward Snowden. While there may be a small bit of truth to that, the reality is this process has always existed in America and will exist in any other country that considers itself important on the global stage and having significant national security secrets to maintain (ie, every single country on earth, quite frankly). What the derision and suspicion of articles like the one in Nature or the commentary provided by The Moscow Times fail to understand or recognize is just how easy it is to unknowingly violate national security laws in a given country. That is the aspect sorely needed within this debate and what I provide here.
Academics who do not have familiarity with or exposure to working with the government often have a ‘Hollywoodized’ vision of national security and what it means for information to be Top Secret and classified. The old American Supreme Court adage in the 1970s about pornography (what is porn? I’ll know it when I see it) does not apply here, though most academics unwisely think it does. Unfortunately, the process of classification and designation of Top Secret is not intuitively logical or easily surmised. An academic can easily be working on materials or topics that seem far-removed from issues of national security and yet the conclusions and originality devised from said sources end up pushing the work incredibly close if not beyond the standards under which the government works and is beholden to. This is why preemptive vetting is a much safer process for the academic: failing to get that formal approval exposes the scholar in question to the accusations seen in the Times article. It is not a question of how many times the material has been discussed in public or whether or not it has been published previously. The Times uses that fact to show the unjustness of the system, intimating that something was first ‘fine’ because it was presented previously and then later on the academic falls under the thumb of FSB suspicion. In my world, here in the United States, this is an area where it is most assuredly not better to ‘ask forgiveness rather than seek permission.’ Too many academics working in important areas of national security, whether directly or indirectly, cannot be so cavalier: put simply, asking forgiveness does not usually go over so well when dealing with a country’s intelligence community. I know for a fact that is the case for America. There is no reason it would be any different for the Russian Federation. The fact that information can go unnoticed at first just means it is a failure of bureaucracy, which is why academics in every country are usually charged with the responsibility of seeking the vetting themselves. Host governments are basically de facto admitting they do not believe in the efficacy of their own bureaucratic institutions. And rightly so.
This is what leads us to the final important point about academics in general: while on the whole wonderfully engaged and purely intentioned when tackling new scholarship, our naiveté as a group can get a bit overwhelming. When tackling scholarship that clearly cannot touch in any way national security interests, this trait can be endearing if also eccentric. When researching issues that do matter to national security, this trait makes us dangerous to ourselves. In such a way the existence of a First Department at a university (an organ that does not exist in American universities and thus makes the still required vetting process more labyrinthine and unknowable for scholars and students alike) can potentially speed up what no doubt will always be an excruciating example of bureaucracy run amok. But dealing with an inefficient, illogical, and sometimes inexplicable bureaucratic organ ahead of time is far superior to dealing with the unemotional, ruthless, and cutting professionalism of your country’s law enforcement. This reality should be considered when we read articles like the one in the Times. Is this censorship rearing its ugly head back into the world of the academy or is this a saving grace helping academics avoid their own worst habits? Bureaucracy can indeed often be dumb. But that doesn’t always automatically mean it is also a demon.
Security of nuclear materials in India
The author is of the view that nuclear security is lax in India. More so, because of the 123 Agreement and sprawling nuclear installations in several states. The thieves and scrap dealers even dare to advertise online sale of radioactive uranium. India itself has reported several incidents of nuclear thefts to the international bodies. The author wonders why India’s security lapses remain out of international focus. Views expressed are personal.
Amid raging pandemic in the southern Indian state of Maharashtra, the anti-terrorism squad arrested (May 6, 20210) two persons (Jagar Jayesh Pandya and Abu Tahir Afzal hussain Choudhry) for attempting to sell seven kilograms of highly-radioactive muranium for offered price of about Rs. 21 crore. The “gentlemen” had uncannily advertised the proposed sale online.. As such, the authorities initially dismissed the advertisement as just another hoax. They routinely detained the “sellers-to-be” and forwarded a sample of their ware to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. They were shocked when the centre reported that “the material was natural uranium”. As such the squad was compelled to book the duo under India’s Atomic Energy Act, 1962 at Nagpur police station (Explained: ATS seizes 7 kg uranium worth Rs. 21 crore from a scrap dealer…Indian Express May 7, 2021).
Not a unique incident
The event, though shocking, is is not one of its kind. Earlier, in 2016 also, two persons were arrested by Thane (Maharashtra) police while they were trying to sell eight to nine kilograms of depleted uranium for Rs. 24 crore. It is surmised that sale of uranium by scrap dealers in India is common. But, such events rarely come in limelight. According to Anil Kakodar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, `Factories using uranium as a counterweight in their machines are mandated to contact the Atomic Energy agencies and return uranium to them. They however resort to short cuts and sell the entire machine with uranium in scrap’.
India media scarcely report such incidents. However, Indian government sometimes reports such incidents to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to meet disclosure requirements. According to international media reports (February 25, 2004), India reported 25 cases of “missing” or “stolen” radio-active material from its labs to the IAEA. Fifty-two per cent of the cases were attributed to “theft” and 48% to the “missing mystery”. India claimed to have recovered lost material in twelve of total 25 cases. It however admitted that 13 remaining cases remained mysterious.
India’s reports such incidents to the IAEA to portray itself as a “responsible state”. It is hard to believe that radio-active material could be stolen from nuclear labs without operators’ connivance.
Nine computers, belonging to India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation establishment at Metcalfe House, New Delhi, were stolen. India communicated 25 cases of ‘stolen or missing’ uranium to the IAEA. In different incidents, uranium in varying forms and quantities continue to be recovered from scrap dealers and others by Indian authorities. The recoveries include fifty-seven pounds of uranium in rod form, eight kilograms in granular form, two hundred grams in semi-processed form, besides twenty-five kilograms in radioactive form, stolen from the Bibi Cancer Hospital.
Too, the ‘thieves’ stole three cobalt switches, worth Rs. 1.5 million, from Tata Steel Company laboratory at Jamshedpur (Jharkhand). A shipment of beryllium (worth $24 million), was caught in Vilnius, on its way to North Korea. Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship carrying dual-use aluminum oxide from India to North Korea. A New Jersey-based Indian engineer Sitaram Ravi Mahidevan was indicted for having bypassed US export procedures to send blue-prints of solenoid-operated valves to North Korea.
We know that the Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship, carrying dual-use aluminum oxide from India to North Korea. The oxide is an essential ingredient of rocket casings and is, as such, prohibited for export to “rogue” countries.
Despite recurrent incidents of theft of uranium or other sensitive material from indiandian nuclear labs, the IAEA never initiated a thorough probe into lax security environment in government and private nuclear labs in india. However, the international media has a penchant for creating furore over uncorroborated nuclear lapses in Pakistan. The Time magazine article ‘Merchant of Menace’, had reported that some uranium hexafluoride cylinders were missing from the Kahuta Research Laboratories. Pakistan’ then information minister and foreign-office spokesman had both refuted the allegation. Masood Khan (foreign office) told reporters, `The story is a rehash of several past stories’.
Similarly, Professor Shaun Gregory in his report ‘The Security of Nuclear Weapons’ contends that those guarding about 120 nuclear-weapon sites, mostly in northern and western parts of Pakistan, have fragmented loyalties. As such, they are an easy prey to religious extremists.
Frederick W. Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon, also draw a gloomy portrait of the situation in Pakistan. In their article, published in The New York Times, dated November 18, 2007, they predicted that extremists would take over, if rule of law collapses in Pakistan. Those sympathetic with the Taliban and al-Qaeda may convert Pakistan into a state sponsor of terrorism. They pointed to Osama bin Laden’s meeting with Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, former engineers of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission (having no bomb-making acumen).
They claimed that U.S. military experts and intelligence officials had explored strategies for securing Pakistan’s nuclear assets. One option was to isolate the country’s nuclear bunkers. Doing so would require saturating the area, surrounding the bunkers, with tens of thousands of high-powered mines, dropped from air, packed with anti-tank and anti-personnel munitions. The panacea, suggested by them, was that Pakistan’s nuclear material should be seized and stashed in some “safe” place like New Mexico.
The fact is that the pilloried Pakistani engineers had no knowledge of weaponisation (“When the safest is not safe enough,” The Defence Journal -Pakistan), pages 61-63). The critics mysteriously failed to mention that Pakistan is a party to the UN Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials. The steps taken by Pakistan to protect its nuclear materials and installations conform to international standards. The National Command Authority, created on February 2, 2000, has made fail-safe arrangements to control development and deployment of strategic nuclear forces. Pakistan’s nuclear regulatory authority had taken necessary steps for safety, security, and accountability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials even before 9/11 incident. These controls include functional equivalent of the two-man rule and permissive action links (PALs). The indigenously-developed PALs are bulwarks against inadvertent loss of control, or accidental use of weapons. So far, there has been no security lapse in any of Pakistan’s nuclear establishments.
Abdul Mannan, in his paper titled “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Sabotage of a Spent Fuel Cask or a Commercial Irradiation Source in Transport”, has analysed various ways in which acts of nuclear terrorism could occur in Pakistan (quoted in “Pakistan’s Nuclear Future: Worries beyond War”). He has fairly reviewed Pakistan’s vulnerability to nuclear terrorism through hypothetical case studies. He concludes that the threat of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan is a figment of imagination, rather than a real possibility.
There are millions of radioactive sources used worldwide in various applications. Only a few thousand sources, including Co-60, Cs-137, Ir-192, Sr-90, Am-241, Cf-252, Pu-238, and RA-226 are considered a security risk. The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) has enforced a mechanism of strict measures for administrative and engineering control over radioactive sources from cradle to grave. It conducts periodic inspections and physical verifications to ensure security of the sources. The Authority has initiated a Five-Year National Nuclear-Safety-and-Security-Action Plan to establish a more robust nuclear-security regime. It has established a training centre and an emergency-coordination centre, besides deploying radiation-detection-equipment at each point of nuclear-material entry in Pakistan, supplemented by vehicle/pedestrian portal monitoring equipment where needed.
Fixed detectors have been installed at airports, besides carrying out random inspection of personnel luggage. All nuclear materials are under strict regulatory control right from import until their disposal.
Nuclear controls in India and the USA are not more stringent than Pakistan’s. It is not understood why the media does not deflect their attention to the fragile nuclear-security environment in India. It is unfortunate that the purblind critics fail to see the gnawing voids in India’s nuclear security.
The ‘research work’ by well-known scholars reflects visceral hatred against Pakistan. The findings in fresh ‘magnum opuses’ are a re-hash or amalgam of the presumptions and pretensions in earlier-published ‘studies’. It is time that the West deflected its attention to India where movements of nuclear materials, under the 123 expansion plan, are taking place between nuclear-power plants sprawling across different states.
Above all, will the international media and the IAEA look into open market uranium sales in India.
Biological warfare: A global security threat
Biological warfare is not a new concept in arena of international politics as it has been used as a tool to sabotage enemy in previous centuries. Biological weapons are a sub-category of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs) in which there is a deliberate use of micro-organisms like pathogens and toxins to cause disease or death in humans, livestock and yields.Form its usage in 14th century by Mongols to its usage by imperial Japan during 1930s-40s against Chinese, it has always been a threat to global security. The evolution of bio-weapons can be broadly categorized into four phases; first phase includes the post WWII developments with the evident use of chlorine and phosgene in Ypres.The second phase was marked by the use of nerve agents like tabun, cholinesterase inhibitor and anthrax and plague bombs. The initiation of third phase was marked by the use of biological weapons in Vietnam war during 1970s where deadly agents like Agent orange were used. 4th and last phase include the time of biological and technological revolution where genetic engineering techniques were at their peak. Traditionally they have been used in wartime in order to defeat enemy but with the emergence of violent non-state actors, bioterrorism is another potential threat to the security of states. There are certain goals that are associated with the use of biological weapons. Firstly, it is purposed to hit to economy of the targeted country, breaking down government authority and have a psychological effect on masses of the targeted population. It is also a kind of psychological warfare as it may hit a smaller number of people but leaves impact on wider audience through intimidation and spreading fear. It also creates natural circumstances under which a population is induced with disease without revealing the actual perpetrator.
With the advancement in genetic engineering techniques more lethal biological weapons are being produced everyday around the world. Countries which are economically deprived are more likely to pursue such goals as it is difficult for them to go for heavy military sophistication keeping into consideration their poor economic conditions. Biological weapons serve as inexpensive tool for developing countries to address their issues in prevailing international security environment. During the initial decades of cold war, united states of America (USA) and Soviet Union went for acquiring tons of biological weapons alongside nuclear proliferation.
The quest for these weapons reduced during 1970s with the formation of Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). This convention was presented in 1972 before countries and finally came into force in 1975 with 150 countries who signed this convention and 140 countries who fully joined this treaty. This convention prohibits any biological weaponization in order to promote peace and stability around the world. But this convention has obvious defects as it is unable to address many issues like it doesn’t prevents itself the use of biological weapons but just reinforces 1925 Geneva Protocol which forbids the use of bio-weapons. Convention allows ‘defensive research’ to which there are many objections that what is incorporated into this defensive research. It is non-binding to the signatory states and in case if countries are proliferating it lacks the effective oversight techniques to look after them either they are pursuing these biological weapons capabilities or not. Since the inception of this convention till now it has clearly failed in stopping the countries from acquisition as well as usage of these weapons. This is evident as there were many cases after 1975 where these weapons were used as in 1980s when Iraq used mustard gas, sarin and tabun against Iran and many other ethnic groups inside Iran. Another incident which was highlighted was Sarine nerve gas attack in Tokyo subway system leaving thousands injured and many got killed. In post-cold war era, however, the number of these attacks reduced as much attention was shifted to terrorism after 9/11 attacks with the change in global security architecture.
“Anthrax letters” in post 9/11 attacks revealed yet another dimension of bio-weapons which was the threat of bioterrorism from non-state actors. US became a victim of bio-terrorism when in 2001 a powder was transported through letters containing bacterium called anthrax infecting many people. One purpose which terrorists have is to make general masses feel as if they are unsafe in the hands of their government which can be best achieved through the use of these weapons. The fact that biological weapons are cheaper and more devastating than conventional weapons make it more likely for biological weapons to be used by terrorists. Also, the fact that they are easy to hide and transport and a smaller quantity can leave long-lasting impacts on larger population makes these weapons more appealing. Now that we are facing a global pandemic in the form of COVID-19 which according to some conspiracy theories is a biological weapon pose even more serious challenge to the international security in coming decades. There is no such scientific research which proves Corona Virus as a biological weapon but the realization here is that whether or not it is a biological weapon but world was least prepared for it. Not only the developing countries but also developed states suffered more despite having enormous medical infrastructure. The fact that there has been decline in the incidents related to bioterrorism should never let us think that there is no possibility of such attacks. The fact that world failed to handle Covid-19 puts a question mark on the credibility of measures if we are faced with bio-terrorism. The medical community as well as general population needs to develop an understanding of how to respond if there is such attack. At the international level there is a dire need to develop some strong norms which discourage the development and use of such weapons in any capacity.
The ‘Post-Covid-19 World’ Will Never Come
On May 3rd, the New York Times bannered “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe” and reported that “there is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.”
In other words: the ‘news’-sources that were opposing the governments’ taking action against Covid-19 — libertarian ’news’-sites that oppose governmental laws and regulations, regardless of the predominant view by the vast majority of the scientists who specialize in studying the given subject — are looking wronger all the time, as this “novel coronavirus” (which is what it was originally called) becomes less and less “novel,” and more and more understood scientifically.
The “herd immunity” advocates for anti-Covid-19 policies have been saying that governments should just let the virus spread until nature takes its course and such a large proportion of the population have survived the infection as to then greatly reduce the likelihood that an uninfected person will become infected. An uninfected person will increasingly be surrounded by people who have developed a natural immunity to the disease, and by people who don’t and never did become infected by it. The vulnerable people will have become eliminated (died) or else cured, and so they won’t be spreading the disease to others. That’s the libertarian ’solution’, the final solution to the Covid-19 problem, according to libertarians.
For example, on 9 April 2020, Forbes magazine headlined “After Rejecting A Coronavirus Lockdown, Sweden Sees Rise In Deaths” and reported that, “Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has continuously advocated for laid back measures, saying on Swedish TV Sunday that the pandemic could be defeated by herd immunity, or the indirect protection from a large portion of a population being immune to an infection, or a combination of immunity and vaccination. However, critics have argued that with a coronavirus vaccine could be more than a year away, and insufficient evidence that coronavirus patients that recover are immune from becoming infected again, the strategy of relying on herd immunity and vaccinations [is] ineffective.”
The libertarian proposal of relying upon “herd immunity” for producing policies against this disease has continued, nonetheless.
CNN headlined on 28 April 2020, “Sweden says its coronavirus approach has worked. The numbers suggest a different story”, and reported that
On March 28, a petition signed by 2,000 Swedish researchers, including Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the Nobel Foundation, called for the nation’s government to “immediately take steps to comply with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations.”
The scientists added: “The measures should aim to severely limit contact between people in society and to greatly increase the capacity to test people for Covid-19 infection.”
“These measures must be in place as soon as possible, as is currently the case in our European neighboring countries,” they wrote. “Our country should not be an exception to the work to curb the pandemic.”
The petition said that trying to “create a herd immunity, in the same way that occurs during an influenza epidemic, has low scientific support.”
Swedish authorities have denied having a strategy to create herd immunity, one the UK government was rumored to be working towards earlier on in the pandemic — leading to widespread criticism — before it enforced a strict lockdown.
FORTUNE magazine headlined on 30 July 2020, “How parts of India inadvertently achieved herd immunity”, and reported that, “Around 57% of people across parts of India’s financial hub of Mumbai have coronavirus antibodies, a July study found, indicating that the population may have inadvertently achieved the controversial ‘herd immunity’ protection from the coronavirus.” Furthermore:
Herd immunity is an approach to the coronavirus pandemic where, instead of instituting lockdowns and other restrictions to slow infections, authorities allow daily life to go on as normal, letting the disease spread. In theory, enough people will become infected, recover, and gain immunity that the spread will slow on its own and people who are not immune will be protected by the immunity of those who are. University of Chicago researchers estimated in a paper published in May that achieving herd immunity from COVID-19 would require 67% of people to be immune to the disease. Mayo Clinic estimates 70% of the U.S. population will need to be immune for the U.S. to achieve herd immunity, which can also be achieved by vaccinating that proportion of a population.
On 27 September 2020, Reuters bannered “In Brazil’s Amazon a COVID-19 resurgence dashes herd immunity hopes”, and reported that, “The largest city in Brazil’s Amazon has closed bars and river beaches to contain a fresh surge of coronavirus cases, a trend that may dash theories that Manaus was one of the world’s first places to reach collective, or herd, immunity.”
Right now, the global average of Covid-19 intensity (total cases of the disease thus far) is 19,693 persons per million population. For examples: Botswana is barely below that intensity, at 19,629, and Norway is barely above that intensity, at 20,795. Sweden is at 95,905, which is nearly five times the global average. Brazil is 69,006, which is around 3.5 times worse than average. India is 14,321, which is slightly better than average. USA is 99,754.
However, the day prior, on May 2nd, America had 30,701 new cases. Brazil had 28,935. Norway had 210. India had 370,059. Sweden’s latest daily count (as-of May 3rd) was 5,937 on April 29th, 15 times Norway’s 385 on that date. Sweden’s population is 1.9 times that of Norway. India’s daily count is soaring. Their population is four times America’s, but the number of new daily cases in India is twelve times America’s. Whereas India has had only one-seventh as much Covid-19 intensity till now, India is soaring upwards to become ultimately, perhaps, even worse than America is on Covid-19 performance. And Brazil is already almost as bad as America, on Covid-19 performance, and will soon surpass America in Covid-19 failure.
There is no “herd immunity” against Covid-19, yet, anywhere. It’s just another libertarian myth. But libertarians still continue to believe it — they refuse to accept the data.
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