How are the Russian-Syrian operations and the operations of the United States and its coalition in Syria going and, more importantly, what can we expect from them? According to Western sources, Isis/Daesh has recently reduced its size by 40% overall and by 20% in Syria, while it had lost only 14% of its territory throughout 2015 when the Caliphate’s Daesh expanded – without recovering the same amount of territory – in Eastern Syria.
Another area where the Caliph Al Baghdadi has lost much of his territorial control is the area along the border with Turkey – while the Caliph has arrived up to the areas along the border with Jordan, the traditional area of smuggling and transit of its militants. Areas towards the Lebanese border and in the Palmira region are reported to be under Isis/Daesh control.
Hence, so far, both the US Coalition’s and the Russian-Syrian pressures do not seem to be sufficient to definitively destabilize Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate, despite its current territorial losses.
Therefore Isis/Daesh is likely to restructure itself in the form of a first-phase Al Qaeda, as indeed it already appears to do.
This means that Isis/ Daesh could create – or has already done so – a small and centralized organizational structure, with informal peripheral networks in Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, with a view to organizing mass terrorist actions and blocking the Western resistance against the jihad, as well as finally disrupting the European security forces.
Nevertheless why the Russian-Syrian actions and the other US-led action do not work fully?
Firstly, we must analyze the Caliphate’s weapons: it has acquired most of the stocks abandoned by the Iraqi and Syrian armies, including sufficiently advanced weapons to counter the Russian and the Coalition’s weapon systems.
Absolute technological superiority is not needed.
The will to fight and the higher mobility of the Caliphate’s armies are more than enough.
In essence, Isis/Daesh can avoid attacking the best equipped areas of both coalitions, while it can predict and avoid the West’s points of attack thanks to a joint and unified command/control centre located far from the lines.
Said centre employs the same technologies as the anti-jihadist forces, as well as similar logics of action. Mimicking the enemy is an effective way of fighting it.
Furthermore mobility replaces technological superiority and currently nobody – except for the Russian Federation – wants to fight “for Gdansk”, which today means fighting for Damascus.
A Caliphate’s conventional strategy “from the weak to the strong” – just to use the same terminology as the philosophers of war, Beaufre and Ailleret – where the Western weakness is twofold: both on the ground – where Isis/Daesh is much more mobile and causes politically unacceptable damage to the West (with the exception of Russia and the Kurdish and Yazidi militias) and within the Western public, slackened off by the fairy tale of “good” immigration which blocks the European governments’ reactions on the necessary presence of Western troops on the ground.
Not to mention the fact that Isis/Daesh has taken possession, on its own territory, of the Hamas line in Gaza: a very thick and dense network of underground tunnels, which protects from air attacks and allows the economic activities needed to support the organization.
Another primary goal of the Caliph Al Baghdadi is to saturate Western police forces and making them actually unusable since they are already scarce in number and weapons, while Europe dies in “multiculturalism”.
This is a primary goal of Isis/Daesh which, in the future, will certainly attack – probably also territorially – some areas in European countries “from the weak to the strong”.
The bell tolls for us, too – just to make reference to John Donne’s verse, which became famous as the title of Ernest Hemingway’s novel on the Spanish Civil War, which in fact paved the way for World War II.
Hence, we will soon have a core of militant jihadists not necessarily trained in Syria, but connected via the Internet, and a vast network of “fellow travelers” who can serve as cover, logistical support, recruitment area, political and media manipulation for the more gullible or fearful Westerners.
This will be – and, indeed, it already is – the structure of Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate in Europe.
The “branches” of Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate are equally efficient: in the Barka province in Libya – and now in the Sirte district with the agreement between the Isis/Daesh and Gaddafi’s tribes – as well as Jund-al-Kilafah in Algeria, Al Shaabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, Jundallah in Pakistan and Abu Sayyaf in Malaysia.
The void of Western inanity is immediately filled by ISIS, which does not know international law, but only a miserably manipulated Koran.
Hence a mechanism similar to communicating vessels is in place: the more the Isis/Daesh crisis deepens on its territory of origin, the more threatening and powerful the peripheral groups become.
While, at the same time, in Europe we are witnessing some mass radicalization manoeuvres which rely on Al Qaeda’s old techniques: at first, the more or less crazy “Manchurian candidates”, who played havoc in small areas.
Later – as today – mass actions, like that in front of the Cathedral and train station in Cologne, which will certainly bring good results to the Caliph in the future; then again real, visible and very effective terrorist attacks.
Not to mention similar mass actions in Hamburg and Zurich.
Finally, when and how it will be logistically possible, we will witness the creation of small “Caliphates” in Europe, in the areas which the enormous long-term stupidity of EU leaders has left fully in the hands of Islamic mass immigration that has seized neighborhoods and cities.
The war against the Caliphate is and will be a very long war and the West – probably with the only exception of the Russian Federation – has in no way the political and psychological ability, nor the power to fight it with a view to winning it.
The West will die of soft power, as well as of a lot of talk with Islamists who do not want to hear it – all convinced of their alleged cultural, religious and military superiority.
Years of peacekeeping, “stabilization” and peace-enforcing have turned the European Armed Forces – already largely undersized at that time – into traffic guards and organizers of elections – always rigged – just to be as quick as possible and go away without disturbing the sleep of European peoples.
The very size of the European Armed Forces, considered individually or in a ramshackle coalition “against terror”, is not even comparable with those of the United States or Russia, after decades of equally unreasonable reduction of investment in the military and in the public safety sectors, even after the first Al Qaeda attacks.
Quos Deus perdere vult, dementat – Those whom God wills to destroy he first deprives of their senses.
On the contrary, Russia has implemented a thorough reform of its Armed Forces in 2008, after the war with Georgia, and it has worked much more on the “human factor” than on technology which, however, has not been neglected.
So far the Russian forces in Syria have deployed artillery groups and other ground forces while, according to reports coming from Russian sources, Russia is deploying batteries of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles again on Syrian territory, over and above providing “Buk” anti-aircraft missile systems to the Arab Syrian Army.
The S-400 missile – also known as “Growler”, according to the NATO designation – is an anti-aircraft missile which intercepts aircrafts flying up to 17,000 kilometers per hour, while “Buk” (also known as SAM 17) is a surface-to air missile system (also known as “Gainful” according to the NATO designation) with radars for the acquisition of targets, which are the enemy cruise missiles and strike aircrafts.
Nevertheless, why does Russia deploy such an advanced anti-aircraft structure if Isis/Daesh has no planes?
The simple answer to this question is because Russia wants to reduce and eventually eliminate Western raids, often objectively inconclusive or scarcely effective, also due to the lack of a network for target acquisition.
Conversely, Russia wishes to take Syria as a whole, after destroying or minimizing Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.
President Putin needs a victory in Syria – firstly because the defeat of Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate avoids the jihadist radicalization of the over twenty million Muslim residents and citizens of Russia.
If the Russian and Central Asian Islam takes fire, Russia can no longer control – militarily or economically – the energy networks towards Europe and the Mediterranean region, which is the central axis of its geoeconomy.
Moreover, Vladimir Putin wants to become the only player of the Syrian crisis because, for Russia, ousting the West from a NATO neighboring country, which is pivotal for control over the Mediterranean region, means to become – in the future – one of the two players or even the first player in the Mare Nostrum, with strategic consequences which are unimaginable today.
Finally the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems are needed to wipe out the aircrafts of the powers not coordinating with Russia and to strengthen military cooperation with the countries which have accepted the Russian air superiority.
For example Israel which, for the time being, offsets by Russia the de facto breaking of military and strategic relations with the United States and the political anti-Semitism mounting in Europe.
Furthermore, Putin also holds together – in a hegemonic way – Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, thus setting himself up as a mediator and power broker between the Shi’ite bloc and the West when, in all likelihood, the clash between the Sunnis and the “Party of Ali” will become disastrous and fatal for European security.
Furthermore, the Russian President wants to push the United States away from the Middle East definitively, regardless of the United States maintaining or not their preferential relations with Saudi Arabia.
Finally, within the UN Security Council, Russia will do its utmost to capitalize on its hopefully future victory against Isis/Daesh, by exchanging it with the achievement of other Russian primary interests: the management of the Arctic; the forthcoming militarization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; the regionalization of NATO eastward and possibly a new military agreement with China, which would make the composition of the UN Security Council completely asymmetrical.
Not to mention the great attraction which Russia would hold for a Eurasian peninsula left alone by the United States and devoid of acceptable defenses in the Southeast.
In this case, the Eurasia myth of the Russian philosopher and strategist, Alexander Dugin, would come true very quickly.
Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver
With economies experiencing contractions across the globe and with governments in the third world most vulnerable, discussions of debt relief have been revived. Yet, forgiving old debts is nothing new to the Kremlin. For the Russian government, it has been just one part of a wider diplomatic toolkit to rekindle ties that have faltered since the end of the Cold War.
Once the primary backer of numerous states over large swathes of the globe, Moscow largely retreated from the non-Soviet space during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and it continued to not be a primary concern during Vladimir Putin’s first two terms as head of state. However, Russia’s resurgence on the international arena over the past few years has not only made the country more willing to re-engage with the region but also more capable.
International media has primarily viewed this through the lens of military strength. Whether it is sending trainers and advisors to the Central African Republic, allegedly supporting rebels in Libya, or deploying Wagner Group forces to fight an Islamic State-offshoot in Mozambique, the focus has primarily been conflict-oriented. However, less explored is the quieter and more economic measures that the Russian government has taken in order to win hearts and minds outside of the West.
As part of a debt-for-development programme, Russia has forgiven approximately $20 billion worth of debt to various African governments that was accrued during the Soviet period. Beneficiaries include the Commonwealth nation of Tanzania and Francophonie member Madagascar, along with others. In forgiving these loans, the Kremlin has acknowledged a reality that many countries continue to deny: such debts are unpayable. At the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, Putin stated explicitly that “It was not only an act of generosity, but also a manifestation of pragmatism, because many of the African states were not able to pay interest on these loans.”
These measures have yielded concrete benefits for the previously indebted countries. For example, the decision to forgive Mozambique’s $40 million debt was done in conjunction with the United Nations World Food Programme, with the money that was intended for debt repayment instead being used to provide free school meals for 150,000 children over the course of five years.
While Russia will potentially be losing some money in the short term, debt forgiveness is likely to open new doors moving forward. Many of the countries that have seen their debts written off have significant economic and geopolitical potential. With improved political relations as a consequence, it is hoped that Russian companies will get preferential treatment should contracts be offered to international firms. This could help explain the Kremlin’s decision to forgive 90% of North Korea’s $11 billion debt despite the latter’s weak position. Russia has been eager to develop a trans-Korean gas pipeline that would transport fuel to South Korea. While the likelihood of this being realised remains slim, in the context of Pyongyang’s inability to repay the debt in any case, it is a reasonable gamble to make on the part of the Russian government.
This is somewhat similar to China’s efforts over the past few years, albeit in an inverse form. With Beijing less cash-strapped than Moscow, it is able to invest directly whereas Russia is using debt forgiveness to redirect cash payments away from servicing old debts and instead towards domestic reinvestments. Free projects, such as the Chinese-funded and constructed headquarters of the African Union, have been followed by ever-growing economic and political relations.
Russia’s debt policy has been used to strengthen existing alliances and partnerships. While not all Soviet-era allies have retained close ties to Moscow, many have done so continuously since the Cold War. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Russian debt forgiveness has been Cuba. In July 2014, ahead of a visit to the island nation by Putin, the Russian government wrote off 90% of Cuban debt. Though Russia was not only the country that showed willingness to restructure Cuba’s debt obligations at the time, it was by far the most generous. China restructured approximately $6 billion while Japan and Mexico forgave $1.4 billion and $478 million, respectively; Russia forgave $32 billion.
The decision did reaffirm the close relations between Moscow and Havana. Cuba has repeatedly voted in support of the Russian Federation at the United Nations on sensitive topics, such as Crimea, and Russian firms have received multiple drilling and mining contracts from the Caribbean country.
However, this strategy has its limitations. The overwhelming majority of these debts date back to the Soviet era and are therefore limited in scope. Some countries, such as Angola and Ethiopia (which saw most of their debts forgiven in the 1990’s), were primarily recipients of military support during civil wars so their debts were not as vast as other heavily indebted countries with other creditors. Since then, despite respite from Moscow, such countries have continued to become increasingly burdened by growing debts. While Ethiopia is often heralded as an example of rapid economic growth, its debt, both in total but also has a percentage of GDP, has grown considerably during the post-Soviet era.
While debt relief is undeniably beneficial to the third world, the fact that Russian-owned debts constitute a mere fraction of all foreign-owned debts in most cases means that the act of writing debts off cannot achieve much in of themselves. Consequently, in several countries, the gesture is mostly a PR move. In the case of Afghanistan, where Russia was the largest creditor due to loans handed out during the 1980’s, Kabul had for decades refused to recognise the debt. The decision to forgive the debt was therefore more of a signal of a desire to improve relations than any hope to achieve instantaneously tangible rewards.
The largest stumbling block for the Kremlin’s efforts remain structural issues afflicting the indebted nations, the nature of which vary considerably from country to country. For example, while Russia has forgiven a majority of Iraq’s debt to the country, which in turn helped revive talks over potential oil contracts, the continued instability in the Middle Eastern nation makes it difficult to reap many benefits. Though it is true that Baghdad has continued to purchase Russian T-90 tanks and attack helicopters, this is more of a sign that Russia has partially managed to pivot Iraq away from the United States’ sphere of influence as opposed to gaining economically.
With the onset of coronavirus, however, Russia might not be the leading debt forgiver for very long. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where economies are expected to continue shrinking while deficits are set to grow, other creditors could potentially step in and likewise forgive debts. In April of this year, G20 leaders agreed to extend debt relief in the form of a moratorium on debt repayment yet this can only serve as a short term solution. With many governments already increasing their borrowing, creditor nations are well positioned to leverage their position in order to improve geopolitical relationships as well as set the stage for favourable contracts for their firms. If more countries follow Moscow’s path, then the significance of what the Kremlin has done will only recede and lose much of its relevance.
Debt forgiveness can win friends but can only go so far. For Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers to stick, they will need to continue complementing it with other efforts, such as improving trade and boosting security partnerships, in order to truly make the most of its financial generosity.
The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions
For Russia, the crisis in Belarus caused by the August presidential election result is of a geopolitical nature. Moscow might not be openly stating its geopolitical calculus, but in its eyes, the Belarus problem resembles the uprisings in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and represents a similar problem in the long run.
Whatever the arguments propounded by world analysts that protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics and more about popular grievances against President Alexander Lukashenko, the issue will ultimately transform into serious geopolitical game.
For Moscow, the Belarus problem has been about geopolitics from the very beginning, though it was only on August 27 of this year that Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a special “law enforcement reserve” for use in Belarus should the situation get “out of control.”
The Russians understand that an “Armenia-style” revolution in Belarus could theoretically take place, but it would open the country more to Europe and thereby create geopolitical dilemmas similar to those created in Ukraine before 2014. The Russians further grasp that in Ukraine, the situation was out of control even before the Maidan Revolution. Moscow’s influence was not sufficient to stop Ukraine’s gradual shift toward closer ties with the collective West.
For the Russian leadership, events in Belarus are a continuation of the “revolutionary” fervor that has been spreading across the former Soviet space since the early 2000s. What is troubling is whether or not the Russians see this process as an expression of the popular will that is largely independent of the West. Several indicators point to an ingrained belief within the Russian political elite that in fact the West has orchestrated the popular upheaval in Belarus.
Russian history might be of help here. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought the spread of European revolutionary thought along and inside its borders. It built alliances to confront it and fought wars to forestall its progress. But in the end, the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent policies of the Communist Party were largely based on European thought, though many western ideas were changed or entirely refashioned.
Similar developments took place during the late Soviet period. By the 1980s, popular disapproval of the Soviet system had grown exponentially. A revolutionary fervor for independence ran amok in the Baltic states, Ukraine, and elsewhere. True reforms would have served as a cure, but half-hearted economic and social measures only deepened the crisis. Military power was used in a number of capitals of Soviet republics, but again only half-heartedly. Thus was the entire Soviet edifice brought down.
Modern Russian leadership should see that there is essentially no cure for popular grievances and mass movements along its borders. Russian history gives multiple examples of how military intervention against revolutionary fervor can bring immediate results but leave long-term prospects bleak. The defeat of revolutionary passions can only take place by minimizing those economic, social, and state-system problems that usually generate popular upheaval. This is the dilemma now facing modern Russia. The revolutions that occurred over the past 20 years, and the situation today in Belarus, all fit into this pattern.
For the moment, Lukashenko has won this round of strife with the protesters, and his rule is highly likely to continue. But what is equally certain is that the protests gave birth to a massive popular movement in a country that was once famous for the quiescence of its population.
Russia fears that eventually, this revolutionary tide will close in on Russian society. Lukashenko has stressed this idea, saying in an interview that mass disturbances will one day reach Moscow. Many rightly believed this was a ploy by Lukashenko to scare the Russians into supporting him—after all, Belarus is far smaller than Russia and much less important than Ukraine. Still, Lukashenko was right insofar as he pinpointed possible long-term problems Russia could face as it moves closer to 2036.
Much depends on the West as well. It faces a dilemma in which it ought to pursue a policy of vocal condemnation and perhaps even impose heavy sanctions—but from a balance of power perspective, moves like those would distance Minsk and push it closer to the Russian orbit. This dilemma of morality versus geopolitical calculus will haunt the West in the years to come.
Belarus exports 10.5 million tons of oil products per year, including about six million tons through the ports of the Baltic states to world markets and another 3–3.5 million tons to Ukraine. Redirecting flows from the Baltic ports to Russian ones has been discussed, but this option is less attractive to Minsk because of the longer distances involved. This comes at a time when the Baltic states imposed sanctions on high-ranking Belarussian officials and the EU is pondering serious measures.
With each such move from the West, Russia gets another opportunity. Russia has professed interest in encouraging Belarus to redirect its oil exports to Russian ports and has agreed to refinance a $1 billion debt to Russia.
A broader picture might help put the events in Belarus in context. In the South Caucasus, the Russians appear to have reached the limit of their influence. They more or less firmly control the overall geopolitical picture, but have nevertheless failed to derail Western resolve to compete in this region. In Central Asia, Russia has more secure positions, but the region in general is less important to the Kremlin than the western borderlands.
It is thus the western front—Belarus and Ukraine—that is a major theater for Moscow. Since 2015, many have believed that Syria is Russia’s top geopolitical theater, but this assumption is based simply on the intensity of the immediate processes that are transpiring in the Middle East. With or without Syria, Moscow’s global standing will not be fundamentally damaged. Belarus is a different matter entirely. Changes there, and by extension a potentially anti-Russian state, would constitute a direct threat to Moscow.
For Russia, Belarus is the last safe buffer zone on its western border. Ukraine is lost, as is Moldova, and the Baltic states have long been under NATO protection. Only Belarus serves as a bridge for Russia to move militarily into the heart of Europe. To lose it would be tantamount to a complete “encirclement” of Russia by the West, as argued by Russian politicians.
This geopolitical reality also means that Belarus is the country that will remain most susceptible to Russian geopolitical influence. No wonder Russia is pushing to station its air base on Belarussian soil, reinvigorate the Union state, and intensify Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. As was the case with Ukraine, the upheaval in Belarus is about regional geopolitics.
Author’s note: first published in besacenter.org
The Navalny case: Violent maintenance of the Cold War
We are currently witnessing the rise of the Cold War, through the media, after the case “poisoning” of Alexei Navalny. The case was used to raise tensions between Moscow and the European Union to the maximum.
Apparently, Alexei Navalny became a victim of poisoning. Yet none of this we can know for sure. However, after the mentioned event, an avalanche of statements “about the orderers of poisoning” was initiated by prominent European and American representatives. Without any critical review, avalanches began to fall in the direction of Moscow and President Vladimir Putin as the main culprit.
One of the first countries from which the avalanche of accusations started was France. Francois Croquet, France’s ambassador for human rights, said: “We know who is to blame.” A very undiplomatic statement for a diplomat, which went beyond the official framework of communication. Francois Crockett joined the wave of accusations against Russia with his statements before any investigation.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that in his opinion, “she (Russia) should have conducted an investigation, and when the culprits are found, they should be tried, to learn a lesson, because this is not the first case of poisoning.” ». The statement, very fierce, but outside the position held by the person in question. The statements of prominent diplomats call into question the international authority of France’s voice in the world.
These statements are aggressively joined by many politicians in Eastern Europe, especially those who feel revanchism towards Russia because of the Eastern Bloc, and further project of Russophobia, which are in line with the great energy battle over the construction of Nord Stream 2, which involved the case of Alexei Navalny.
What do we know so far about Navalny and his treatment. Navalny was initially treated in Russian hospitals, by doctors who did not detect any presence of poison, and then he was transferred to Germany, where it was determined that he was intentionally poisoned. His transport was organized by the “Cinema in the Name of Peace” organization, which was responsible for “rescuing” the group “PussyRiot”, which considered the act of imitation of abortion in the church to be an expression of artistic performance.
In the light of the situation with Russian opposition member Alexey Navalny admitted to the “Charite” hospital in Berlin with the symptoms of poisoning European and particularly German politicians and journalists opened yet another page of blatant Russophobia. Many of them push forward the theory of poisoning creating a classic image of the bloody Russian state trying to get rid of another enemy as in their vision it happened with Sergey Skripal. Even though no proofs are available and the statements of German doctors are scarce of details, this case is claimed to deepen the crisis in German-Russian relations. Some Bundestag members even call to cancel Nord Stream-2 as a punishment for the Russian government.
Despite the media hysteria encouraged by many politicians from the West, there are those who did not succumb to the first wave of Russophobia, and looked more soberly at the event related to Alexei Navalny and asked for additional evidence. For example the Vice President of the Flemish Parliament Filip Dewinter:
“Until now there is no real proof that Navalny was poisoned. I have the impression that countries like Germany are building up the pressure against Russia. The Navalny-issue is once again a perfect excuse to compromise the Russian authorities with violence and oppression against the ‘opposition’ … An objective and neutral investigation will tell“ stated Mr. Filip Dewinter.
His statements are not alone
Chairman of the “Prussian Society Berlin-Brandenburg” Volker Tschapke stated:
“Facing constant anti-Russian propaganda on different levels, I am not surprised with such an attitude, yet I can’t accept it. One of the key principles of any democratic society is the benefit of the doubt: nobody can be declared guilty until the proper investigation is conducted. Too bad, looks like this principle doesn’t work in Europe anymore. I’d like to wish Mr. Navalny to recover very soon and to call German politicians to stick to democratic values and stop pointing fingers at the Russian government without any substantial evidence base.“ said Mr. Tschapke.
Doubts about the case are also expressed by Member of the Parliament of Italy Paolo Grimoldi:
“I don’t trust the “institutional attack” to Navalny in Russia. He has many enemies, especially outside politics, in his life. In my opinion, it doesn’t look like an attempt to eliminate a political opponent. If any Russian top institutional level ever wanted to strike Navalny they would act more efficiently so let’s be serious and stop attacking Russia for nothing, stated Mr. Grimoldi.
Divided statements regarding Navalny’s case tell us that, unlike in 2014, American power is declining and that European politicians do not make synergistic statements against Russia, but many of them view things with common sense and seek additional evidence for accusations against Russia. More and more Europeans are asking the questions: How is Russia threatening us? What will happen terribly for Europe if Nord Stream 2 is built? Most understand that the conflict in which America is pushing Europe with Russia has nothing to do with European interests, but with American ones.
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