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No victory for Putin: The Trump dossier scandal

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There is no doubt whatsoever that Russia has compiled ‘information’ on Trump. Russian intelligence considers it a rightful duty to compile information on persons of relevance, especially when they are conducting significant business or political relations with Russia.

Trump qualified under that definition long before he even thought about running for President. Even I have been followed, during my numerous times in Russia, both openly and tacitly. I have had my computer hacked and hotel phone bugged. And my affairs in Russia have come nowhere near to the financial or political relevance of Donald Trump.

However, there has been a breakdown in America when it comes to understanding how Russia would use such information if it indeed had a dossier of this type. Americans may love exposing things through the media with a voyeuristic passion, bringing the high down low. That’s just the nature of the beast today in American Kardashian culture. But this dossier of alleged Russian intelligence on Trump has nothing to do with American celebrity culture. If it truly exists this would have been done under the edict of ‘national security’ for Russian geopolitical interests. As such, the proper Russian intelligence behavior would be to deny its existence and hold on to anything it has until a time deemed strategically best. The least efficient usage of that compromising material would be to just embarrass him publicly before he is inaugurated, TMZ ‘gotcha’ style. Russians simply don’t work that way. Rather, keeping it secret and using it in a non-public but strategically-effective manner for their national interests is the Russian way.

For example, the even more infamous Wikileaks affair against Clinton was an example of Russians trying to smudge the character and momentum of Hillary, assuming she was indeed going to win the election. HRC positions have been decidedly anti-Russian (to the Russians at least) over the past half dozen years, vociferously and publicly. The email leaks were a rather limp attempt to just slow that political train down before it took office, to make her pause and understand that she should treat Russia with a bit less shrill judgment.

“The Russian system has plenty of deficiencies, but no outsider could possibly find out what kinds of discussions are taking place in Putin’s office, who is angry at who, or any of that intimate detail,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Putin runs a very tight ship. No leaks. No rumors confirmed. He is, famously, very professional about it.” This estimation is totally true. Lukyanov is a very reliable source if you want opinions on Russia that you can consider astute and balanced: someone who is not hyperbolically pro-Kremlin but also not sheep-like anti-Russian either. Indeed, many of the more ‘famous’ Russian academics so often quoted and interviewed in the West are decidedly anti-Putin in their analyses, thereby effectively currying financial favor and scholarly status with Western think tanks and institutes.

As for the supposition that this dossier leak is a ‘victory’ for Putin regardless of its truthfulness, I hold the contrarian view: if Putin’s intelligence agencies do indeed have a dossier of compromising information on the President-elect, then the last thing Putin would consider a ‘victory’ would be the preemptive and uncontrolled leaking of that information all over social media by an unofficial foreign agent that he did not manage. This would be a LOSS, not a victory. It would mean Putin lost control of both the process of how to use the information and the narrative of just how to release the information to particular audiences for the greatest benefit to Russia. The leak of the dossier to everyone in the world means it does not truly benefit Russian interests at all. Just leaking it and embarrassing the President-elect, with no real ‘proof’ or ‘smoking gun’ evidence attached and no ulterior geostrategic purpose achieved means this story will fade away and be replaced by some other titillating story. To a large degree this has already happened. Thus, the Russians have lost what it hoped to be tremendous strategic leverage behind the scenes and down the road. Ergo, no victory for Putin.

Americans still trying to position it as a victory are simply not astute in the ways of real geopolitics and strategy. And that applies even for the supposed Russian experts here in America who do so much advising today to media and governmental elites. The state of ‘Russian expertise’ in America today is extremely disappointing and dull. We currently live in times that has Washington DC and the Slavic Studies community obsessed with pushing a very narrow and very cliche orthodox narrative about the Russian Federation and its motivations. That narrative believes the only thing Kremlin officials do are sit around tables recklessly and illogically pondering ways to ‘surpass’ the United States with no real calculation for national interests. Supposedly appending that 2-page summary to the formal Presidential/President-elect briefing is confirmation of how far this relationship environment between DC and Moscow has fallen. The US IC basically felt reluctantly compelled to discuss what was nothing more than a de facto TMZ gossip report. That fact alone is what signals the immediate future of Russian-American relations will remain dark and stormy.

As for how people should consider the dossier and its creation: it was collected by a ‘former British intelligence official’ hired by Republican party operatives interested in obtaining damaging information to use against Trump in the election primaries. What that really means is that he had no access to formal governmental reconnaissance technologies or personnel. As such you can reliably assume he simply dug deep into the rumor mills that run crazily around Moscow. The dossier is much closer to what TMZ, the famous gossip-paparazzi organization in America, produces than the CIA or MI6. It is not a true intelligence brief. The blurring of this distinction in the media has been irresponsible and laughable.

How many have actually read the dossier in full? It is utter tripe. None of it would pass muster for inclusion in a formal Intelligence Community briefing if it was produced by a member of the IC. But none of the details in the dossier would pass a peer-review for scholarly journal either. At best, it’s the kind of material one finds on a deeply partisan political blog. Does this mean nothing in the dossier could be true? No, it does not. But it does mean the dossier, at best, represents what I advise students when using Wikipedia for research: you can start your research using Wikipedia to learn relevant terms, actors, and events. But then you need to go deeper, far beyond Wikipedia, to understand what is verifiable and falsifiable and thus worthy of inclusion in a scholarly analysis. The dossier is Wikipedia or TMZ gossip. It is not the deeper, vetted analyses demanded by real intelligence or legitimate scholarship. This is what the American media and/or intelligence community needs to do next: transform this affair from gossip to analysis. The concern is that it does not appear that anyone, media or government, is seemingly interested in doing that deeper digging: is this just TMZ titillation or is it true debauchery that should make the American people concerned about its incoming President on a deeply moral level?

Some have scratched their heads over why US intelligence agencies appear to have legitimized the documents by supposedly including that aforementioned summary in a top-secret briefing. But the Intelligence Community is actually the only body in this sordid affair that can somewhat be given a pass, as it faced a no-win scenario. The best analogous example is to recall the situation Director Comey of the FBI was in pre-election, regarding the whole possible HRC indictment. Although it was under-emphasized in the media, Comey himself said he reopened the investigation because he felt tremendous pressure, caught between a rock and a hard place: do not reopen when new information has come to light and you are vulnerable to accusations of trying to engineer a particular electoral result, when the Intelligence Community is loath to be viewed political at all. However, reopening the case (even when you say it is just to review new material and explicitly state it is not a declaration of guilt) makes you victim to the opposite accusation: that you are still politicized and looking to engineer a particular electoral result, just a different one from the previous diatribe.

Thus, the inclusion or open discussion of a 2-page summary is much the same dilemma: do not include it or mention it, when Buzzfeed has splashed it all over the internet already, and you expose the Intelligence Community to an accusation of trying to sweep something under the rug. Doing a 2-page summary with a formal declaration that it is NOT making a statement about its validity or reliability was an IC maneuver to walk the knife’s edge of a situation that had no real optimal end-game. “Intel and law enforcement officials agree that none of the investigations have found any conclusive or direct link between Trump and the Russian government period, the senior official said. According to the senior official, the two-page summary about the unsubstantiated material made available to the briefers was to provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted ‘disinformation.’”

This quote, taken from an NBC News story, is the explanation most credible and accurate in terms of how intelligence officials actually behave in such situations. The professionals I have known in the Intelligence Community would absolutely convey the information so that relevant actors could be aware of information likely to emerge publicly (giving them a ‘heads up’, as it were), but they would also emphasize whether the IC takes the information as credible. If not credible or still unverified, then it makes sense that it was presented to Trump in an informal or even just oral manner. Additionally, an almost ignored aspect in the story is how an intelligence official tries to make people understand that there is a huge difference between ‘analyzed intelligence’ and ‘unvetted disinformation.’ The IC has tried rather valiantly to make people in America understand that until the dossier is formally declared the former, then it is decidedly the latter. It should not be blamed on the IC, therefore, if most media venues and political organizations are skipping right past these clarifications and attributing meaning to the American Intelligence Community that it has not claimed as its own.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Russia’s role in the revival of the Iran Nuclear deal

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Iran in recent weeks has stated on more than one occasion, that is willing to return to the negotiation table for talks pertaining to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)/Iran Nuclear deal (the Vienna negotiations which began in April 2021 have been on hold since June 2021). The US has on more than one occasion expressed the view, that Iran needs to show greater urgency with regard to getting back to talks on the Iran Nuclear deal . The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken while addressing the press, on October 13, 2021, before his meeting with Foreign Ministers of UAE and Israel:

        ‘We continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that, but it takes two to engage in diplomacy, and we have not – we have not seen from Iran a willingness to do that at this point.’

In August 2021, US President Biden in a meeting with the Israeli PM, Naftali Bennett had said that Washington was willing to explore other options, if diplomacy with Iran did not work (this was in stark contrast to his stance vis-à-vis Iran in his initial days in office).

Russia’s role

It would be important to point out, that Russia has been playing a key role in getting Iran back to the negotiating table, while also urging the US to remove some of the sanctions it has imposed on Iran. During the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Moscow earlier this month, a number of issues pertaining to the Iran-Russia relationship were discussed during the meeting between Abdollahian and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Iran Nuclear deal  however was high on the agenda. Here it would be pertinent to point out, that Iran is seeking to sign a strategic agreement with Russia along the lines of what it had signed with China, and Russia would thus have significant leverage vis-à-vis Tehran. While commenting on the same, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh said:

    ‘The initial arrangements of this document, entitled the Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia, have been concluded,’

Iran and Russia have also been working jointly in Syria to keep Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in power.

Israeli PM’s visit to Russia

During Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s recent visit to Moscow, on October 22, 2021 while a number of bilateral issues were discussed during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Iran issue was also discussed. While Putin is supposed to have put forward the Russian stance which favours a diplomatic solution for dealing with the issue of nuclear enrichment by Iran, while Israel expressed its concerns with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.

Conclusion

While Gulf Cooperation Council  (GCC countries), such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which were opposed to revival of the Iran Nuclear deal have toned down their opposition to the deal, since they themselves are working to improve ties with Iran, Israel has been fervent in its opposition to the revival of the deal, and the Biden Administration of late has also begun to adopt a more aggressive stance (not very different from that of the Trump Administration) and seems to be unwilling to make any significant concessions in order to revive JCPOA .

It remains to be seen, if Russia’s relationship with Israel can play any role in softening the latter’s opposition to the Iran Nuclear deal.  Apart from this, Moscow whose ties with Iran have strengthened will also play an important role in getting Tehran back to the negotiating table on the Iran nuclear deal, and could also convince Iran to avoid a maximalist approach towards the Iran nuclear deal. In recent months, Moscow’s strategic importance has risen not on account of its proximity to Beijing, but because it’s stance on the situation in Afghanistan and Iran has been pragmatic, and Moscow has not kowtowed to Beijing in spite of the fact that its ties with Washington ties are far from cordial. Moscow is also one of the few countries which has been able to maintain good ties with both Israel and Iran.

 It remains to be seen, if Russia’s intervention on key global issues especially the Iran Nuclear deal can achieve any tangible results. A lot will also depend upon whether the Biden Administration, which has drawn flak for its handling of Afghanistan, is willing to think out of the box and exhibit risk appetite. It is also important that Washington-Moscow ties remain manageable if not perfect, and that both countries realize the importance of working closely on important global issues.

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Russia, Turkey and the new geopolitical reality

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Putin erdogan sochi

The recent Russia – Turkey summit in Sochi, even though yielding no tangible outcomes (as became clear well before it, the summit would  not result in the signing of any agreements), has evoked a lot of speculation – ranging from assumptions of the “failure” of talks to fairly optimistic forecasts for the future of bilateral relations.

What can be seen as a clear result of the meeting is that the two sides acknowledged readiness for further dialogue. A dialogue is vital also in view of the fact that western countries have been curtailing their military and political presence in the region, which has thus led to the formation of a terrorist state in Afghanistan.

According to Sergei Lavrov, terrorist threat persists and has even been intensifying in Idlib: «Terrorist groups operating from beyond the Idlib de-escalation zone continue to attack the positions of the Syrian army, what’s more, they have been trying to act against the Russian contingent», – the Russian foreign minister told a news conference following talks with his Egyptian counterpart, after the summit in Sochi. A solution to the problem lies, he said, in “complete implementation of the agreements signed by Presidents Putin  and  Erdogan to the effect that terrorists, first of all, from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, should be isolated regardless of whatever new slogans they might come up with and for the purpose of quelling all these terrorist groups”.

As a final agreement on de-escalation in Idlib is expected to be reached, sources report a build-up of Syrian army forces along the Syrian side of the demarcation line, on the one hand, and a concentration of Turkish military groups, on the other (whereas after talks in Sochi the Turkish military started to retreat to the north – A.I.) Opposition representatives have been making aggressive statements again, even though in Sochi, Dmitry Peskov said,  the two sides reiterated their “commitment to earlier agreements, underscored the need to implement  these agreements by clearing Idlib of terrorist groups which  were still there and which could pose a threat and  launch a fierce attack against the Syrian army”.

Turkey keeps accusing Russia of breaching a ceasefire agreement for the northwest of Syria of March 5, 2020, while Russia maintains that Turkey is not acting on its commitments and that it is unable (or unwilling? – A.I.) to separate terrorists from armed opposition. For these mutual accusations the two presidents use politically correct statements, while their discontent over the situation is articulated by foreign ministers, press secretaries and MPs.

In brief, Moscow’s position is as follows: Bashar Assad is a legally elected head of the Syrian Arab Republic, the territorial integrity of which is beyond doubt.  A compromise with Damascus calls for similar steps from the opponents, whereas confrontation in Idlib and in other hot spots across Syria should be the responsibility of countries whose troops are deployed there without the approval of the UN or without invitation from official Damascus. These countries are known – the United States and Turkey.

While Moscow and Ankara are often at odds over the Sunni opposition, their attitudes to Kurdish nationalists are less of a clash. Moscow sees them as “mere” separatists who “have not been lost” for Damascus, while Ankara describes them as terrorists that should be eliminated or neutralized by a buffer zone which Turkey has been building and strengthening for several years.

Some experts and politicians believe that this will last forever. In 1920, the already not quite Ottoman but not yet Turkish Parliament adopted the so-called National Vow, which specified that New Turkey would include Syrian and Iraqi territories, which currently border Turkey. Even though the move failed, the National Vow is still, if only unofficially, seen as a founding ideological document of the Turkish Republic, the implementation of which cements the authority of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Moreover, areas occupied by the Turkish army (which make up more than 10% of the Syrian territory) are used for accommodating Syrian refugees, of which there are over three and a half million in Turkey proper. Turks’ growing discontent over the presence of such “guests” is adding to social instability. A new influx could trigger a public outcry in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023.

In all likelihood, Ankara believes that any serious concessions in Idlib will entail the collapse of the entire “buffer zone” project and will invalidate three military operations and the multimillion investments. In addition, it will bring back “the Kurdish issue”, destroy the image of Turkey as a trustworthy ally, and will inflict irreparable damage on the reputation of the incumbent authorities.

Nevertheless, Cumhuriyet observer Mehmet Ali Guller argues that Erdogan suggested readiness to make concessions when he said: «We agree that the time has come to secure a final and lasting solution to the Syrian issue. We announced that we are open for any realistic and fair steps in this direction».

From our point of view, there is nothing about “concessions” in what Erdogan says but what is clear is that he is, if only unwillingly, beginning to accept The Syrian reality. After years of demanding the removal of Bashar Assad, the Turkish leadership no longer issues statements to this effect, though it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the incumbent regime (contacts at intelligence agency level do not count), promising to withdraw troops only after the establishment of “democratic rule” in Syria. But democracy as seen through the Middle East realities is something vague and unclear.

Furthermore, Erdogan is forced to “re-evaluate values” by a growing tension in relations with western allies. The Turkish president, after years of speaking strongly in favor of American presence in Syria, is now calling for the withdrawal of the  American contingent from the country.

A consolidated position of Ankara’s western partners on Russia-Turkey relations was formulated by Die Zeit: during talks with the Russian leader in Sochi Erdogan played the role of a “requestor”, since he “missed a decisive factor – the West”, which he needs as “a critically important partner, which makes it possible for Ankara not to bow to Russia”. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu did not agree to that: «We are a NATO member, on the one hand, but on the other hand, our relations with Russia are progressing…..Why should we make a choice [between them]?».

«It’s no secret that Ankara’s and Moscow’s interests in the region do not  coincide…..[but] The positive responses of the two countries’ leaders on the results of talks in Sochi suggest that Moscow and Ankara are prepared to remove all misunderstandings by dialogue», – Ilyas Kemaloglu, political analyst with Marmara University, says. Haberturk Media Holding observer Cetiner Cetin argues that American troops’ “flight” from Afghanistan and their gradual departure from other regions is creating a new geopolitical reality, which means that “Turkey might continue to distance itself from NATO in order to find itself among top players within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”.

While economic ties between Russia and Turkey are mostly problem-free, the political relations are often an issue. However, every time they meet, Putin and Erdogan manage not only to “quell” conflict, but to make a way for cooperation. The reason is that the two countries, despite their tactical differences, share the strategic goals: diktat of the West is unacceptable, the leading role in the East should belong to regional powers. As long as we share these goals, a Russia-Turkey alliance will be beneficial for both parties.

From our partner International Affairs

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The 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel

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Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey V. Lavrov’s article for the Israeli Newspaper “Yedioth Ahronoth” dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel, October 15, 2021.

On October 18, Russia and Israel celebrate the 30th anniversary of the renewal of full-fledged diplomatic relations – the beginning of a new era of common history.

Turning to the pages of the past, let me recall that the USSR was the first country to recognize de jure the State of Israel back in May 1948. Of course, there were ups and downs in the chronicle of our relationship. Today, it could be assessed with confidence that Russian-Israeli mutually beneficial cooperation has stood the test of time and continues to actively develop in all directions.

Its foundation is formed by an intensive political dialogue, foremost – at the highest level. Inter-parliamentary contacts are progressing, bolstered by Friendship Groups established in the legislative bodies of our countries. Inter-ministerial communications are carried out on a regular basis.

Over the past decades, a solid experience of diversified cooperation has been accumulated in such spheres as economics, science and technology, healthcare and education. More than twenty acting intergovernmental agreements reflect the richness of the bilateral agenda.

Our mutual practical cooperation has significant potential. A number of joint projects are being successfully implemented. Many initiatives have received the support of the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. The interest of Israeli business circles in entering the Russian market continues to grow. Despite the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, by the end of 2020 trade between Russia and Israel decreased by only 3.9%, and in January-July this year it increased by 51.8% over the previous year’s period. The key coordinating mission in these common efforts is fulfilled by the Joint Russian-Israeli Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, founded in 1994. We are interested in the early resumption of its work in full.

A special role in strengthening the unifying baselines of our relations as well as ensuring their stability and continuity belongs to humanitarian contacts. We appreciate the high level of mutual understanding between the peoples of Russia and Israel, connected by a common historical memory and convergence of cultures. It is encouraging that this thread, which has no geographic boundaries, is only getting stronger in course of time.

There are millions of Russian-speaking compatriots living in Israel, including descendants both from the former Republics of the USSR and from the Russian Federation. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War, survivors of the siege, former prisoners of concentration camps are among them. The fate of these people is of major interest to us.

Most vigorous rejection of the attempts of historical revisionism, combatting the distortion of the genesis, course and generally recognized international legal outcomes of the World War II have always united Russia and Israel. We will continue to coordinate our efforts, and specifically at the UN, to counter this shameful phenomenon.

While in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe Nazi henchmen are being brought to the level of national heroes and neo-Nazi tendencies are being revived, the memory of the decisive contribution of the heroic soldiers of the Red Army to the Victory over Nazism, the saving of Jews and other peoples from extermination, the liberation of the world from the horrors of the Holocaust is sacred in Israel. We see how Israeli colleagues – at the state and public levels – encourage the activities of the veterans and compatriots movements, conduct active work to educate the younger generation.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the law on Celebrating the Victory Day over Nazi Germany on May 9, approved by the Israeli parliament in 2017. It is particularly telling that on the 76th anniversary of the Great Victory, celebrated this year, festive events and commemorative parades along with the Immortal Regiment march were held in more than 45 Israeli cities. Thousands of Israelis of all ages as well as officials participated. This scale speaks for itself.

Cooperation in the field of education and science – whether through student and academic exchanges or joint scientific research continues to move forward. Every year, students from Israel get an opportunity to receive higher education in Russian universities. All of them are sincerely welcome there.

We hope that it will be possible to restore mutual tourist flows as soon as the sanitary and epidemiological situation improves. Russia is traditionally one of the top three countries in terms of the number of visitors to Israel.

The Russian-Israeli dialogue is vigorously advancing through the foreign ministries. It is obvious that without constructive interaction of diplomats it is impossible to solve a number of international and regional problems that are of paramount importance both for ensuring the prosperous future of the peoples of Russia and Israel just as for strengthening international and regional security and stability. From this perspective, diversified contacts between the Security Councils and the defense ministries of our countries have also proven themselves well. On a regular basis it allows us to compare approaches and take into account each other’s legitimate interests.

Russia is pursuing an independent multi-vector foreign policy, contemplating pragmatism, the search for compromises and the observance of balances of interests. Creation of the most favorable external conditions for our internal socio-economic development remains its backbone. We have no ideological likes and dislikes, or any taboos in relations with our foreign partners, therefore we can play an active role in the international arena and specifically through mediation in the settlement of conflicts.

We are interested in continuing consultations with our Israeli partners on security and stability issues in the Middle East. We always draw attention to the fact that comprehensive solutions to the problems of the region must necessarily take into account the security interests of Israel. This is a matter of principle.

At the same time, we are convinced that there is no alternative to the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a generally recognized international legal basis. We strongly support direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A comprehensive solution to all issues of the final status is possible only through it. We are ready to work with Israeli colleagues, including multilateral formats, primarily in the context of the renewal of work of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators in close cooperation with representatives of the Arab League.

I am convinced: it is in the common interest to maintain the momentum. Ahead of us are new milestones and additional opportunities not only to continue, but also to enrich the positive experience of multifaceted cooperation for the benefit of our states and peoples, in the interests of peace and stability.

Source: Minister of Foreign Affairs

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