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Short Letter vs. Long Telegram: US Ambassador Huntsman Departs Moscow

Ivan Timofeev

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The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.

The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.

The context of Huntsman’s ambassadorship was highly contradictory. While there was a durable inter-party consensus in the United States on the need to deter and put pressure on Russia, the orders from US President Donald Trump have been to get along with Russia. The president’s wish is hardly a carefully considered strategy. It’s more like a political slogan that was not even vetted by experts or relevant government agencies first. On the contrary, anti-Russian sentiment is rife in the expert and political class in Washington, with the only disagreement coming over how precisely to push back against Moscow. Trump has also tried to avoid sparring with Congress and officials in his own government over Russia by supporting the key anti-Russia policies. In some cases, he was an ardent supporter, especially when they concerned business issues, which he is more comfortable with. One such issue was competition with Russia over the European gas market, which has become even more politicized during Trump’s presidency.

Naturally, any attempt at a “reset or restart” would have been doomed to fail in these circumstances. Diplomats simply lacked any areas that were ripe for a reset. Both US and Russian diplomats have done a great job at preparing the one-on-one meetings between the two presidents. However, the results of the most significant meeting, the summit in Helsinki, were torpedoed by the US establishment, and our bilateral relations have continued to deteriorate since. Mutual expulsions of diplomats, the closure of consular offices, and the scandal over Russia’s diplomatic property in the United States marked a major setback for bilateral relations. This decline in relations is embodied in the scrapping of the INF Treaty and the prospect of further loss of arms control mechanisms. And yet, Russia and the United States have avoided drawing the iron curtain. The most important issues continue to be discussed at the expert level. Businesses have suffered from sanctions and economic difficulties in Russia, but there has not been a precipitous decline in commercial relations. Direct personal interaction between Russians and Americans remains robust, although it was affected by a shortage of personnel in consular services.

Jon Huntsman succinctly described the reality of US-Russian relations in his letter of resignation to President Trump. Many media outlets characterized that letter almost as an anti-Russia manifesto. In fact, it is a pragmatic and balanced, if unpleasant, description of the state of our relations. True, he described the situation from the perspective of US interests, but these are not the words of a crusader. The ambassador admitted that a “reset or restart” was not possible, while at the same time pointing to the importance of understanding “our interests and values.” He said it is critical to work in areas of common interest. The traditional mention of human rights issues, although important, still appears to be standard fare in US foreign policy rhetoric. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a letter that articulates the irreconcilable differences along with the common interests between the countries – no more, no less.

The current spirit animating American policy towards Russia has some parallels with George Kennan’s 1946 Long Telegram, which essentially laid down the doctrinal foundations of US foreign policy on the Soviet challenge and shaped the contours of the Cold War. It appears that many of those concepts are on the verge of a revival. From Kennan’s perspective, Russia was an authoritarian police state, and its aggression was fundamentally not aligned with the views of its peace-loving people. Moreover, this aggression was a sign of weakness in the regime, which harbored illusions about the modern world instead of seeking an objective understanding of it. Kennan’s warnings about Russia’s desire to divide the Western community of nations and intervene in the internal affairs of foreign countries dovetail perfectly with modern rhetoric – with the covert doings of Communists replaced by new scares over hackers, trolls and spies. Finally, containment rooted in force was deemed a key tool in relations with Russia. Russians respect force and recoil in the face of a credible threat of its use. Kennan identified the transfer of power as a serious problem for Russia, and to be sure, his thoughts on the transfer of power after Lenin and later Stalin are frequently echoed in discussions of the “problem of 2024” and “Russia after Putin.” Overall, the Long Telegram’s reincarnation is in the spirit of the times, and its key ideas fit seamlessly with mainstream thought in the West.

The only problem is that a strategy – no matter how elegant, logical and time-tested – does not always reflect reality. It would be naive to try to prove to ourselves and our Western partners that Russia is a Western-type liberal democracy pursuing global peace. It is equally futile to indulge in the blame game and whataboutism. Russia is a more complex society and state and differs significantly from its historical predecessors, as well as from its neighbors. Moreover, it is a society that appears to be in the process of a lengthy transition. The current events in Russia are just one episode in long-term dynamics that cannot be reduced to familiar models.

The departing ambassador certainly deserves credit for offering a pragmatic take on the current situation without inventing any binding doctrines – whether this was his intention or not. But Huntsman, unlike Kennan, operated in a different reality. In 1946, the Soviet Union’s prestige in the United States was still quite high. Kennan’s telegram can be seen as an attempt to open his government’s eyes. Huntsman’s tenure, on the contrary, began during a period of peak antagonism and was understood to involve dealing with an openly hostile state. In addition, unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia hardly poses an ideological threat to the United States. And since there is no normative or political/philosophical threat, there is no need for a proportionate response.

Nevertheless, there are two points in Kennan’s telegram that can be of interest and of use to both Americans and Russians today. Americans need to take more seriously the motives behind Russia’s foreign policy in their analysis. Kennan rightly noted the heightened sense of vulnerability and lack of security inherent in Russian political culture. In my opinion, this is what leads to a policy that, while seen as offensive in the West, is essentially defensive in nature. A policy of containment and force will only exacerbate Russia’s sense of vulnerability. Consequently, the risk of a conflict in which there can be no winners will also increase.

As for Russians, they should consider this passage of the telegram: “Much depends on health and vigor of our own society… This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meets… Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society… is a diplomatic victory … worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.” Kennan naturally means American society and victory over Moscow, yet this recommendation applies equally to Russia. For us, victory would mean the consistent and independent development of our country, releasing our people’s creative energy, gradually striking our own balance between order and freedom, and protecting the security interests that are vital to any country.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club website.

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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Russia

The Battle for the Indian Ocean and Island States

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russia has taken an increasing interest in strengthening consistently its diplomacy with small island States especially Cape Verde, Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles. Late December, the Kremlin appointed Deputy Director Artem Kozhin at the Foreign Ministry as the new ambassador to the island of Seychelles, signaling the strategic importance it attaches to this island state of Seychelles with an estimated population of 85 thousand, located in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar and east of Kenya.

Former Russian ambassador to Seychelles, Alexander Vladimirov said the relations between the two countries have been extremely cordial since the two countries established diplomatic relations following the independence of Seychelles in 1976. Russia and Seychelles have seen remarkable developments between the two countries, including the arrival of many Russian tourists. Russian investors have been investing in the country.

On June 30, 2016, Russia and Seychelles marked their 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the years, both have pledged to forge mutual cooperation in many spheres, but little is tangibly visible.

Notwithstanding that little progress, an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Seychelles waiving visa requirements for short-term trips by citizens of both countries was signed in Victoria, Seychelles, on Sept 2, 2015. Under the agreement, citizens of Russia and Seychelles with a valid passport, including a diplomatic or official passport, are exempted from visa requirements and may enter, stay or transit the territory of the other state without a visa for a term of up to 30 days.

As expected, both countries have exchanged official visits and held meetings at different times. During one of such meetings, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, underscored the mutual interest in and readiness for the development of a joint plan for partnership, including transport and energy between Russia and Seychelles, and that would include the Southern African Development Community.

As far back as March 2015, on the topic that appeared that Russia planned to open military bases in Seychelles, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Cuba, Lavrov vehemently responded: “It is absolutely wrong. We have no plans to create military or marine bases abroad, but to resolve specific tasks: fighting piracy, pirates have appear in many parts of the world. Our fleet makes long-distance voyages. We agreed with some countries, that our ships use the existing infrastructure for calling into ports for maintenance and small repairs, supplementing food and water reserves, and for recreation of crews.”

Seychelles has over the years, suffered from sea piracy. However, the island is a key participant in the fight against Indian Ocean piracy primarily committed by Somali pirates. Former president James Michel said: “The pirates cost a great percentage of the Seychelles GDP, including direct and indirect costs for the loss of boats, fishing, and tourism, and the indirect investment for the maritime security.” These are factors affecting local fishing – one of the country’s main national resources.

As a support base, the island is currently strategic zone for the United States¸ China and India that are already competing in the Indian Ocean. But Sanusha Naidu, a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue based in Pretoria, South Africa, thinks that it is very strategic for Russia to strengthen engagements with these island States, especially Seychelles.

“Part of this will enable Moscow to have an important maritime security presence from the Indian Ocean Rim on the East Coast to the Atlantic seaboard on the West Coast. This could offer important sea-lanes for Moscow’s economic transactions. But, it also represents crucial footprint to keep up with competitors like China and the United States in terms of geo-political interests,” Naidu told Modern Diplomacy.

In July 2019, President Vladimir Putin accepted the credentials of 18 newly appointed foreign envoys, among them was Louis Sylvestre Radegonde (Republic of Seychelles). Putin pointed to the fact that Russia maintains friendly relations with the Republic of Seychelles. It counts on further joint work to expand cooperation including tourism, trade, economic and humanitarian spheres, noting strongly that the tourism sector is the primary industry of that country.

Seychelles is ranked high in terms of economic competitiveness, a friendly investment climate, good governance and a free economy. It has strong and friendly relations with various African and foreign countries. Based on this fact, Professor Dmitry Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies, explained to me that “as part of the sustainable efforts by Russia with individual African countries, Russia and Seychelles could cooperate in the priority areas such exploring the seabed for minerals, fishing and seafood processing, aquaculture and marine services (including marine finance and marine biotechnology).”

In an emailed interview for this article, Punsara Amarasinghe, who previously held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and now a PhD Candidate in Law from Scuola Superiore Universitaria Sant’Anna di Pisa in Italy, discusses some aspects of Russia’s relations with Seychelles.

The diplomatic relation between Russia and Seychelles does not have a long history compared to the robust relations between Russia and other African states. Nevertheless, in its brief history staring from 1976, Seychelles had made a rapport with the USSR. In particular, USSR ships anchored in Seychelles and Seychelles supported Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, Russian influence in Indian Ocean waned in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet era and Russia’s interest in Seychelles consequently diminished.

Recently, Russia’s interest in Indian Ocean and African states have been escalated as a part of its global agenda to restore Russia’s role. Especially just a week before the assassination of Iranian General Solemani, Russia participated in a naval exercise along with Iran and China in Indian Ocean proving its interest in the maritime expansion in Indian Ocean.

Amarasinghe wrote in his email: “The indispensable importance of Indian Ocean appears as a key factor for any state interested in power expansion. It was not an exaggeration that Robert Kaplan vociferously exclaimed that one who controls Indian Ocean, will control the geo-political center of the world. Currently the only active military base of the US is located in Diego Garcia, 1800Km away from the Seychelles. The geographic position of Seychelles is alluring for Russia’s blooming military interests and if Seychelles allows Moscow to initiate a military base in the island, the maritime hegemony upheld by the United States will be undoubtedly challenged.”

More importantly, the crucial location of Seychelles parallel to African continent makes it a unique destination as a military base. However, realistically we cannot assume the possibility of seeing a Russian base in Seychelles in near future. Indeed, it is true that Seychelles’ main port Victoria was opened for Russian vessels for refueling and other logistical issues. Yet, the same offer was given to many other nations including China and the United States.

On the other hand, Russia’s internal economic chaos have significantly hit the military expenditures of the Russian army and it is a fact beyond dispute that the Chinese and the United States military budgets are forged ahead Russian annual military budget. The practical circumstances may not make it an easy task for Russian Federation to build a military base in the Seychelles, even though it has a significant strategic importance, according to Punsara Amarasinghe.

Nevertheless, if Chinese can pursue its fortune in Seychelles, it would be much significant for them as a military access to Indian Ocean and an apt strategic position for maritime Silk road. China has already established a military base in Djibouti and its proximity to the Seychelles will secure Chinese military presence strongly in Indian Ocean challenging the US hegemony. It seems to indicate that rather than thinking of a military base fully controlled by Russia, it is likely to see much of Chinese presence in Indian Ocean, or perhaps, in Seychelles. It will inevitably assist Russian interests too.

Maldives, independent island in the north-central Indian Ocean, while Mauritius is further south, located about 2,000 kilometres off the southeast coast of Africa. Seychelles is ranked high in terms of economic competitiveness, a friendly investment climate, good governance and a free economy. It has strong and friendly relations with various African and foreign countries.

By demographic developments down the years, Seychelles is described as a fusion of peoples and cultures. Seychellois, as the people referred to, are multiracial: blending from African, Asian and European descent creating a modern creole culture. Evidence of this strong and harmonious blend is seen, for instance, in Seychellois food that incorporates various aspects of French, Chinese, Indian and African cuisine. French and English are official languages. Seychelles is a member of the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the United Nations.

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Searching for a New World

Igor Ivanov

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The assassination of Iranian General Soleimani upon the order of the President of the United States on the territory of another sovereign state once again undermined the legal foundations of the entire system of international relations.

No matter how hard the U.S. Administration attempts to justify the decision of its President, it is perfectly clear that the situation in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf has become even more tense and unpredictable. Washington’s actions in recent years continue to destroy the legal foundations of international relations and demonstrate the increasingly defiant attempts of the United States to impose its terms, interests and “rules” of conduct on the rest of the world. Consequently, the assassination of the Iranian general is not so much a challenge to Iran as it is a challenge to the entire global community.

This begs the obvious question: Where might Washington’s politics lead and is there a way of opposing them without plunging the world into global disaster?

In the United States itself, many people are starting to realise that the course currently being steered by the U.S. Administration may do irreparable damage to the country’s own long-term interests. The American public was mostly restrained in its reaction to President Trump’s decision to eliminate the Iranian general. The provocative actions of the United States are increasingly isolating the country. Even its traditional allies are beginning to distance themselves, as they feel the consequences of Washington’s imperious unilateralism. The implications of the internal struggle currently unfolding over U.S. foreign policy will become apparent after the November presidential elections. However, whatever the outcome, we must concede that it will take a long time to redress the damage that the U.S. Administration has caused to the entire system of international relations.

As for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, we can expect stronger anti-American sentiment and a general weakening of Washington’s influence on regional developments. The general lack of enthusiasm in the Middle East about the regional settlement plan touted by the U.S. Administration as “the deal of the century” suggests that the settlement is likely doomed to failure. In reality, the idea was just a way for the United States to retain its presence in the region.

Most of the United States’ allies are taking a “wait-and-see” approach following the dramatic events in the Middle East. Their stance is in some way understandable: they cannot come forward as one and directly criticise the United States, yet individual voices will go unheard. Consequently, most European capitals confined themselves to vague formal statements and general pronouncements. Nevertheless, the United States’ allies are becoming increasingly vexed by the unilateral actions of the country’s Administration, for which the “America above all” principle has become a way of life. However, for various reasons, the countries of Europe, as well as other allies of the United States, are not ready to oppose Washington’s politics on their own. That said, the process has begun, although it promises to be a long and arduous road.

In this context, particular responsibility lies with those few international actors that are capable and, just as importantly, ready to oppose Washington’s unrelenting pressure in the interests of global security. The only fully sovereign and independent actors that come to mind here are, of course, Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council that enjoy significant weight in many global and regional issues and have massive combined military containment potential. Russia and China command respect in the global community and therefore bear special responsibility for the future world order.

The international community today—both at the level of public opinion and heads of state and international organisations—is listening with particular attention to the signals coming from Moscow and Beijing, recognising them as essential landmarks for adjusting their own stances and strategies on the key issues of international politics. Given the increased instability and unpredictability of the global environment, the importance of such landmarks increases significantly.

The model of Russia–China bilateral relations is seen as such a landmark in itself, as a demonstration of the feasibility of building ties based on carefully balanced interests without sacrificing national sovereignty and without opposing these relations to other foreign policy priorities. Equally relevant is the practical experience of new multilateral unions, including BRICS and the SCO, which allow states with highly divergent interests (for example, India and Pakistan) to interact successfully and constructively.

The special responsibility that rests on the shoulders of Russia and China entails additional, loftier requirements for the global political cooperation between the two states. Today, the question is how to coordinate the two countries’ long-term foreign political strategies more closely and promote joint initiatives that concern the fundamental issues of the future world order.

Naturally, Russia and China cannot claim a monopoly for developing new rules of the game for the future global political system. These rules should emerge from negotiations, consultations and discussions within a wide variety of multilateral formats, from global platforms such as the United Nations to the narrow-format meetings of public organisations and expert communities. Yet, the deeper and more strategic Russia–China coordination is, the more productive multilateral formats can become.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin’s “January Sermon”: Is it a path to democratization of Russia or a hoax?

Punsara Amarasinghe

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The volatile political trajectory and its subtle actions in Russia have always created awe among the political pundits in the West who are immensely obsessed with the geopolitical space in Ruski Mir. However, history has always aggrandized Russia as a state that cannot be easily fathomed. Just like how a dull and calm plot reaches its most unexpected culmination in a Dostoyevsky’s novel, the political trajectory in Russia has always been thrilling. The most recent political events followed by president Vladimir Putin’s annual speech in the state Duma on 15th of January is an epitome for the uncanny political nature of the world largest state.

The speech delivered by president Putin on 15th of January in the Duma was entirely an unexpected political explosion. In his speech, he proposed a serious of constitutional changes that would escalate the powers of the parliament eventually leading to an increase of prime minister’s power. Article 83 and 84 of the Current constitution in Russian federation have vested considerable power in the hands of the president over the state duma and the proposed changes would inevitably revoke them. A legitimate question appears before any inquisitive person on Russian politics is “Why Putin would allow Duma to curtail his power “. Political history of president Putin has aptly proven his sharp political acumen as a politician who properly kept his grip.  However, this time he opted for rather a completely a different strategy by empowering the state Duma, which is the lower house of Russian parliament to appoint the prime minister who is currently being appointed by the president with Duma’s consent.

The increasing the power of a national council happens to be the most notable proposition of these recommendations and Putin indicated the need to strengthen the constitutional role as a crucial factor. The state council was a creation of Putin during his first term in Kremlin. Thus far it has served as an advisory body and it is consisted of regional governors, speakers of the both houses in the parliament and the party leaders. The proposed constitutional recommendations will boost its power and it is still unclear the way it would safeguard Putin from a political ebb. It not clear what role president Putin fancies in empowering the national council from nonentity to a powerful tool in Russian state apparatus. The evasive step taken by the former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 seems like a potential strategy Putin determines to implement. The last holdover from the Soviet era Kazakhstan resigned from the presidency and retained the influential job of leading country’s security council as the leader of the nation. Perhaps, Putin will embrace the same strategy of symbolizing an honorable step down while keeping his grip in a different way such a making himself as the head of the national council. Yet, making such an arm chair prediction about his possible strategy to remain in power beyond 2024 may be rather futile as Vladimir Putin has always shown a political unpredictability in his actions.

The appointment of Mikhail Mishustin to the prime minister post after Dmitry Medvedev stepped down along with his cabinet is the next notable incident emerged after 15th of January. Unlike Putin’s protégée Medvedev the newly appointed president holds no significant political activism as an ally or at least as a panegyric. He is being described as a technocrat and apolitical figure who was responsible for transforming the aged old Russian tax service into an era of digitalization.  From a vantage point, the choice of Putin appears to be a wise move with the meritocratic capability of Mishustin regardless of his lack of affinity with the politics. Since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the economy of Russia has been in the doldrums and some economists have described the last decade as a stagnant decade for Russia’s economy. Given his solid background in economics and practical experience with taxation may prove his competence to become the premier in midst of an economic stagnation. Mishustin’s appointment reminds of the count Sergei Witte’s appointment by Tsar Nicolas II in 1905 whose capacity as an econometrician boosted Russia’s industrial growth for a shorter period. 

The democratic reforms have always been sort of tough moves throughout Russian history. Especially the centralization of political power has always impeded Russia from reaching democratization. The confrontation between president Yeltsin and the parliament in the fall of 1993 eventually ended up in Yeltsin’s outrageous move of sending armed tanks to the parliament building. The current Russian constitution which has placed enormous power under in the hands of the president is an offshoot of the constitution adopted in Yeltsin era. Putin’s abrupt decision to reduce that will at least theoretically undo the damage wrought by 1993 constitution. In principle, the transition of power from the president to the parliament will pave the way to increase the high chances of check and balance in power crating a greater change in Russian political culture.

All in all, the ostensible motive of the constitutional reforms will assist Russia to get into better strides as a normal democracy without enabling the centralization of power around one man. But can we believe that country that has never undergone a proper western democracy will be adamant for such a mammoth change? The real politic in Russian history has always shown the rise of lesser known political characters to the zenith of power by taking the advantage of chaos. When Russian state was in a verge of extension Mikhail Romanova came out of nowhere and created the house of Romanovs that lasted for three hundred years. When Lenin died creating chaotic power vacuum in 1924, lesser known Stalin exterminated all his foes and tightened the power of newly born USSR and finally made it a super power. The sudden power shift Putin proposed on 15th of January is simply a tranquil sign before a great political storm in Russia and ironically Russians are no strangers for such political storms.

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