Russian President Vladimir Putin raised more than a few eyebrows when –in the context of the early January 2020 edition of his state of the nation address– he announced his intention to implement constitutional reforms that would reshuffle the Russian political system. This move was even more intriguing considering the resignation of the entire Cabinet, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (a figure that, until not long ago, was seen by many as Putin’s potential successor). Consequently, even traditional ‘Kremlinologists’ are somewhat baffled and there has been a lot of speculation concerning the ultimate interests that motivate such agenda, but a careful analysis reveals that –in the grand scheme of things– Putin’s fateful announcement makes sense when seen from a strategic perspective of political realism.
Understanding the Importance of Putin’s Singular Profile
As an analytical methodology, geopolitics usually prioritises the behaviour of impersonal forces when it comes to grasping the realities of both international relations and domestic politics. In other words, it assumes that the margin of action for human agency is limited. However, skilful statesmen –a historical occurrence that is rather rare– can be able to turn the tables and challenge conventional paradigms in order to advance their respective countries’ national interests. Based on his record, it can be argued that Vladimir Putin is one of those figures whose leadership has managed to make a meaningful difference.
It is pertinent to underline that Putin’s worldview was undoubtedly shaped by his professional background as a KGB officer. Despite its legendary ruthlessness both at home and abroad, as the main intelligence agency of one of the two superpowers during the Cold War, the KGB –i.e. the Committee for State Security– was arguably one of the most knowledgeable and pragmatic branches of the Soviet government concerning worldly affairs and how to handle them. Regardless of the pervasive influence of communist propaganda in most sectors of Soviet society, the Committee developed a dispassionate and sharp mind-set, one that was not strongly contaminated by heavy ideological indoctrination. Thus, a clever KGB foreign intelligence officer could have a better sense of situational awareness and strategic clarity than the average Politburo apparatchiks.
Furthermore, Putin spent some time as a foreign intelligence officer in East Germany, an experience that allowed him to fathom the multidimensional complexity of the Cold War, Moscow’s top national security imperatives in Central Europe, the far-reaching might of the United States, the essential rationale of nuclear deterrence and the heterogeneous nature of the Western alliance, as well as the substantial degree of economic and technological development reached by several capitalist societies. Likewise, the fact that he hails from Saint Petersburg –Russia’s most westernised metropolis– is also telling.
Such circumstances strengthened Putin’s strategic thinking abilities, an asset whose practical value is more than useful in countless fields which require formidable analytical skills, including running a country. That is precisely what Putin was taking about when he famously stated that ‘there is no such thing as a former KGB man’. One must bear in mind that, above all else, the point of intelligence activities is to provide valuable input for the decision-making process. Interestingly, with the notable exceptions of characters like Henry Kissinger (once US National Security Advisor) and George H. W. Bush (once CIA Director), few Western leaders have shared a similar background.
When then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was about to become President of the Russian Federation 20 years ago, he half-jokingly told some colleagues that ‘a group of FSB operatives, dispatched undercover to work in the government of the Russian Federation, is successfully fulfilling its task’. In hindsight, it looks like perhaps that was a statement of fact rather than a joke.
Based on his idea that ‘the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20thcentury’, Putin’s opponents claim that he is some sort of neo-Soviet dictator. However, such criticism is flawed. Although Putin’s actions speak volumes about his rejection of Western-style liberal democracy as the model that Russia needs to follow, he does not intend to revive communism or to recreate the Soviet Union. As a pragmatic nationalist, what he laments is the steep degradation of Russian national power derived from the loss of its position as a super-power.
In the minds of average Russians, the 90s –the period were Russia tried to follow the political principles of liberal democracy and the axioms of free market economics– are not seen as times of prosperity, pride or hopefulness. Instead, those years are regarded as a tragic reflection of rampant corruption, increasing crime, acute economic stagnation, erratic political leadership, widespread poverty, social decay, unassertive foreign policies and constant national humiliation. As a result of this, Russia almost became a failed state. The rise of Vladimir Putin cannot be understood without the pressing need to solve such a crisis. After all, it is relevant to highlight that Caesarism flourishes precisely in times of trouble.
Hence, Putin intended to address such problems, identifying them as threats whose harmful impacts were jeopardising the very survival of Russia as a functional national state. The most important achievement of Putin and his clan is that they successfully managed to alter the internal balance of power in order to reassert the uncontested control of the Russian state over actors like local oligarchs, regional strongmen, organised crime networks, the Russian Orthodox Church and foreign companies. The new rule was that their often questionable activities would now be tolerated only as long as they did not undermine vital Russian national interests.
Accordingly, centrifugal forces would no longer be tolerated. The implementation of this authoritarian approach entailed the concentration of a great deal of power. In this process, the instrumental role played by Putin’s clan (the so called ‘Siloviki’) was vital. Not surprisingly, such group includes veterans from Soviet intelligence agencies, security services and armed forces, many of whom have literally occupied the most critical nerve-centres of the Russian state. That means that many of the top cadres of the Russian ruling elite are individuals more or less similar to Vladimir Putin.
To a certain degree and also thanks to the involvement of relatively young and highly educated technocrats, Putin’s administration managed to reactivate the most promising sectors of the Russian economy (aerospace, the manufacture of state-of-the-art weaponry and military hardware and the extraction of natural resources, mainly energy). The accumulation of gold as a geostrategic asset has also been pursued as a monetary policy priority. However, Russia is still over reliant on foreign investment and its economy is still not diversified enough to participate as a leading player in the innovative developments related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Also, the idea of turning Moscow into a world-class financial hub proved to be an illusion out of touch with reality. National power represents a multidimensional aggregate but, in order to achieve a sustainable position, a contemporary great power cannot rely on oil and gas exports as the cornerstone of its economic performance.
In contrast, Putin has demonstrated his acumen as a superb geopolitical player. His accomplishments in terms of foreign policy include the following:
-The development of comprehensive preparedness for enhancing Russia’s geopolitical presence in the Arctic, an interest that has implications for the control of raw materials, increased international business opportunities, the potential to revitalise Siberia and the chance to upgrade Russia’s military and maritime capabilities.
-The active participation of Moscow in multilateral frameworks like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
-The projection of power through unconventional conduits like paramilitary private companies, psychological operations, memetic warfare, covert action, the manipulation of diplomatic intrigue, cyber espionage, amongst others.
-The profitable exploitation of foreign markets eager to purchase the items manufactured by the Russian military-industrial complex.
-The participation of Russian regular and irregular forces in complex battlefields like Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
-The restoration of Russia a great power whose interests cannot be overlooked and also as a powerbroker whose influence is felt in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and the Far East.
-The modernisation of Russian strategic weapons as a factor that reinforces the credibility of Russian foreign policy.
Nevertheless, the restoration of undisputed Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union –the so called ‘near abroad’– still remains elusive. For instance, even the project to undertake Anschluss with Belarus is not advancing as expected. Furthermore, it is unclear if Moscow’s efforts to return Ukraine to Russia’s geopolitical orbit will be successful in the near future. Even though the Kremlin annexed the Crimean Peninsula a few years ago, direct or indirect control of Ukraine is crucial in terms of infrastructure, defence, demographic weight, agricultural productiveness and industrial output.
Another structural problem waiting to be solved is the country’s dramatic demographic decline. Despite a continuous modest improvement, the downward trend still needs to be reversed. Russia’s current fertility rate is still below replacement levels. This is a major challenge for a country whose population is mostly concentrated in a relatively small area (European Russia) of its huge territory. Without a substantial demographic volume, Russia’s critical mass will diminish in the long run in the economic, geopolitical, military and cultural realms. Thus, the eventual prospect of depopulation could compromise Russian national security.
In short, Putin started his first presidential term as a visionary reformer so, in order to carry out his ambitious plans, he accumulated a great deal of power. In this respect, his enlightened despotism is similar to that of other Russian rulers who wanted to transform and modernise the country, like Peter the Great. Hence, Putin’s levels of authoritarianism and hawkishness are relatively mild for Russian standards (the contrast is evident when comparisons with Ivan the Terrible or Stalin are made). Some progress has been made and the flame of national morale has been rekindled during the reign of President Putin and his clan, but there are problematic issues that will have to be dealt with if Russia truly wants to reassert itself as a relevant player on the global geopolitical chessboard.
What to Expect
Putin’s recent announcement was rather vague and, consistently with the Kremlin’s traditional hermeticism, not many details have emerged yet. It is remarkable that the New Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin is (former head of the Federal Tax Service) a skilful technocrat but he does not belong to the Siloviki clan. Given his profile and background, it is not clear is he is being groomed as Putin’s handpicked successor or he is simply acting as a temporary manager.
Kremlinologists are discussing if Putin intends to retire by 2024 (when his current term ends) or if he somehow intends to retain power or at the very least a great deal of de facto control. Perhaps it is a false dilemma. Someone like Putin does not have to be President for life in order to operate as the ultimate mastermind behind the throne. Regardless of official titles, Putin can pull the strings from other positions. After all, strategic thinking emphasises the importance of flexibility when it comes to securing a continuous advantage.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the role of both the State Council (a deliberative and executive decision-making body) and the Russian Parliament will be strengthened, particularly when it comes to matters related to defence, national security and foreign policies, fields Putin is more than familiar with. That means Putin is likely widening his political margin of action.
Furthermore, Putin is already 67 years old. If he remains indefinitely in power as President of the Russian Federation with no clear and legitimate succession process, then it is merely a matter of time before a succession crisis unleashes an ensuing power struggle that can undermine the continuity of his national project, undoing what has been achieved during the last two decades. In other words, Putinism–with or without Putin– needs to find an institutional way to survive if its vision is to prevail well into the 21st century. Otherwise, its prospects could be compromised in a foreseeable future. Therefore, the model –albeit still authoritarian– will have to de depersonalised.
Another consideration that deserves to be taken into account is that the implementation of a political reform buys more time to address complicated issues –which directly affect the lives of millions of ordinary Russian citizens– that might hypothetically galvanise popular discontent and maybe even unrest.
This measure will provide room to groom several potential successors but also to make the adjustments that will be necessary in order to guarantee the stability and functionality of the Russian regime as it navigates through unchartered waters. It is still too early to forecast what role Putin intends to play after 2024 but it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that all options are on the table. The die has been cast and that is likely by design.
Like most political phenomena, Putinism is a product of its circumstances. Furthermore, its patterns are consistent with the Russian long-term geopolitical cycle. It arose in times of intense turmoil and it has managed to strengthen a national state whose vitality was declining as a result of multiple difficulties. Thus, the national power of the Russian state has been restored to a certain extent, but there are dire challenges waiting to be overcome and that fuels both uncertainty and anxiety. Hence, Putinism is preparing to face what is to come in the next few decades but, as usual, only time will tell if the project it advocates turns out to be successful.
Nobody Wants a War in Donbass
Any escalation is unique in its own way. Right now there’s a combination of unfavorable trends on both sides, which are leading to an escalation of the conflict. This combination creates additional risks and threats that weren’t there before.
On the Ukrainian side, the problem is that the president is losing his political position and becoming a hostage of right-wing and nationalist forces. Many of the reform initiatives that he came to power with have stalled. Political sentiments are changing within his faction. They’re saying that with his recent steps, in particular the language law and the closure of television stations that Kyiv dislikes, he’s starting to stray towards the agenda of his predecessor, Poroshenko. And this means a weakening of his position. Probably, he’s already thinking about re-election and how he will look during the campaign. Here, the trend is unfavorable.
On the other hand, there’s the arrival of Biden, who will always be more attentive to Ukraine than Trump. There’s an expectation that the U.S. will be more consistent and decisive in its support for the Ukrainian side in the event of a conflict. This invigorates the forces that are looking for an escalation.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also played a role. They said there was only a political path to resolving the conflict, but in Karabakh [the Azerbaijanis] used force and made real progress. This motivates the people who think that military force can resolve a conflict. Moreover, Ukraine is carrying out defense cooperation with Turkey, so there may be hopes that the balance of forces will shift in Kyiv’s favor.
There’s also a radicalization of the political leadership of the DNR and LNR. They say that [full-scale] war is, if not inevitable, than very likely—and Russia must intervene. The idea that the DNR and LNR should join Russia is gaining popularity once again. This is facilitated by Russia’s actions. In the last two years, the mechanisms for granting Russian citizenship to residents of the LNR and DNR have changed. Hundreds of thousands of LNR and DNR residents are already citizens of the Russian Federation, and Russia has—or at the very least should have—some obligations towards its citizens. This gives hope to [the residents] of the LNR and DNR that if an escalation begins, Russia won’t remain on the sidelines and we will see large-scale intervention. Without Russia, the conflict will not develop in the favor of the republics.
As for Russia, our relations with the West continue to deteriorate. There’s Biden’s statement about Putin being a killer, and relations with the European Union. We are witnessing an accumulation of destabilizing trends.
I don’t think anyone wants a real, big war, since the costs of such a conflict will exceed the political dividends. It’s difficult to predict what such a conflict might lead to, given that the stakes are very high. But an unintended escalation could occur.
Hopefully, all of those involved have enough wisdom, determination, and tolerance to find a positive solution. So far, we are far from a serious conflict, but we’re closer than at the beginning of April 2020 or 2019. Unfortunately, we’re headed downhill, and it’s difficult to say how long it will go on.
To prevent a [full-scale] war from starting, the situation in Donbass needs to be stabilized. That’s the first task. In recent weeks, the number of ceasefire violations has been increasing, and the number of victims is growing. We need to return to the issues of the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the OSCE mission, and monitoring the ceasefire.
The second task is to discuss issues of political regulation. The main uncertainty is how flexible all the parties can be. The Minsk agreements were signed a long time ago, [but] it’s difficult to implement them in full, there needs to be a demonstrated willingness not to revise them, but to somehow bring them up to date. How ready are the parties for this? So far, we aren’t seeing much of this, but without it we will not advance any further.
The third issue is that it’s impossible to resolve the Donbass problem separately from the problem of European security as a whole. If we limit ourselves to how we fought in Donbass, Kyiv will always be afraid that Russia will build up its strength and an intervention will begin. And in Russia there will always be the fear that NATO infrastructure will be developed near Voronezh and Belgorod. We have to deal not only with this issue, but also think about how to create the entire architecture of European security. And it isn’t a question of experts lacking imagination and qualifications, but of statesmen lacking the political will to seriously deal with these issues. Because if you reduce everything to the requirements of the formal implementation of the Minsk agreements, this is what we’ve been fighting about for seven years already.
I think that Ukraine will now try to increase the political pressure on Moscow and get away from the issue of the Minsk agreements. And going forward a lot depends on what the position of the West and U.S. will be. To what extent and in what format will they provide support in the event of an escalation? This is still an open question. And, I think, even Biden doesn’t know the answer to it.
From our partner RIAC
Updating the USSR: A Test for Freedom
Thirty years ago, on March 17, 1991, the only all-Union referendum in the history of the USSR took place. One question was put to a vote: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of a person of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Almost 77 percent of those who voted said “yes” to the preservation of the USSR in an updated form. The authorities of Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia refused to hold the referendum on their territory. By that time, the legislative and executive bodies and institutions in these republics were already controlled by secessionist forces, which did not hide their intentions to leave the USSR.
The March 17 referendum at that time was the only convincing attempt to appeal to public opinion on the most important issue of the political life of a huge country. However, the results did not change anything — by December 8 of the same year, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine decided to dissolve the USSR. The referendum itself became the beginning of the end of a unique state — an experiment in the vast expanses of Eurasia. By that time, the republican elites were already ready to take power and wealth into their own hands; the events of August 1991 spurred this readiness — in Turkmenistan, where almost 100 percent of the population voted to preserve the USSR, on August 22, 1991, all enterprises were placed under republican control.
All the republics of the USSR met the new year in 1992 as newly independent states. For some of them, this status was a long-awaited event, for which they had fought. Others were, according to former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Apas Jumagulov, “thrown out of the union, cut off as an unnecessary part of the body.” Many economic ties broke off immediately, while others collapsed gradually; the rest survived and were even strengthened. In politics, everyone was left to their own problems. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan plunged into bloody political and interethnic conflicts during their first years of independence.
The path of the countries that emerged from the ruins of the USSR over the years was the road to gaining their own subjectivity in international politics. With great difficulty and despite all odds, Armenia and Moldova are coping with this task. The majority — Russia, Azerbaijan and all the countries of Central Asia — were able to solve the problem more or less successfully. Georgia and two Slavic republics — Belarus and Ukraine, were hanging in the “limbo” between external management and full-fledged statehood. The three Baltic republics quickly transferred their sovereignty to the European Union and NATO. In their independent development, they had to make, in fact, the only decision, which, moreover, was due to historical reasons and external circumstances. This decision was made and now the fate of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia cannot be perceived outside the context of Russia-West interaction.
For the rest, the direct link between success in creating their own statehood and the scale of interaction with the West (Europe and the United States) is quite obvious. This historical fact reveals a relationship between the ability of small and medium states to ensure their sovereignty and the interests of the great powers in their neighbourhood. Such powers were Russia and the European states, united into the European Union simultaneously with the collapse of the USSR. Also, an important role was played by the United States, which always sought to limit Russian opportunities and supported the newly independent states. At the same time, an attempt to choose in favour of closer relations with the West to the detriment of Russian interests in all cases, without exception, led to a very shaky statehood and the loss of territory.
The dramatic fate of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine shows that the strong collective institutions of the West are capable of exerting a stabilising effect only on those states that directly became part of them.
In all other cases, no matter how complete absorption becomes possible, an orientation towards these institutions only leads to the use of small countries in a diplomatic game with bigger partners.
Therefore, the experience of the development of such major players as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan is indicative — they were able to confidently form their own statehood, without finding themselves in a situation of choosing between conflicting poles of power. Their main resource turned out to be a rather fair demographic situation. But not only this — the population of Ukraine has also been and remains large by European standards. Kazakhstan is a success by this indicator; equal to the average European country or small Asian states.
Therefore, the ability of most of the countries of the former USSR to build relatively independent and stable statehood played no less important role. In many ways, this ability was established during the years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Founded on December 30, 1922, it was not just a continuation of the Russian Empire, which had collapsed five years earlier. Its main distinguishing feature was its unique model of state administration, based on the full power of one political party. As long as the unique position of the Communist Party remained in the Soviet state, the experiment could exist. With the abolition of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, its days were numbered regardless of the desire of the population or the real readiness of the elites to take full responsibility for what was happening.
The USSR model of state structure, new by historical standards, created the conditions for a rather unique experiment, within the framework of which union republics were created, none of which, except for Russia, Georgia and Armenia, had the experience of centralised state administration within the territorial boundaries that they acquired within the framework of the USSR. At least the peoples inhabiting them can boast of a significant experience of statehood as such. Thus, most of the countries of Central Asia trace their ancestry back to great empires or urban civilizations of past centuries.
The Baltic republics were always on the sidelines — their independent statehood arose during the collapse of the Russian Empire and existed as such for almost 20 years before being incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Russia has returned to its historical state of being a major European power or empire of the 19th century, with the development of a multinational and multi-faith society central to its development objectives. In fact, Russia has not lost anything really necessary for its survival in international politics.
The peculiar structure of the USSR formalised the situation in which the former outskirts of the Russian Empire ceased to be part of the Russian state, although Moscow served as the centre of the union. Russia among them was in the most ambiguous position — it did not have its own most important institutions of Soviet statehood — the party organisation and the republican State Security Committee. Russian nationalism was subjected to the most severe and consistent persecution by the Soviet authorities.
The vast majority of republics within the USSR, for the first time, received the experience of building their own state and their national elite.
The backbone of the ruling class was the Soviet and party nomenklatura, which all took power, with few exceptions, after 1991. Even in Tajikistan, where the first years of independence were overshadowed by the civil war, it was this part of society that was eventually able to establish control over the situation. In other Central Asian countries, elites formed on the basis of the state tradition established during the Soviet era, gradually supplemented by representatives of a new generation that grew professionally after the collapse of the USSR.
Thirty years is a sufficient period to assess the results of the independent development of the countries that emerged from the republics of the former USSR. Now the period of their growing up can be considered complete; ahead is an independent future. Russia is increasingly feeling independent and not particularly obligated to its neighbours. In any event, Moscow will continue to follow a moral imperative of responsibility for maintaining peace and strictly ensure that its neighbours correlate their actions with Russian security interests.
From our partner RIAC
Fighting Covid-19 pandemic: The Russian Way
With a strong structured plan and that includes President Vladimir Putin weekly meetings with regional governors and related ministry officials, Russia is indeed making headway in mobilizing first its own domestic resources in fighting and controlling the coronavirus pandemic.
Under these time-testing conditions, the Russian government also ponders on the necessity to adopt a concerted approach to the economic sectors related to public health system, making efforts to strengthen fundamental research in all health disciplines and close the pitfalls in its policy.
Arguably, Russia is really moving with innovative orientations, exploring and finding lasting solutions. Russia is far ahead, both in terms of medical tests and vaccines. Currently, it is partnering with India and South Korea in manufacturing vaccines for immunization of both foreigners and Russians.
“India and South Korea are already producing the vaccine, and many of these enterprises will reach full capacity in April. Thus, this is truly the greatest achievement of Russian science, which is widely acknowledged by the entire world,” CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev told Russian President Vladimir Putin during an early April meeting to review developments as well as production and promotion of Russian vaccines.
In addition, he informed the president that RDIF and its partners are actively working with Russian manufacturers, it took us three months to build Sputnik Technopolis, one of the largest plants to produce the vaccine, and together with R-Pharm. Russia is setting up international production per agreements with 10 countries and 20 manufacturers, including the world’s largest producers.
Beyond that, the Russian Direct Investment Fund is actively implementing a programme, of course, with a focus on vaccinating Russian citizens, but part of the vaccine produced abroad will simultaneously be delivered to foreign markets, according Dmitriev.
According to his assessment, Russia is not only one of the current leaders in the world in terms of vaccination rate, but it can provide vaccines to all people in Russia who want to be vaccinated before June using the production capacities in Russia and abroad.
“As I understood from talking to experts, our vaccine is effective against all known strains of the virus,” Putin commented during the discussion, and Kirill Dmitriev smartly added that “due to the two jabs, it is better than the other vaccines as relates to mutations. We believe that our vaccine is one of the best in the world, including against new strains of COVID-19.”
Reports show that Russia has produced 20.1 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine as of March 17, while 4.3 million people, out of a population of 144 million, have received both shots of the vaccine.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, at 225,572, the total coronavirus-related death toll places Russia third after the United States, which has reported over 553,000 deaths, and Brazil, with over 325,000.
According to the Russian Statistics Service, this April Russia has recorded over 225,000 deaths related to coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. That Russia has the third highest death toll in the world.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 by the Russian government to make investments in leading companies of high-growth sectors of the Russian economy. Its mandate is to co-invest alongside the world’s largest institutional investors – direct investment funds, sovereign wealth funds and leading companies.
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