Recent geopolitical developments in Eurasia indicate that the South Caucasus’ relative importance could be overshadowed by West-Russia competition over Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia. This trend was quite visible during Mike Pompeo’s visit to Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan which laid out the US administration’s priorities in the former Soviet Union for 2020 and well into 2021. Yet another reason for the South Caucasus’ ambiguous position is Russia’s growing concern with Minsk and Kyiv in the west and Tashkent’s maneuvers to eschew to Moscow’s attempts to expand its influence over these geographically and economically important states.
The South Caucasus plays an important role in the US/EU’s strategic calculus. One of the biggest imperatives of since the breakup of the Soviet Union was to enable newly independent Georgia and Azerbaijan to use their geographic position as a nodal point in the nascent South Caucasus energy and transport corridor. For the West the effectiveness of the South Caucasus corridor would potentially underpin a much bigger project, the Trans-Caspian Corridor (consisting of a pipeline, intensive port-to-port contacts, etc.), which, though still only an idea with some minor success (successful division of the Caspian seabed among the littoral states reached in August, 2018), but could, under altered circumstances, become a geopolitical reality.
All these initiatives inevitably increase the South Caucasus’ independence against Russian (old Soviet) transportation networks as the Caspian Sea oil and gas resources open up to the West.
Though important geopolitically, many politicians and analysts in the South Caucasus at times tend to overemphasize the role the region plays in the West’s and Russia’s foreign policy. In fact, what various recent political and economic trends in the region show is that major geopolitical battle grounds will be opening up elsewhere in Eurasia far beyond the South Caucasus.
A partial reason for this is Russia whose geopolitical attention since 2014 has been primarily diverted to the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, for the past year or so, Moscow increased its efforts in other directions. In relations with Belarus, which has traditionally pursued a pro-Russian policy, Russia raises the ante by reportedly demanding the territorial, economic and military merger as a part of the agreement signed between Minsk and Moscow in December 1999. As Belarus successfully resists Moscow’s efforts, it is likely that the Kremlin’s moves to influence Belarus will continue to grow in 2020-2021. Another central issue will be Ukraine, where Moscow and Kyiv have reached some understanding on the need to de-escalate the situation in Donbas and find a long-term solution to the problem.
Another region which will be an active theater of Russian diplomatic and economic moves is Central Asia. There, Uzbekistan with its industrial and political might and resting on a fertile Fergana Valley and bordering on four other Central Asian states, the country is a key to Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions. Various reports emerged throughout 2019 indicating that Moscow was in active negotiations with Tashkent to have it join the Eurasian Economic Union. There are also indications that Tashkent is resisting the idea and the probability is, at least from the open source material, that Uzbekistan will join EEU as an observer.
This regional context is important to understand the evolving importance of the South Caucasus for 2020-2021. Belarus and Uzbekistan (on top of Ukraine) represent those focal points in the Eurasian landmass where the US’ and to a lesser degree the EU’s attention will drawn to. Indeed, during his recent visit Mike Pompeo did not tour the South Caucasus, but visited Belarus, Ukraine and the Central Asian region (specifically Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) to increase western efforts in battling Russian initiatives. The visit was followed by the publication of a new US strategy document for Central Asia further indicating a growing role of the region in the western perspective.
These long-term trends show that Russia’s large political and economic moves are not expected in the South Caucasus. The situation in the region remains complex, but it nevertheless is relatively stable as Russian military and economic presence is predominant. Moscow has reached a certain limit to its power in Georgia, where through Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region, it successfully prevents Tbilisi from becoming a NATO/EU member. In Armenia too, which is Russia’s closest ally in the region, Moscow achieved its primary geopolitical goals through the stationing of its troops as well as buying Armenia’s strategic infrastructure capabilities. This is while Azerbaijan tries to pursue a balanced, one might even call an independent foreign policy based on its large revenues and influence from oil and gas trade as well as strategic position at the Caspian Sea. However, as long as Baku has an unresolved problem of Nagorno Karabakh, Russia is not particularly worried about Azerbaijan’s geopolitical goals.
This creates an interesting geopolitical picture in the South Caucasus when Russia is unlikely to make any particularly ambitious moves as its vital interests are secured for the foreseeable future. Hence, Moscow’s larger economic and political attention will be drawn to other regions such as Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia.
The South Caucasus’ relative inconspicuousness in regional geopolitics was also well apparent in the Iran crisis which broke out this January following the general Qasem Soleimani’s killing in Baghdad. Geographically bordering on Iran, it was expected by many in the analytical community that the Soleimani crisis could increase the US/EU interests in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, compared to the western attention paid to Iraq, Persian Gulf or Afghanistan amid the Iran-US confrontation, there was little similarity in the US/EU thinking regarding the South Caucasus.
Surely, this is not to say that the South Caucasus’ importance declines in the Eurasian affairs. The region remains an important transit corridor connecting the Black and Caspian Sea. Moreover, it also connects Central Asia to Eastern Europe and serves for Russia as a connection point with the volatile Middle East. These basic geopolitics will keep the South Caucasus crucial to the regional players.
However, when compared to other regions across the Eurasian landmass which, as we argued above, are bound to be geopolitically active, it is clear that for the West and Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia will of bigger importance for the rest of 2020 and well into 2021. There is too much economically at stake in these aforementioned regions. Since Russia’s interests in the South Caucasus are well-preserved for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely to expect any significant political and military moves from Moscow.
Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch
Does Biden want to keep Ukraine as a personal fiefdom?
The strange policy, pursued by the present occupant of the White House during the past few weeks is fairly surprising. Moreover, Joe Biden’s actions vis-à-vis Russia are downright contradictory, to say the least. Or maybe his strange initiatives are sending some ulterior message to the team around him and those who supported last fall’s very dirty elections?
On the morning of April 15, President Joe Biden signed a presidential directive introducing a new batch of anti-Russian sanctions. The move sent the Russian ruble slightly down and prompted new statements by Russian politicians about the need to brace up for an even greater break with the West, and even of switching Russian banks from the SWIFT system of international financial transactions. Moreover, competent sources say that the prospect, fraught with a severe collapse of Russia’s national currency, prevented Moscow from snapping up in 2014 the whole of what Russians call Malorossiya (Little Russia). Six years on, Russia is ready to face up to this threat now that it has its very own national payment system MIR, and its Chinese partners are ready to introduce en masse their UnionPay system. Chances are that Moscow will eventually abandon SWIFT and deprive Washington and Brussels of one of the few remaining levers of pressure on Russia.
However, just a day earlier, Biden had been negotiating, and sort of agreed about a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin within the next few weeks. Well, there are things that need to be settled on a personal level, of course. And still, “within a few weeks” means an “emergency” summit. Even the leaders of small countries do not schedule one-on-one meetings at such a short notice as bilateral summits, especially between great power leaders. It normally take a year and more to prepare. Therefore, “a few weeks” is a very inconvenient period for diplomatic protocol and security officials, advisers and the staff of heads of state.
One obvious explanation for such a rush could be the looming military standoff between Russia and Ukraine. Confused by conflicting instructions from the old and new US administrations, and forced to maneuver between his own oligarchs and the far-right forces, Ukraine’s President Zelensky is apparently unable to pursue a pragmatic policy. He cannot take a step back, Ukraine’s resources are not sufficient enough for any lengthy arms rattling along the borders of the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk republics, and he has very small chances of a blitzkrieg. As a result, a war can break out simply by accident or as a result of actions by some trigger-happy mid-rank commander on the ground.
However, it looks like Washington may find itself the winner no matter how the war may unfold. Kiev’s victory and the return of Donetsk and Lugansk under its control will seriously undermine Putin’s position both at home and on the international front. On the other hand, Kiev’s local defeat will give an excellent reason for slapping new sanctions on Moscow, including the Nord Stream project, which prevents the United States from selling its liquefied natural gas to Europe. Well, the hypothetical Russian offensive and the reunification of Novorossiya and Little Russia with Russia will make it possible to declare the Russian Federation an evil empire, will force the NATO allies to ramp up their defense outlays and spend money on deploying additional US military contingents on their soil. The problem for Russia is that it does not have enough resources to quickly and effectively integrate even the 4.5 million-strong Novorossiya (Odessa, Kherson and Nikolayev regions), let alone the whole of Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, to feed the “Kremlin monster” Ukraine and wait for it to die from indigestion would seem a simple way out for Washington. And still, Biden goes to negotiate, demonstrating his readiness for playing hardball (after all, he introduced new sanctions after agreeing to a meeting). Why?
Throughout last year, many Ukrainian and later US politicians, led by former New York mayor and Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani were trying hard to draw public attention to Hunter Biden’s allegedly corrupt business dealings in Ukraine, backed by his father, Joe Biden (in April 2014, the son of the then US Vice President, Hunter Biden joined the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.
The Ukrainians, including their former Prosecutor General, provided strong enough evidence of funds withdrawn via Burisma and exorbitant salaries paid to foreign directors. President Donald Trump personally intervened in support of the investigation as it turned out that many businessmen with links to the Democratic Party had been somehow involved in murky financial dealings in Ukraine. However, the investigation was gradually rolled up. But wasn’t Burisma just the tip of the corruption iceberg? It was the Democratic US administration that removed Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych. Since March 2014, Kiev has been taking recommendations by US ambassadors as direct instructions. The independent policies of the two pro-Western presidents, Poroshenko and Zelenskiy, have always been a big question. Meanwhile, impoverished Ukraine is a potentially very rich region with lots of fertile land and mineral resources, but the authorities are still unable to support local businesses and agrarians, even if they wanted to. Since 2014, the country has consistently been bending under IMF demands jacking up tariffs, abandoning any protectionist measures, and losing any control over foreign investors. Therefore, it is very hard to say just how many business assets in Ukraine are actually controlled by US Democrats. And if we assume that in exchange for political support Biden and his entourage handed out lucrative contracts to local businessmen under their control, then the situation for the US leader looks absolutely critical.
Well, even if Zelensky surrenders to Russian tankmen, goes to Moscow and comes clean about Biden’s unsightly role in organizing corruption schemes, the Democratic Party’s powerful propaganda machine will still cope with that. Gone are the days when direct evidence of corruption and other crimes led to the resignation of politicians. That being said, what will Biden tell his business partners if the Russians win? Moreover, any military defeat could be the end of Ukraine as an independent state. The only alternative is direct military support for Zelensky, but this would be a shortcut to the Third World War, where there will be no winners!
Peace, Problems and Perspectives in the Post-war South Caucasus
The Second Karabakh War ended with the signing of the trilateral declaration between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 10, 2020. The declaration, which stopped the war and laid the foundation for solving other thorny issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the liberation of the remaining territories under occupation (Aghdam, Kalbajar, Lachin) as well as the unblocking of all economic and transport communications in the region, may have heralded the dawning of a different period in the history of a long war-ravaged region of the South Caucasus. This is evidenced by the announcement of new cooperation initiatives such as the “six-party cooperation platform” and the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor,” which aims not only to link Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also to play a wider role in enhancing the region’s standing by providing interconnectivity across diverse geographic and geopolitical zones. This process has already involved Russia and Turkey and will potentially facilitate links between Central Asia and Europe. There is much going on in the region in this regard and talks about the probability of building a Pax Caucasia in the South Caucasus are more than mere hype.
There have already been reports and testimonies about Azerbaijan’s intention to move on, post-Second Karabakh War, and adopt a maximally cooperative and magnanimous approach towards Armenia following the latter’s defeat in the war. This was apparent in the many concessions made by Azerbaijan in the post-war period, such as providing a ten-day extension (from November 15 to November 25, 2020) of the deadline for the Armenian Armed Forces and the Armenian population that had settled in Kalbajar during the occupation to leave the region, and the return to Armenia of 69 Armenian nationalsdetained in Azerbaijan and 1400 bodies. Moreover, as a gesture of good will, Azerbaijan helped with the transfer of humanitarian aid to Armenian residents in Karabakh; facilitated the transfer of goods through Azerbaijan’s main territory; allowed Armenian citizens to continue using the parts of the Gorus–Kafan highway that pass through the newly liberated Azerbaijani territories; and last, but definitely not least, for the first time in three decades the transportation of Russian natural gas to Armenia through Azerbaijan became a reality.
However, this cautious optimism about the nascent prospects of peace and cooperation in the region is facing a number of challenges. These include Armenia’s flouting of Article 4 of the November 10, 2020 declaration that demanded the withdrawal of all remaining armed groups from Azerbaijani territories; purposeful misrepresentation by Armenia of militia members captured by Azerbaijan as a result of counter-terrorist operations since November 10 as prisoners of war (PoW) and resultant attempts to exert pressure on Azerbaijan; and the newly intensified debate on who might have launched Iskandar M missiles against the Azerbaijani city of Shusha during the 44-day war. The latter issue in particular seems to boggle the mind after the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) recently discovered the remnants of an Iskandar M ballistic missile in Shusha. According to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the export version of this missile is the Iskandar E, which the Russian Federation exported only to Armenia. The Iskandar M, the remnants of one of which were discovered in Shusha,is in the sole possession of the Russian Federation. The story behind this discovery definitely has a dark side that needs to be clarified, as the absence of plausible answers may generate dangerous speculation. Either way, this issue, along with the others discussed above, is also inhibiting a seamless transition to the post-conflict rehabilitation period.
In addition to the above, the danger posed by the landmines planted in the previously occupied Azerbaijani territories is very acute. According to some estimates, Armenia spent$350 million on planting landmines in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. ANAMA is currently undertaking operations towards clearing the areas contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) and initial estimates suggest that the neutralization of UXO, missiles, and the remaining ammunition in the combat areas could require 5–6 years, while it might take some10–13 years before the mined areas are completely cleared. Although Azerbaijan is also receiving help from its friends, partners, and international organizations, including Turkey, Russia, and the United Nations, in the form of staff training, delivery of mine-clearing equipment, and financial assistance, this is obviously not yet sufficient for tackling this very difficult and precarious work.
The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that, in response to all the gestures of goodwill by Azerbaijan aimed at turning the page on hostility and embarking on building a cooperative relationship with Armenia, the latter still refuses to give Azerbaijan maps of the landmines planted in its formerly occupied territories. Worse still, as noted by the Assistant to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan – Head of the Department of Foreign Policy Affairs of the Presidential Administration at the briefing held for the diplomatic corps on the occasion of the “International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action” (April 5, 2021),on the one occasion when Azerbaijan was able to obtain maps of purported mined areas from Armenia, these maps turned out to contain false information, as ANAMA was unable to find anything based on the coordinates therein. “This could mean that Armenia purposefully misled Azerbaijan,” Mr. Hajiyev noted. Apparently, there is still no progress whatsoever in terms of persuading Armenia to cooperate on the issue of landmines. However, this is hugely important, as refusal to collaborate on such a crucial issue may diminish the already meagre prospects for achieving lasting peace and cooperation between the erstwhile enemies in the wake of Azerbaijan’s one-sided concessions to Armenia.
International conventions prohibit anti-personnel landmines (APL), the most dangerous form used against civilians. Every year, reputable organizations in the field, such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL),report thousands of people dying or being injured owing to landmines. Post-Second Karabakh war, Azerbaijan has already reported the deaths of dozens of its citizens as well as military servicemen, including Russian peacekeepers, who have died or been maimed as result of anti-personnel landmine explosions. If the correct maps of the mined areas are not given to the Azerbaijani side in due time, the numbers of casualties will increase, adding to the already daunting global statistics of human deaths due to landmines. It is hoped that Armenia will not realize too late that civilians should not be at the receiving end of the regime’s frustration and resentfulness over the war that was lost.
Thus, there are clearly visible challenges of the post-conflict period that need to be overcome. The complexity of the outstanding issues demands transparency, cooperation, and mutual compromise if there is a genuine wish to move away from the horrors of the past. This should be undertaken by all the stakeholders that signed the November 10, 2020, agreements that ended the Second Karabakh War, because unilateral efforts may likely be insufficient to ultimately break the vicious cycle of hostility and war.
South Caucasus: Prospects and challenges
During an online conference on the current situation in the South Caucasus, hosted by Rossiya Segodnya news agency, the executive director of the “Eurasian Development” center Stanislav Pritchin and Alexander Karavayev, a researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics, presented their joint report on the “Settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the development of the South Caucasus: prospects and challenges.”
Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Azeri and Armenian colleagues on the sidelines of the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CIS to discuss humanitarian and economic issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh. They noted that the Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh, signed on November 9, 2020, was the first document in many years to tackle systemic issues of settlement and offer a primary plan for normalizing relations between the conflicting sides.
During the online conference, Stanislav Prichin and Alexander Karavayev outlined potential areas of cooperation in various fields and identified the role of external actors, primarily of Russia and Turkey, in realizing the existing potential. They also analyzed the prospects of economic development in the South Caucasus.
Stanislav Pritchin said that the idea of writing the report came right after the signing of the peace accord in Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition to the usual collection of information, several roundtables were held, attended by Russian experts, and Armenian and Azerbaijani specialists were polled and asked the same questions. Naturally enough, Baku and Yerevan had diametrically opposite views of the results of the ceasefire agreement, with Azerbaijan seeing them as a reflection of the changes brought about by its military victories, while Armenia views them as a major defeat that forced it to make major concessions. There was even talk about the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government. Pashinyan has so far managed to stabilize the situation, with early parliamentary elections slated for this coming summer, which will most likely keep him in power. Polls also showed that even if Pashinyan’s party loses out, Armenia will still be forced to comply with the terms of the agreement simply by virtue of its position. Indeed, Yerevan has been quick to give the Akdam, Geybaldar and Lachin regions back to Baku.
Speaking of risks and challenges, the expert noted that we are primarily talking about domestic political risks both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as external ones – exacerbation of contradictions between outside players and, finally, the danger of a new conflict flaring up directly between Yerevan and Baku. … First of all, Armenia finds itself in the former group of risks. A survey of experts done in February showed that 67 percent of respondents believed that Nikol Pashinyan would not stay in power, while only 33 believed he would. The situation in Azerbaijan is calmer: they expect Armenia to fulfill all the terms of the trilateral agreement. By the way, Azerbaijan has a lot of work to do to restore the region’s infrastructure and resettle the refugees, which will prove a heavy burden on the country’s budget.
As far as external risks go, the gravest concern is the regional rivalry between Russia and Turkey. Seventy-two percent of the Armenian experts surveyed believe that this is fraught with destructive consequences, and only 28 said that Russian-Turkish interaction will help stabilize the region. The overwhelming majority of Azeri experts have no problem with the Russian and Turkish influence on the peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh. The role of the OSCE Minsk Group in the settlement of the Karabakh problem is assessed differently in Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the Armenians pin hopes on the Group, the Azerbaijanis do not see any benefit from it.
The status of the Russian peacekeepers, who will stay on in the conflict zone for the next five years, is an important issue. Their mandate will automatically be renewed if it is not objected to by either side. As of now, 42 percent of Azeri experts believe that five years from now the mission of the Russian peacekeepers will be over. Just as many believe that they will still be needed, and 16 percent said that it will depend on the situation. In Armenia, 85 percent of respondents answered that five years from now the presence of Russian peacekeepers will still be needed.
The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh remains the biggest sticking point, with Azerbaijan considering this territory as its own, which is confirmed by the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council issued in the wake of the Soviet breakup. The Armenians, conversely, believe that even after the conclusion of the November trilateral agreement, Nikol Pashinyan does not recognize Azerbaijan’s right to Nagorno-Karabakh. A survey of the two countries’ experts showed that in each of them the absolute majority – more than 80 percent – thinks that within the next five years the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will not acquire a mutually acceptable legal form. Pritchin also considers the problem of border delimitation in disputed territories as being intractable.
Wrapping up the political section of the report, Stanislav Pritchin outlined three possible scenarios of political development in the South Caucasus: negative, neutral and optimal. In a negative scenario, one or more parties opt out of the trilateral accord. According to the neutral scenario, some of the provisions of this agreement will be implemented, while some will not. The positive scenario sees the implementation of all provisions by all the signatories to the deal. The majority of experts in Armenia (about 80 percent) and a significant number (over 40 percent) of those in Azerbaijan, gravitate towards the second, neutral variant.
The economic part of the report was presented by Alexander Karavayev, who emphasized that it is for the first time in 30 years that a post-Soviet state is restoring its territorial integrity, including in economic terms. Not only did the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh suffer from the ethnic conflict of 1991-92, but it was not developing economically and did not have any investment status. The development took place only at the microeconomic level; there were no large-scale recovery programs sponsored by the state, including those aimed at luring major foreign investors. Karavayev warns that given the enormity of the tasks at hand one should not expect any quick results – we are talking about a decade, no less.
The Azeri leadership has outlined the first stage of restoration to run until 2025. In 2021, US 1.3 billion will be allocated for the reconstruction of energy facilities, the construction of roads, trunk infrastructure, including the creation of transit transport communications across the territory of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. To fill them with goods, Armenia, as the party that has suffered the most from the conflict, must see the prospects for making up for the losses. This could be achieved through exports, primarily of raw materials, such as copper ore and rare earth and precious metals (molybdenum, gold, etc.). In practical terms, the export of raw materials from Armenia to Mediterranean ports would be facilitated by modernizing the old Soviet railway via the Nakhichevan autonomous region to the Turkish port of Iskenderun, where there is a terminal of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works. Alexander Karavayev warned, however, that the implementation of large-scale economic projects would attract big investors and competition between them could stir up contradictions between large regional players. He still believes that “the game is worth the candle.”
The main conclusion that can be drawn from the report is that the signing of the trilateral agreement has opened a “window of opportunity” for the gradual normalization of political and economic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the settlement of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
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