If one is to believe the countless recent articles about hypersonic weapons, then Russia and China have invented a revolutionary weapon fundamentally challenging U.S. missile defense and the security of the American people. Fittingly, one particular op-ed in the New York Times is actually titled “Hypersonic Missiles are a Game Changer” . The New York Times op-ed, like so many others, reminds us that “no existing defenses can stop such weapons” and that hypersonic velocity is “something no missile can currently achieve, aside from an ICBM during re-entry” . According to another article, America’s missile defense needs to “be like Sparta” because we “are staring at a critical gap in our nation’s missile defense” . Both articles, representative of many others, claim that U.S. missile defense “effectively provided protection from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) through the most sophisticated multilayered ballistic missile defense capabilities known to man. Now, next-generation foreign threats are creating near term vulnerability, the gap if you will, that challenges our defensive capabilities” .
But are these alarming messages actually true? The short answer is no. Contrary to the notion promulgated in the articles, there is currently no multilayered ballistic missile defense against ICBMs. There are no layers of different systems to engage an incoming ICBM. There is only one limited system: Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). GMD has currently 44 interceptors available in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to engage incoming ICBMs. The task of the GMD system is only to defend against a limited ICBM threat that could emerge from North Korea and potentially from Iran in the future. GMD was never intended to be used against the vast ICBM arsenals of Russia or China with hundreds of ICBMs and thousands of nuclear warheads. Defending against a massive ICBM attack from either of these countries has always been impossible. Therefore, hypersonic weapons are not a new threat that suddenly give Russia or China the capability to attack North America with nuclear warheads. This capability has existed since the development of ICBMs. Russia and China possess the capacity to attack the United States with ICBMs just as the United States has the ability to attack those countries. However, it is worth noting that neither Russia nor China possess any defense against ICBMs that is comparable to the U.S. GMD system.
It is worrying that the aforementioned op-eds were written by experienced individuals who should know of their inaccuracies. The authors include a former member of the National Security Council and a former Member of Congress who served on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
On the other side of the discussion, several articles completely contradict the notion of an emerging threat and downplay the dangers and capabilities of the new hypersonic weapons. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), indicative of the broader critical opinion, paint the mainstream view about hypersonic weapons as a “fantastical depiction” . This depiction, according to the UCS, is aimed to support an arms race among the major military powers to develop these weapons and “is part of a long pattern of media hype” . Further, the critics also correctly address that “current U.S. defenses are not designed to defend against Russia and China, the nations currently deploying hypersonic weapons. The United States will therefore remain vulnerable to missile attack regardless of whether or not hypersonic weapons are deployed” .
The UCS (and other like-minded critics) have valid points against much of the sensational and often fundamentally wrong reporting on hypersonic weapons in the media. However, these critics often base their arguments’ assumptions on theory and lack important operational considerations that should be part of the discussion.
The speed of hypersonic weapons is typically the key focus in most discussions of them as a dangerous new weapon system. This is understandable, as their speed is certainly significant and poses a strong technical challenge in designing a system to counter their employment. However, it must be understood that speed is only one consideration for successful intercept. The ability for hypersonic missiles, or glide vehicles, to significantly maneuver and avoid a predictable trajectory is the critical feature that will be the biggest challenge to overcome. Existing air and missile defenses are designed against ballistic missiles, which travel along a predictable trajectory with very limited ability to maneuver. Hypersonic weapons will negate current defense capabilities due to their greater speed and maneuverability relative to ICBMs.
To qualify as a hypersonic weapon, the weapon must be able to travel at least five times the speed of sound. The Russian Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, the first operational hypersonic weapon, has the ability to achieve speeds between 20 to 27 times the speed of sound, according to the Russian government. In comparison, a traditional ICBM changes speeds throughout its parabolic flight (between boost, exo-atmospheric midcourse, and terminal phases) and achieves speeds averaging 20 times the speed of sound during re-entry into the atmosphere. By this definition, current ICBMs would also technically be hypersonic missiles. Therefore, according to the critics of the hypersonic weapons hype, the speed and flight time of hypersonics, even if they were faster than ballistic missiles, is immaterial. However, that argument is incorrect. Missile flight time makes a significant difference because it directly influences decision space, the time that human operators have to react to an incoming threat, and potential engagement windows, the time defense systems need to successfully counteract a missile threat.
A threat missile may undergo a 15-20-minute flight time until target impact, during which defenders have an approximately five-minute engagement window in which to react. This window varies depending on where the threat originates relative to the interceptor location; therefore, one or two minutes within this cycle is a significant amount of time, representing twenty to forty percent of the total engagement window. If one was only focusing on theoretical concerns, one or two minutes may seem inconsequential. However, from the perspective of military operations, it may be critical. Precise flight timing impacts equipment and software requirements, defense crew processes, and other operational considerations with significant impact on achieving success. The UCS, in their criticism, appear to ignore established missile defense tactics. Air and missile defenders generally attempt multiple shots against an incoming threat to increase the probability of successful intercept. Under such scenarios, every minute counts in order to have as many shot opportunities as possible. This is particularly important when dealing with nuclear warheads with unimaginable consequences if not intercepted.
Critics also tend to address the low flying flight path of hypersonic glide vehicles. In their eyes, taking advantage of the curvature of the earth to fly beneath missile defense radars is overstated. But here too, there is a more than what meets the eye. The UCS state that total reliance on ground-based radar for early warning of missile attacks is a relic of the past for technologically-advanced nations like the United States or Russia . According to them, both nations have operated early warning satellites since the 1970s. It is true that space-based infrared sensors would detect a hypersonic missile launch just as easily as an attack with traditional ballistic missiles due to the infrared emissions. However, what is missing in this assessment is the fact that detection alone will not help in the actual intercept of the threat. Detection alone would only give the opportunity to warn people of incoming strategic missiles that will impact in approximately 20 minutes, which is hardly any time to prepare a metropolitan area for an impact. In order to engage an incoming missile, radars are required, which are more precise than the data obtained from infrared satellites. These satellites do not produce an exact real-time accurate picture. Even if they did, discrimination of the warhead from space would be nearly impossible. Discrimination, the ability for a radar to discern which object is the lethal warhead and needs to be intercepted, is critical for a successful engagement. When an ICBM is launched, a so-called ‘missile event’ could produce a flying cloud or cluster of several hundreds of parts and debris, with one of them being the actual warhead. In addition, there are decoys that are made to look like the lethal warhead to confuse defense systems. Hypersonic weapons could, just like ballistic missiles, be equipped with such decoys. Therefore, ground-based radars are essential for effective missile defense to discriminate and destroy the warhead.
Despite the flaws in their theoretical approach, critics are correct in stating that hypersonic weapons are being inaccurately presented as new and insurmountable urgent threats. Hypersonic glide vehicles, although new, are not strategic game changers that pose a new threat by enabling Russia and China to attack the United States with nuclear warheads. Hypersonic weapons are not a new advantage for China, Russia, or for the United States. The United States does not need hypersonic weapons to attack Russia, China, or any other nation to overwhelm any sort of missile defense system. Contrary to the United States, no other country has even a limited capability to engage ICBMs.
However, to claim that hypersonic weapons are simply ‘hype’ to justify increased military spending, is only telling half the story. Hypersonic weapons do represent a basic capability that is revolutionary in the field of missile defense. Missile defense is currently grounded in math to calculate and predict, based upon a missile’s trajectory, where an incoming missile will be at a certain time in order to engage and destroy that it. With the development of new hypersonic weapons that have the ability to maneuver and therefore don’t follow a predictable trajectory, the very basis of missile defense is called into question. Therefore, it is necessary to research methods and technology to counter this threat because it could potentially make traditional missile defense as we currently know it obsolete.
The question of why the United States appears to lag behind Russia and China regarding hypersonic weapon systems as well as why defense against such systems was not part of earlier U.S. military planning must be addressed as part of the hypersonic discussion.
Russia’s announcement of its first operational hypersonic weapon seems to have been a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the U.S. military. By 1957, the Soviet Union “had acquired the world’s first ICBM, which also placed the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in space. For the United States, this presented a substantial threat and challenge, amplifying fears about American weakness against a Soviet ICBM attack. This shaped the political support for the creation of an American anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system” . Similar to what we are seeing now with hypersonic weapons, the first American ICBM was declared operational two years after the Soviet Union already had ICBMs. The reason for the American delay during the Cold War was due to a different strategic focus and military leadership that was not adaptive in its approach. With overwhelming air superiority and capable intercontinental bombers, the U.S. Air Force did not take the development of ICBM technology seriously in the 1950s. Within the Air Force, many fighter and bomber pilots, the elite of the hierarchy in the Air Force and the main pool from which decision makers came, were opposed to the notion of American ICBMs, since they saw their traditional roles in danger and could not conceptualize a new form of warfare.
Today’s U.S. military lags behind Russian and Chinese developments in the field of hypersonic weapons and is pressed to find a quick solution for the defense against such weapons because of similar reasons. Completely focused on nearly two decades of counter insurgency warfare, the U.S. military neglected strategic planning, air and missile defense, and the military and technological modernization of Russia and the emergence of China. The U.S. Army, responsible for land-based air and missile defense marginalized its Air Defense Artillery formations. Similar to the Air Force’s pilots, the Army’s top decision-makers tend to come from the infantry or maneuver forces. The notion that the United States would always maintain air superiority because insurgents do not have air forces became ingrained in these decision-makers’ minds. Under this pretext, short-range air defense (SHORAD) was practically abandoned and anti-drone warfare not developed. Now, the U.S. Army is playing catch-up in these very disciplines. While the United States was consumed with fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and China developed their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and hypersonic weapons programs.
However, it is also important to understand that the current hypersonic weapons of U.S. adversaries cannot deliver what their operators want the public to believe. A warhead of a traditional ballistic missile only spends a relatively short time exposed to air resistance when it re-enters the atmosphere at high speed in its terminal flight. Hypersonic weapons on the other hand, traveling at hypersonic speed within the atmosphere, experience air friction throughout their entire flight and thus experience much higher levels of heat buildup. This could have dire consequences for the performance of those weapons. It is currently unknown what the effect of this amount of heat will be on hypersonic warheads and if their accuracy is compromised.
An examination of hypersonic weapons must be factual and not driven by political goals or emotion. Obviously, there is hardly any operational knowledge when it comes to this new type of weapon. However, the discourse on missile defense cannot be held solely based on theoretical knowledge and unrealistic assumptions when there are decades of operational knowledge regarding missile defense and its tactics and true capabilities. Are hypersonics a game changer when it comes to the security and defense of the American people from a nuclear attack? Definitely not. The American people have lived in the crosshairs of hundreds of ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads for decades. The 44 Ground-based interceptors of the GMD system do not stand a chance against the hundreds of ICBMs that Russia and China have, not to mention that these ICBMs are equipped with multiple warheads.
In the future, hypersonic weapons may be a game changer in the field of weapons technology since they require a completely new approach for defense. Of course, research is needed to develop ways to defend against these hypersonic weapons as soon as possible. Despite this, one must remember that current hypersonic weapon capabilities are by far nowhere close to giving their operators a clear military advantage.
 S. Simon, “Hypersonic Missiles Are a Game Changer”, New York Times, Jan. 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/opinion/hypersonic-missiles.html
 T. Tiahrt, “How to Improve America’s Missile Defense, Be Like Sparta, The National Interest, March 2, 2020. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-improve-americas-missile-defense-be-sparta-128467
 C. Tracy, “Setting the Record Straight on Hypersonic Weapons”, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 03, 2020. https://allthingsnuclear.org/ctracy/setting-the-record-straight-on-hypersonic-weapons
 M. Unbehauen, G. Sloan, A. Squatrito,”The U.S. Missile Defense Shield and Global Security Destabilization: An Inconclusive Link”, International Journal of Business, Human and Social Sciences, Zenodo, May 1, 2019. https://zenodo.org/record/3299365#.Xm6JNI7Yqzz
Measures taken by the Baltic States are insufficient
The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of NATO met on April, 2 in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Though they expressed the deepest sympathies with all the victims of the Coronavirus disease, NATO continues to do its part.
The organization tries to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Commander, U.S. European Command, Gen Tod D. Wolters commented that linked exercises to Defender-Europe 20 in the Baltic States, along with a number of other planned events, were cancelled. On the other hand, NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroups in Latvia and Lithuania continue training together with national troops putting military at risk of COVID 19 infection.
Thus, NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Latvia in March completed two exercises, CRYSTAL ARROW and IRON SPEAR, demonstrating its ability to effectively work together on the battlefield. It is difficult to imagine how soldiers practiced social distancing while being in tanks. It looks as if NATO and local military authorities try to reassure the population and the military and convince them of the absence of threat.
The more so, it was reported that NATO eFP units from Norway (the Telemark Battalion) together with US JTAC’s and M-1 Abrams tanks (1-9 CAV) conducted on March 25 Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) on the Pabrade training grounds. The focus was to maintain combat readiness and perform complex training as part of the NATO mission to Lithuania. At the same time the battalion confirmed last week that 24 troops had tested positive for the coronavirus. NATO conducts exercises in the Baltic States despite COVID 19 spread among troops.
In spite of this fact, NATO remains active openly demonstrating its ability of collective defence against threats. Though the nature of threats has changed drastically, NATO showed flexibility only in words. Apparently, NATO and the U.S. in particular is not going to give up its policy in the region. The U.S. cannot allow NATO to give up the idea of making Europe a battlefield in case of conflict with Russia.
As for the Baltic States’ authorities, they should realize that the presence and ongoing activity of NATO Battlegroups on their territory poses a real threat to the region, though today it is not military.
NATO enhanced Forward Presence keeps its promise to the Baltic States. And what about the promises Baltic authorities gave to their own people?
Pakistan’s Strategic Preparedness and Critical Decision-Making One Year after Balakot
With numerous heads of state gradually coming to terms with the realities of an entire world under lockdown, India’s new domicile laws for the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir mark a return to business as usual for India-Pakistan tensions. Particularly following Pakistan’s official condemnation of what has been termed as the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Order 2020’, the threats which this seven decades old dispute still pose to regional peace and stability remain ever-present even amidst a prevailing global pandemic. Especially considering how just a year ago, both countries were brought dangerously close to the brink of total and perhaps even nuclear war, it is worth highlighting how India’s sustained and single-minded approach to altering the status-quo across the LoC, by any means necessary, risks yet another global catastrophe. The kind of catastrophe which may render the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as wholly insignificant compared to the near irreversible effects of a devastating nuclear war between both countries.
These dangers are clearly evident in how with even more than a year having passed since the Balakot air strikes, there has not yet been a clear acknowledgment of how India’s new-found penchant for nuclear brinkmanship and reckless flirtation with the escalation ladder has affected Pakistan’s strategic preparedness and crisis decision making. For instance, Prime Minister Modi’s now infamous reference to his planned qatal ki raat (Night of Murder)and Prime Minister Khan’s purported warning of responding to any such provocation ‘three times over’ presented startling insights into how both countries’ politico-military leaders envisioned the escalation ladder. Whereas, the above references are reported to have alluded to ballistic missiles armed with conventional payloads, the irreversible step towards a nuclear strike – be it a tactical demonstration or a pre-emptive decapitation – remained unnervingly close. The risks of which are likely to have then weighed heavily on decision makers on both sides of the border.
Considering how both sides’ missile delivery systems are inherently designed for dual-use purposes, this comingling of strategic and conventional assets presents a disquieting reaffirmation of the immense difficulties faced when accurately ascertaining the other’s intentions and risk assessments with reference to a ‘mutually acceptable’ escalation ladder. Whereas many analysts on both sides of the border have evinced confidence that both India and Pakistan understand each other’s strategic signals and postures, the deliberate change being brought about within India’s strategic doctrine and military thinking is aimed at radically altering this understanding. A development that is further adding to the difficulty of ensuring deterrence stability within an increasingly complex and technologically advanced world.
This impact of comingling strategic and conventional capabilities on critical decision-making and overall situational awareness has been discussed at length in a recent report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.Titled ‘Under the Nuclear Shadow’ the nearly two year study is aimed at assessing the impact of some of the latest ISR capabilities on the strategic calculus and situational awareness of nuclear weapons states. It identifies a broad range of developments which key policymakers in charge of today’s nuclear arsenals need to take into account whilst recognizing ‘the complex interplay between technology, escalation, and decision making.’ Within this framework, the risks of what the report identifies as ‘Entanglement’ or decision makers’ inability to delineate between nuclear and conventional risks, represents a highly significant potential pathway for escalation.
The simple truth that these risks were in full play during last year’s confrontation between nuclear armed India and Pakistan throughout the post-Pulwama environment has since been grossly underrated by Indian policymakers. In fact, this has been evident throughout India’s search for a limited engagement with Pakistan, just below its nuclear thresholds as enshrined in its now institutionalized concepts of ‘Cold Start’ and ‘Surgical Strikes’.
As a result, the onus has been placed solely on Pakistan to disentangle such risks. What’s more, Pakistan has to now base its risk assessments of India’s intentions mostly from the missions being conducted against it, as opposed to the fast expanding, dual-use capabilities of the Indian military. These include India’s Brahmos cruise missiles and its S-400 missile defense batteries both of which can respectively deploy and detect both conventional and nuclear assets. Thus, making it extremely difficult for Pakistani decision makers to distinguish a potential conventional mission from a nuclear one.
Taking into account Pakistan’s self-avowed doctrine of Full Spectrum Deterrence, what such provocations may and have probably already led to is a significantly reduced nuclear threshold. While much has already been written on how Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) such as its Nasr missile batteries have significantly reduced this threshold, a perhaps highly understudied aspect is how India’s aggressive posturing and increasing ambiguity with regards to its NFU (No First Use)policy has since played psychologically on the minds of Pakistani strategists and decision makers.
As pointed out in the above referenced report, the prevalence of cognitive biases in the form of confirmation bias and availability heuristics within an increasingly complex nuclear environment in themselves present a dangerous path towards escalation. Amidst the deliberate jingoism and incessant allusions to nuclear war-fighting from key leaders within India’s national security apparatus, there is a genuine risk that India’s institutionalized brinkmanship -by willfully bringing about first-strike instability – may lead to all-out disaster under the reckless garb of calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. This holds especially true when considering that the dominant discourse surrounding an irrational Indian security junta, imbibed in the RSS’s fanaticism, may be directly driving certain aspects of confirmation bias and availability heuristics within Pakistani decision-making circles. A factor that has already perhaps multiplied exponentially since India’s decision to engage in a cross-border air-strike against Pakistan just 14 months ago.
Hence, with the entire world reeling from an unseen pandemic that has already changed day to day life as we know it, the risks of something even graver still loom large when considering the precarious strategic balance in South Asia. Risks that are all seriously worth re-considering as both countries simultaneously attempt to secure the well-being and future of their respective populations as part of a joint global effort. Ironically pointing towards yet another common goal which both countries can find some common ground over to help de-escalate such prevailing tensions.
China manoeuvres to protect its interests while keeping its hands clean
The question is not if, but when the long-standing American defence umbrella in the Gulf, the world’s most militarised and volatile region, will be replaced by a multilateral security arrangement that would have to include China as well as Russia.
The United States’ perceived diminishing commitment to the Gulf and the broader Middle East and mounting doubts about the deterrence value of its defence umbrella leave the Gulf stuck between a rock and a hard place. The American umbrella is shrinking, but neither China nor Russia, despite their obvious interests, are capable or willing simply to shoulder the responsibility, political risk and cost of replacing it.
On balance, China’s interests seem self-evident. It needs to secure its mushrooming political and economic interests in the Gulf, which includes ensuring the flow of oil and gas and protecting its infrastructure investment and the expanding Chinese diaspora in the region. Nonetheless, China has so far refrained from putting its might where its money is, free-riding instead (in the words of US officials) on America’s regional military presence.
Indeed, for the longest time China has been able to outsource the protection of its interests to the United States at virtually no cost. For the US, guaranteeing security in the Gulf has been anchored in an American policy which accepted that maintaining security far beyond the borders of the United States was in America’s national interest, including the protection of Chinese assets. All China needed to do, therefore, was to make minimal gestures such as contributing to the multi-national effort in the Gulf and adjacent waters to counter Somali pirates.
In the meantime, China could pursue a long-term strategy to bolster its capabilities. This included infrastructure projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with dual-purpose potential (such as the strategic ports of Gwadar in Pakistan and Duqm in Oman as well as commercial investment in Dubai’s Jebel Ali), the creation of China’s first overseas military facility in Djibouti, and significant expenditure on upgrading the Chinese armed forces.
All that potentially changed with the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, who advocated an America First policy that attributed little value to past US commitments or to maintaining existing alliances. Hence Trump embarked on a trade war with China – viewed as a strategic competitor – and appeared to fuel rather than resolve regional stability by uncritically aligning American policy with that of Saudi Arabia and Israel and targeted Iran as the source of all evil.
This change has yet to translate into specific Chinese policy statements or actions. Nonetheless, the anticipated shift from a unipolar to a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf has cast a new light on the first-ever joint naval exercise involving Chinese, Russian and Iranian naval forces, as well as China’s seemingly lukewarm support for a Russian proposal for a multilateral security approach in the Gulf.
China was careful to signal that neither the joint exercise nor its closer military ties with a host of other Middle Eastern nations meant it was aspiring to a greater role in regional security any time soon. If anything, both the exercise and China’s notional support for Russia’s proposed restructuring of regional security suggest that China envisions a continued US lead in Gulf security, despite the mounting rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.
The Russian proposal in many ways fits China’s bill. Its calls for a multilateral structure involving Russia, China, the United States, Europe and India that would evolve out of a regional security conference along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). While backing Russia’s proposal in general terms, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stopped short of specifically endorsing it. Geng welcomed ‘all proposals and diplomatic efforts conducive to de-escalating the situation in the Gulf region’.
China’s reluctance to endorse the Russian proposal more wholeheartedly is rooted in differing approaches towards multilateralism in general and alliances in particular. China shies away from alliances, with their emphasis on geo-economics rather than geopolitics, while Russia still operates in terms of alliances. Despite favouring a continued American lead, China sees a broadening of security arrangements that would embed rather than replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf as a way to reduce regional tensions.
China also believes that a multilateral arrangement would allow it to continue to steer clear of being sucked into conflicts and disputes in the Middle East, particularly the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. A multilateral arrangement in which the US remained the key military player would further fit the pattern of China’s gradual projection of its growing military power beyond its borders.
With the exception of the facility in Djibouti, China’s projection becomes less hardcore the further one gets from the borders of the People’s Republic. More fundamentally, China’s approach is grounded in the belief that economics rather than geopolitics is the key to solving disputes, which so far has allowed it to remain detached from the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It remains to be seen how sustainable this approach is in the long term.
Such an approach is unlikely to shield China forever from the Middle East’s penchant for ensuring it is at the heart of the major external parties’ concerns. And as Jiang Xudong, a Middle East scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, puts it: ‘Economic investment will not solve all other problems when there are religious and ethnic conflicts at play’.
Author’s note: first published in Asian Dialogue
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