Prospects for relations between Russia and the United States after the summit in Geneva
The Russia-US summit in Geneva will certainly not lead to a qualitative improvement in Russian-American relations and will not be able to initiate a process that would lead to a change of their confrontational nature within the next several years. This is impossible, due to the systemic nature of the confrontation between Russia and the United States. Overcoming this would require one or both sides to fundamentally change their approach to the international order and their place in it; a strong bipartisan anti-Russian consensus persists among the American political elite and establishment, despite an acute polarisation of the political system in the USA.
The task of the Geneva summit is different: to stabilise the Russian-American confrontation, to put an end to its unhealthy nature and uncontrollable course of recent years, and to form a model of relations in which the parties, despite considering each other as opponents and even enemies, nevertheless will try not to cross each other’s red lines. They also can develop selective cooperation on those issues where it is expedient for their national interests and where this cooperation does not require significant concessions. This model can be defined as controlled or disciplined confrontation.
The main reason that the summit in Geneva is taking place is that the further escalation of the Russian-American confrontation would otherwise undoubtedly lead to an even greater aggravation of the Ukrainian conflict, the situation around Belarus and a large-scale spiral of the arms race. This does not correspond to either Russian or American interests (as they are understood by the Biden administration).
For Russia, such an escalation would be fraught with the emergence of anti-Russian sanctions to a qualitatively new level, the need to increase military spending (today the Russian leadership is cutting defence spending and is proud of it), and an even greater deterioration in relations with European and Asian allies and partners of the United States (not only with the EU as a whole). It would also lead to the further strengthening of Russia’s asymmetric dependence on China, not to mention the humanitarian consequences of a new escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine and the increased risk of a direct military clash with the United States and NATO as a whole. Moscow, obviously, would like to avoid all this.
The interest of the Biden administration in stabilising the confrontation with Moscow is connected, firstly, with the Chinese factor. Since January this year, it became finally clear that the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, which was launched under Trump, is irreversible, systemic and existential for both sides, and therefore it is deeper and more long-term than the confrontation between the United States and Russia. Contrary to the hopes of many observers, there was no detente in US-China relations, and the Biden administration has made it clear that it regards China, and not Russia, as its main strategic rival and adversary.
At the same time, Washington is gradually understanding the limitations of its own resources and the need to concentrate on the Pacific sphere; a vivid example is the Biden administration’s desire to limit the obligations and presence of the United States in the Middle East. The White House also sees further rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, which has increased in tandem with their opposition to the United States, as undesirable. As a result, the Biden administration seeks to stabilise the “Russian front” in order not to be distracted and to be able to throw as many resources as possible at the “Chinese front”.
Second, as the events of this spring have proved, the Biden administration, on the one hand, is not ready to invest serious material resources in containing Russia in the post-Soviet space, and even less enthusiastic about going to war with Russia because of such countries as Ukraine and Georgia. On the other hand, Washington would not like to witness the termination of their statehood.
The stabilisation of confrontation does not at all mean the resolution of the most acute conflicts and contradictions in Russian-American relations. The contradictions around Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, mutual allegations of interference in internal political affairs, Russia’s accusations of illegal hostile activities and even a “hybrid war” against the Western countries will most likely not be reduced following the summit. The prospect of a fundamental change in the foreign policy of Russia and the United States and serious compromises between them is still absent. Such compromises would be reasonably viewed by both sides as steps towards a strategic defeat, which for the time being is completely ruled out by both Moscow and Washington. In this regard, the stabilisation of the confrontation does not mean the resolution of these contradictions, but the absence of their further escalation.
At the same time, this stabilisation requires understanding, and, most importantly, respect for each other’s red lines. There is no doubt that these red lines will be discussed in Geneva. The ability of the parties to recognise and adhere to them is doubtful, especially in the longer term. For example, the United States will not only not give up open support for Russia’s domestic opposition in the near future, but will increase criticism of the Kremlin over internal political issues in the event of new protests. The parties will also not come to an agreement on what “Russian interference” in America’s internal political processes entail, and where the “red lines” are. Finally, there are great risks of destabilisation of many of the above crises “from below”, contrary to the wishes of Moscow or Washington. For example, the Ukrainian or Belarusian crises, which will inevitably entail a new round of confrontation and complicate interaction on other issues as well. Therefore, the stabilisation of confrontation, which is likely to follow the summit in Geneva, will be very fragile.
The second most important result of the summit is likely to be the launch of selective cooperation in bilateral and multilateral formats on issues where it is beneficial to both parties and does not require qualitative concessions from the parties. This, in turn, will mean a significant improvement in Russian-American relations compared to the state in which they have been for the past several years. Namely, building a policy towards each other based on national interests and national security considerations, as well as the ability to combine rivalry and cooperation where it is necessary and beneficial.
In recent years, this was impossible. Under Trump, the Russian factor became one of the main instruments of America’s internal political struggle, and US policy towards Russia was determined by domestic political considerations to a much greater extent than foreign policy itself. This ruled out any constructive interaction in principle. The White House was forced to constantly prove that it was not a “Kremlin puppet”, and Congress sought to weaken Trump’s ability to determine US foreign policy, making confrontation with Russia irreversible. Coupled with the Republicans’ traditional preference for maximum freedom in defence policy and the desire to put pressure on opponents with the threat of an arms race, this led to the fact that by the end of 2020 the Russian-American agenda virtually disappeared, and the mechanisms of relations (summits, diplomatic dialogue) collapsed. An illustration of the latter is the diplomatic war that has been going on for more than four years, the recall of ambassadors and the actual paralysis of consular relations.
Today the situation is gradually improving. Although Russia still remains a factor in the American internal political struggle (and will remain so as long as the polarisation of the US political system persists), the scale of the politicisation of the Russian factor has significantly decreased since the end of the Trump period. Biden’s foreign policy does not provoke resistance, at least from his own administration, bureaucracy and among Democrats, and in any case he cannot be accused of any sympathy for the Russian president. Moreover, the Biden administration does not view the arms race as a preferential instrument of confrontation with Russia and does not seek the complete destruction of the remnants of the arms control system. Finally, the Biden administration perceives transnational challenges and threats (climate change, the pandemic, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc.) as significantly more important in the hierarchy of threats to national security, and prefers a multilateral approach to their solution.
All this creates the preconditions for selective cooperation with Russia on issues where both sides consider this cooperation necessary and beneficial for themselves.
First of all, the result of the Geneva summit may be the launch of broad Russian-American consultations on strategic stability: how to adapt the system to the qualitatively changed military-strategic landscape and what to do after the already-extended START-3 Treaty (the last traditional instrument for nuclear missile control) expires in 2026.
The parties are unlikely to come to a new “big” agreement in the near future on the limitation and even the further reduction of nuclear weapons to replace the START Treaty. Moreover, it is extremely inappropriate to start such negotiations: the positions of the parties differ so much that it is impossible to successfully complete such negotiations. It is unlikely that it will be possible for them to reach an agreement on the deployment of ground-based intermediate and shorter-range missiles in Europe. Nevertheless, a full-scale dialogue between the two nuclear superpowers on all aspects of strategic stability (which has long entailed more than nuclear weapons alone) is extremely expedient. It includes the discussion of how they understand the threat of a nuclear war amid new military-technological and geopolitical conditions, as well as the development of more stringent rules of conduct in the military-strategic sphere, mechanisms of conflict prevention and de-conflicting.
The second area of selective cooperation between Russia and the United States after the Geneva summit is cybersecurity, which includes four main aspects: the fight against cybercrime, the use of ICT as a military tool, interference in each other’s internal affairs using the Internet, social networks, hacking, etc., and cyber espionage. On the first aspect, the intensification of Russian-American cooperation is most likely. The second aspect relates to the military security and strategic stability (with the help of cyber means it is possible to inflict damage comparable to the use of nuclear weapons, or to disarm or “blind” the enemy during a military crisis). Here it is important at least to determine the red lines (to agree on what infrastructure should not be subject to cyberattacks under any circumstances), develop the rules of the game and create de-conflicting mechanisms and “hot lines” in the event of a crisis. This will not be easy, but it is extremely necessary: properly in the cyberspace that the risk of an unintentional military conflict with its further escalation up to a nuclear war is the highest. On the third and fourth aspects, reaching any agreements in the foreseeable future is extremely unlikely.
The third area of cooperation is the intensification of interaction on the nuclear programmes of Iran and the DPRK, especially in the context of the Biden administration’s desire to restore, in one form or another, a multilateral deal on the Iranian nuclear programme and to abandon the practice of bilateral negotiations, especially summits with Pyongyang, used by Donald Trump.
The fourth area of possible cooperation between Russia and the United States is environmental protection and the fight against climate change, which are positioned as one of the most important priorities of the Biden administration and are taking an increasingly important role in Russian foreign policy. Here the parties have something to talk about globally and locally. For example, the United States may suffer from the introduction of the EU carbon border adjustment mechanism (border adjustment carbon tax) within the framework of the European Green Deal, no less and even more than Russia. In the common interests of Moscow and Washington is the creation, as an alternative, of some kind of global mechanism aimed at reducing carbon emissions primarily where it is most beneficial for both countries.
However, the main object of possible cooperation between Moscow and Washington on environmental issues and climate change is the Arctic. In this region, Russia and the United States are part of a shared ‘neighbourhood’, where the rate of climate change is 3-4 times higher than the global average, and where the environmental, socio-economic and foreign policy consequences of this change are the most widespread. The fragile Arctic ecosystem, its infrastructure built on permafrost, and the traditional way of life of the indigenous peoples of the North are under threat of destruction. Moreover, the melting ice of the Arctic contributes to the overflow of the US-Russia and US-China confrontation – the perception of the region, as indicated in the 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, as “an avenue for great power competition and aggression”. As a result, the militarisation of the Arctic is increasing alongside the risk of disasters and military clashes, impeding the economic development of the region. Cooperation between Russia and the United States in protecting the environment in the Arctic is the only factor that can, if not slow down, then at least compensate for these negative trends, combating climate change amid even greater acceleration, addressing the melting permafrost (it is fraught with large-scale methane emissions) and adapting to new climatic conditions in the region.
Finally, the fifth area of possible cooperation between Russia and the United States after the Geneva summit is a “truce” in the diplomatic war and the return of ambassadors to Washington and Moscow, respectively. This is perhaps the easiest and most feasible decision that can be expected from the summit and implemented in the short term.
A distinctive feature of this agenda, which is important for understanding the nature of the managed Russian-American confrontation, is that the beginning of a dialogue on these topics does not require any serious concessions from the parties. This is the most important prerequisite for this cooperation. Moreover, this cooperation should not be seen as a way to improve relations between Russia and the United States. This is generally not on the agenda in the foreseeable future. The meaning of cooperation is to understand Russian and American national interests, which in the indicated areas cannot be realised in other ways, even despite the fact that the parties generally regard each other as opponents.
From our partner RIAC
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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