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Alexey Drobinin
Alexey Drobinin
Alexey Drobinin is the Director of the Foreign Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

The lessons of history and vision for the future: Thoughts on Russia’s foreign policy

Russian foreign policy news

It so happens that our country is again going through a pivotal phase in its more than thousand-year history.

We are forced to deal with aggressive reactions from a number of external players to the absolutely justified actions to protect our vital interests west of Russia. A man-made crisis in European security and in the entire international order that took shape in the wake of WWII has arisen.

Even though more than one generation has come of age in our country in relatively peaceful times, a situation of conflict is a somewhat normal state of affairs for a country with Russia’s geography and interests. Domestic analysts are drawing various historical analogies. Some compare the current situation with the era of Alexey Mikhailovich the Quietest, when the Muscovite state was gradually taking Russia’s western lands back. Others see similarities with the Crimean War, when Russia faced “unprecedented hatred from the West.” Still others refer to the experience of “taming” the imperial ambitions of Sweden after Poltava, France after Borodino, Germany after Stalingrad and Berlin “for one’s own benefit and for the benefit of all humankind.” Others compare confrontation between Russia and the West with the Cold War of the 1940s-1980s. Some believe that the scale of today’s changes exceeds the 1989-1991 tectonic shift “when there was a radical change in the balance of power, but the principles of international politics and the rules of behaviour have not undergone fundamental change.”

For all their conventional nature, such parallels have one commonality. They all emphasise the seminal importance of unfolding events. It can be stated without exaggeration that today’s special military operation (SMO) has become a milestone on the way to a new order and a new alignment of forces in the international arena. The situation will largely depend on the way the hostilities unfold, changes in the structure of the global economy and the variables in the political settlement of the conflict. Someday, this puzzle will come together. In the meantime, fate itself has again placed Russia in the position as one of the main creators of world history.

* * *

Historical creativity implies, among other things, a clear vision and an understanding of existing realities. Of course, when much is changing and when many things are unclear, there’s the temptation to draw simple conclusions such as “the world will never be the same.” Such conclusions easily enter the mind, but give little to it. To better understand what’s going on, it’s good to remain mindful of the long-term global development trends that formed long before the SMO started and will continue to adjust history’s lithospheric plates after it has run its course.

What are these trends?

It makes sense to start with the most fateful process, that is, the formation of a multipolar world order. This is the essence of the changes in the international system. As President Putin has made clear, it is about “transitioning from a liberal globalist US egocentrism to a truly multipolar world based on genuine sovereignty of nations and civilisations.” In addition, according to generally accepted theses, the above transition began shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist commonwealth thus marking the end of the bipolar order, which relied on a Soviet-American balance of power, and the historically short “unipolar moment” of the early 1990s, when one short-sighted political scientist suddenly proclaimed “the end of history.”

As has happened many times, the path to a new balance of power took on a drawn-out and non-linear character. Russia and other leading states will have to travel down that path even though it could take many more years. Objective facts and phenomena that do not depend on anyone’s wishes indicate that the modern world’s stability will be ensured by way of coordinating the interests of several systemically important centres of economic power and political strength. Time will tell who the “shareholders” in this new multipolar system will be and how many of them there will be.

The civilisational approach appears to be analytically productive and politically sound. According to this logic, global-level players will include politically consolidated civilisational communities headed by a leader state, such as Russia and the Eurasian community, China and the East Asian community, the United States and the Anglo-Saxon sphere, as well as the Indian, Arab-Muslim, continental European and other civilisations.

Whatever the structure of the future world order may be, competition for the right to establish its basic principles, which can simply be referred to as the rules of behaviour, is unfolding already today. Strong and technologically advanced states that are capable of projecting spiritual and moral values in addition to military force will have competitive advantages in this multi-pronged competition. According to Sergey Lavrov, “this issue is about countries with a well-organised central government that are responsible and capable and that can respond with maximum efficiency (in terms of ensuring the interests and security of their citizens) to natural and other disasters. China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, Mexico… with economic weight comes political influence. This has to be reckoned with.”

The BRICS association, which is playing an increasingly important role in the international arena, has become the epitome of multipolar diplomacy. The BRICS agenda is “cut out” for addressing the international development issues shared by its members. It makes sense to take a closer look at the future of the MIKTA group, which includes regional powers such as Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Türkiye and Australia, although the real impact of its activities has yet to be evaluated. In any case, the G7 has quite predictably lost its authority as a generator of solutions to global problems, becoming, in fact, a mechanism that Washington uses to discipline its satellites on matters of opportunistic interest to the United States.

The globalisation crisis that has put an end to the US monetary, financial, technological and cultural dominance has been catalysing the formation of polycentrism since the mid-2000s. During the 2008-2009 stock market crash, the American core of the global capitalism system was hit by a blow so strong that it is still reeling from the shock. Meanwhile, economic activity is rapidly shifting to the Asia-Pacific region and China is roaring into the position of a global economic leader. According to the World Bank, in 2017, Beijing outperformed Washington in terms of GDP (calculated at purchasing power parity) and earlier, in 2010, in terms of industrial production. Truth be told, GDP is not a reliable indicator of the economic situation. With its vast expanses of land and natural resources (the World Bank estimates them at $75 trillion or more) and the existing material and technical wealth, Russia is not inferior to any economy out there (with the IMF ranking our country 11th in terms of nominal GDP). Notably, looking into the world of the future, some Russian experts predict “the breakup of the global economic system into several large macro-regions”, while others are talking about the emergence of two or more technical and economic blocs, “large pieces of the market,” including “a currency zone, a set of resources, a development philosophy and a set of basic technologies which will compete against each other.”

Everyone will benefit from multipolarity and deglobalisation provided that no one interferes with the natural course of these objective processes. The behaviour of the ruling circles from North America and Western Europe is of decisive importance in this regard. Unless they cope with the understandable pain of losing power over the world and continue to “grab the Colt” every time the situation calls for patient diplomatic efforts, the alarming trend of the increased importance of the force factor in international affairs will continue and intensify. Western arrogance is fuelled by decades (if not centuries) of impunity and permissiveness. How else can one explain the recklessness of US presidents who are accustomed to declaring countries located tens of thousands of kilometres away from the United States a threat to national security? Entire regions have been destabilised in the wake of military interventions, such as in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.

In the context of real multipolarity, the very issue of military control over remote territories, let alone military interventions in the interest of containing other centres of power, is causing strong rejection and opposition. The risks of unforeseen consequences of military actions are multiplied by the fact that the very nature of power politics is changing, and the line that separates military from non-military means of conducting politics is blurred. Upsetting the balance at the global level doubles the regional players’ willingness to pursue their interests by any means available, sometimes quite opportunistically. At the initiative of the United States, the arms control and strategic stability maintenance mechanisms created by generations of negotiators are being dismantled. At the doctrinal level, the Americans have lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons. These and other worrisome considerations are once again bringing back to the minds of military planners the most dangerous scenarios of a clash between nuclear powers that are fraught with disastrous consequences.

Yet another science and technology revolution is driving deep and hard-to- predict transformations in the socioeconomic and political picture of the world. The nascent technological order is based on advanced ICT and energy, biomedical and nanotechnologies, as well as AI elements. Ensuring technological sovereignty is a strategic task for any responsible state that claims an independent role in this highly competitive era. The establishment of ethical rules for the use of innovative technology, the development of rules for responsible behaviour of states, the adaptation of management entities in the sphere of information security, healthcare, environment and climate are becoming major perennial items on the diplomatic agenda.

Displaced external balances and increased proneness to conflict in the international environment are encouraging countries to seek internal reserves and to turn to the foundations of their history and culture. The fact that the Western globalist class is promoting the neoliberal value agenda (human rights, gender, legalise, bioethics, transhumanism, etc.) is also working towards this end as a proof by contradiction. The importance of the cultural and civilisational factor is steadily increasing as a natural human response to these decadent manifestations. By the way, the Ukrainian crisis fully encapsulates the new reality: with a few exceptions, representatives of all civilisational communities in the East and South, including the Arab-Muslim world, African and Latin American civilisations, and the ASEAN community, see the anti-Russian sanctions campaign conducted by the Western minority as a relapse of neo-colonial thinking.

* * *

An understanding of global trends, which include our country, helps determine the directions of foreign policy. It is important to realise that the diplomacy of such a state as Russia is bound to have continuity. Our foreign policy, like a powerful ocean liner steadily following its course, is not characterised by sharp turns.

The Russian Federation has developed the conceptual foundation of its foreign policy in stages, and the thinking process has never stopped. The strategic documents of 1993, 2000, 2008, 2013 and 2016, endorsed by the national leadership, have become landmarks on this long road.

Contrary to a common misconception, many ideological constructs of the domestic diplomatic school did not appear in the last few years or months. Instinctively, there was always a correct understanding of national interests, even in the naïve and romantic 1990s, with their reckless renunciation of the Soviet legacy in all forms, including the unique experience of handling interstate confrontation and maintaining practical cooperation with the developing world.

It is enough to say that the 1993 Main Provisions of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation state that in the post-bipolar era relations should be based on the principles of polycentrism. The document also mentions the special importance of upholding Russian interests in the nearest geopolitical environment – “by preventing disintegration processes in the territory of the former USSR.” In addition to the ambitious task of raising cooperation with Washington to the level of a strategic partnership, Russia set itself the goal of countering the attempts by the US to become the only superpower. This goal has an ideological aspect – the refusal to accept an authoritarian, hegemonic system of international relations, which only grew stronger in the years that followed.

The trend towards US economic and power dominance was described as an unacceptable development in the Foreign Policy Concept endorsed by President Vladimir Putin in 2000. Therefore, Russian diplomacy focused on democratising international relations and creating a UN-centric model based on collegiality and the supremacy of international law. Russia-China cooperation was shrewdly called a pillar of global stability. This laid the groundwork for the future Russia-China relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation.

The updated version of the Concept, approved by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, called Russia a “large Eurasian power” for the first time. It emphasised the importance of ideological, philosophical and civilisation-based aspects of international competition. The Concept noted a long-term trend that had become fully apparent in the past few years – losing the positions of the world leader and the main beneficiary of globalisation, the West adopted a course towards containing Russia. Our country was not looking for confrontation – the document read that equitable cooperation in the Russia-EU-US triangle would promote stability in the Euro-Atlantic Region.

The 2013 Concept adopted five years later described in more detail the task of promoting the development of the national economy and its transition to innovative tracks. It emphasised the need for a broad use of instruments to create a positive image of Russia and its domestic and foreign policy in global public opinion.

The current version of the Concept, endorsed by President Vladimir Putin in 2016, sets out the time-tested foreign policy principles – independence, a multipronged approach, pragmatism, openness and a striving to resolve all problems by political and diplomatic methods in line with international law. The document was drafted in response to serious changes that took place in international relations in the context of the 2014-2015 Ukrainian crisis and political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. It noted that the movement to a multi-polar international order was not free of conflict and was accompanied by the exacerbation of global and regional differences, interstate competition and the growing role of the power factor in world politics. The Concept further developed the idea that the West’s striving to uphold its positions was reflected in its attempts to contain alternative power centres, in part, via versatile pressure exerted by the US, NATO and the EU on our country. Nevertheless, the Concept reaffirmed Russia’s desire to create a common space of peace, security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic Region and build pragmatic mutually beneficial relations with the United States in view of the special responsibility of the two states for global strategic stability and international security. The most important novelty was a reset of priorities in Eurasia, taking into account the EAEU’s formation and with a view to creating an open economic partnership, including the SCO and ASEAN countries, on its foundation. The Concept positively noted Russia’s participation in such multilateral formats as the G20, BRICS and RIC (Russia-India-China).

These are largely the main elements of our ideological outlook. This is a virtual point of departure for further work on the conceptual framing of Russian foreign policy in the new conditions.

* * *

The multidimensional process of editing the new version of the Foreign Policy Concept with the involvement of the interested government bodies and the expert community was launched in early 2021. The main tenets of the document were reviewed at a recent session of the Russian Security Council last January. They are now being updated with international developments in mind. I would like to focus on a number of key aspects in our analysis.

Regardless of the length and outcome of the special military operation, it is already possible to say that the 30-year era of generally constructive, albeit not problem-free, cooperation with the West has irrevocably come to an end. The current situation provides a unique opportunity to discard leftover illusions and take Russia beyond the paradigm of a “friendly takeover,” something our Western colleagues have tried to replicate many times since 1992. Obviously, there will be no return to the situation prior to February 24 in our relations with the North American and European countries.

Incidentally, there is nothing new in the West’s dislike of Russia. During the Crimean war (1854-1856) British poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson openly said that he hated Russians and Russia. German Kaiser Wilhelm (1888-1918) wrote in his memoirs: “I can’t help myself. I know this is not in the Christian way but I hate Slavs.” Russophobia is not something marginal. This virus is deeply embedded in the conscience of the intellectual and political elite.

A number of domestic analysts maintain that the current dispute over Ukraine puts an end to the entire historical era of Russia’s rapprochement with Europe launched as far back as Peter the Great; today “we are leaving Peter’s page in our history behind.” It is possible to agree with this but only to a certain extent. I could not talk confidently about Moscow closing itself off from the West before Peter the Great. There are plenty of arguments to buttress a contrary view – from Veliky Novgorod’s foreign trade and cultural cooperation with the cities of the Hanseatic League and the Vatican-approved marriage of Ivan III to Sophia Palaiologina to the offensive policy of Ivan IV in the West. It sooner makes sense to speak about the introduction by Peter the Great of Westernism in the mentality of the ruling strata in Russia, and the creation of conditions for ideological separation from the popular masses. Political scientists observe that “since the times of Peter the Great, the Russian elite have been looking to the West, adopting Western fashion and behaviour, introducing Western institutions, borrowing Western philosophies and striving to become great European powers; in the Soviet era, they wanted to become a global superpower and later a key component of Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This is a track that is difficult to change.” The irrational sign of equality between Western and “progressive,” and Western and “attractive,” have predetermined the directions for development in both Russia’s domestic and foreign policies at different stages in our history to a greater or lesser extent. Today, this approach is no longer valid. We have changed, and the rest of the world has changed as well.

Russia has entered an acute phase of confrontation with a US-led aggressive alliance of unfriendly states. The enemy’s goal is to inflict strategic defeat on our country, removing it as a geopolitical rival. It is necessary to understand that the Russophobic, collective West remains a dangerous, motivated and still strong rival despite the gradual and irretrievable weakening of its aggregate might. It has advanced military-technical potential and controls a substantial part of the world’s markets, financial resources, logistics chains and information flows.

This U-turn has become an unpleasant surprise for some of us, which is understandable. Strategies of convergence, integration, dialogue and common spaces occupied a prominent place in planning for many years. However, at X-hour it turned out that a hostile NATO bloc was moving into territories adjacent to vital areas of central Russia (the Baltic region and Ukraine), and the European Union was spreading its neocolonialist influence to all of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia while ignoring the regional associations (the EAEU and the CIS). This reality is clearly the result of the long-standing arrogant neglect of Russia’s honest attempts to come to terms with the West on the rules of co-existence. We cannot reconcile ourselves to this policy any longer.

Constructive cooperation with all neighbours, including in the Euro-Atlantic region certainly meets Russia’s interests. It is necessary to pursue this goal but not at the expense of unilateral concession, not to mention conceding to those who openly declare Russia the main threat, as expressed in the NATO strategic concept adopted at the summit in Madrid in late June 2022. Under these conditions, cooperation with unfriendly states is only possible as a single transaction on a case by case basis – and it can be concluded only insofar as it benefits Russia and when there is no acceptable alternative.

The argument that a falling-out with Europe benefits Anglo-Saxons is only partially true, that is, to the extent to which Atlanticist politicians are ruling key European states. Internal transformations of European societies and socio-economic systems will not necessarily preserve the existing political alignment. Europe’s striving for strategic autonomy remains strong and national-oriented parties and movements enjoy growing popularity. A practical challenge for Russia is to offer Europe a formula for future cooperation, which would support the autonomistic aspirations of the Europeans on the one hand and guarantee that the security of our country in any area (military, economic, technological, cultural, humanitarian, etc.) will not be threatened by Europe, on the other.

Growing differences between major powers have predictably had a negative impact on multilateral diplomacy. It has turned out that without the will for an honest dialogue the organisations and discussion clubs established in better times quickly turn from negotiating platforms into arenas for propaganda wars.

In fact, this trend has been gaining momentum for years now. For example, the United States has blocked the operation of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body, and the OSCE foreign ministers have been trying for years to coordinate a joint political declaration. After the beginning of the special military operation, the Western countries set out to banish Russia from global and regional organisations, such as the UN Human Rights Council, the World Tourism Organisation and the Council of the Baltic Sea States. The situation in international sports has deformed the all-embracing spirit of the Olympic movement and is absolutely unacceptable.

The concept of the “rules-based order,” with its various partnerships, coalitions and “appeals” duplicating the functions of specialised UN bodies, is designed to undermine the central coordinating role of the global organisation. The West has actually privatised the executive UN bodies, including the Secretariat and the offices of the UN Secretary-General’s special envoys and representatives in charge of individual countries and projects, by ensuring the election of the “tried and tested” personnel to them, as well as to such non-UN bodies as the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The worst part is that the virus has reached the UN’s holy of holies: the Security Council. They are trying to devalue the essence of the right of veto, which the founding fathers gave to the council’s permanent members to prevent infringement on the interests of any of the great powers and hence to protect the world from an open confrontation between them, which would be fraught with catastrophic consequences in the nuclear age. A symptom of the disease is the three Western powers’ refusal to work with Russia and China on the idea of a summit meeting of the five permanent UN Security Council members, which President Vladimir Putin put forth in January 2020. The goal of such a meeting is to find points of contact on the most explosive current problems and to reaffirm the fundamental principles of international relations, primarily the basic Westphalian principle of the sovereign equality of states.

There are no simple recipes for improving the situation. This will take many more conscious efforts and imagination regarding the reform of the UN. The Security Council must become more democratic, above all through broader representation of African, Asian and Latin American countries. Now is the time to ask yourself if the UN agenda meets the interests of the majority of the member states. Many of them are focused on access to cheap energy (NOT green technology), socioeconomic development (NOT human rights in their ultra-liberal presentation), and security and sovereign equality (NOT the forceful introduction of the Western electoral democracy). And lastly, the task of completing the decolonisation process and putting an end to the transnational corporations’ neocolonial practices of exploiting the developing countries’ natural resources has come to the fore again.

No matter what the future holds for the UN, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the G20 and other universal institutions where Russia has played a constructive role, the divisive policy of the West makes it imperative that in the next few years a new infrastructure should be created for international relations in such areas as politics, economy, trade, currency and finance, as well as culture, education and international security. This new infrastructure, as Russian experts rightly note should primarily agree with the real content of international affairs. In addition to inclusiveness and the principle of voluntary participation, another main characteristic of the infrastructure should be immunity to external dictates and the whims of our Western colleagues. After their blatantly perfidious decisions and actions with regard to Russia, its citizens and assets, we simply cannot afford the luxury of not considering alternative options. This is especially true since many of our friends who have lost confidence in Western goodwill and honesty are also pondering this. Essentially, the creation of an independent format for global management started some time ago and one example of this is the successful development of BRICS. However, now, without doubt, this process will be forcefully gaining momentum, including through a broader membership of the SCO, the increasing effectiveness of the Non-Aligned Movement and establishing the Group of Friends in Defence of the Charter of the United Nations and other formats.

Reliance on national interests and international law implies broad introduction of ideas the viability of which has been time tested, such as the concept of a multipolar world based on cooperation in the Russia-China-India “triangle”, which was put forward by Yevgeny Primakov in the 1990s. It is appropriate to recall here that long before the relationship with the West became aggravated, Yevgeny Primakov spoke in favour of giving much more attention to the eastern and southern dimensions of Russia’s diplomacy. Russia is doing a great deal to make this principled guideline a reality while the current cooling-off in relations with the West has objectively released additional resources for its implementation.

New arguments are emerging in favour of making President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to create Greater Eurasian Partnership Russia’s flagship foreign policy project. We see Greater Eurasian Partnership as a framework format open to all countries and associations on the continent to address the issues of economic integration and security. The project’s added value is in the balanced synergism of integration projects, national development strategies, industrial and logistics chains, and transport and energy corridors. A path towards building a new relationship model for Russia and its European neighbours in the next historical phase could be based precisely on the Greater Eurasia paradigm, with an emphasis on the natural, either geographic or other, competitive advantages of such partnership.

Another reason why a healthy, in many senses, severance from the West is creating conditions for broader cooperation with the global East and South is that today we have there more like-minded people and good friends than anywhere else, which was evidenced by their thoughtful and balanced response to Russia’s actions to defend the people of Donbass and the explicit refusal to join the US-led anti-Russia coalition and sanctions. True, we should bear in mind that the special military operation and everything related to it is not the main item on the national and foreign policy agendas of the non-Western world – far from it. There they see the events in Ukraine and around it quite differently compared to the picture painted in reports of the biased Western and international media, who imperiously portray Russia as a country guilty of all sins and responsible for almost all global problems. Certainly, the role of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America as priority directions for years to come will be given much greater prominence in the new version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept.

* * *

Russia can be either strong or perish – the latest developments have proven in all clarity the accuracy of this axiomatic statement. Sanctions, military, media and political pressures and attempts to cut us from the global markets and deprive us of technology are effective only as long as we stay within a matrix shaped by those who are hostile to us. Russia’s policy to reinforce its national sovereignty in recent years has proven to be incompatible with its involvement in global processes on someone else’s terms or as a member of Western-centric structures such as the Group of Eight, which Russia left for good back in 2014. Injecting more sovereignty across the board, including in the world of ideas, politics, culture, research, economics, finance and other spheres while remaining open to broad mutually enriching equitable international cooperation can well place Russia on the path to steady development and secure the place it deserves in the multipolar world order. Among other things, we need to readjust foreign policy concepts emanating from the Western school of thought to fit in with our national narrative. Are ideology-driven constructs like, for example, soft power or public diplomacy relevant in terms of Russia’s domestic context and practice? Is it possible that talking about “cultural and humanitarian policy,” as well as “informational support for foreign policy activity” would make more sense?

It is high time for Russia to go back to its roots and to realise that it forms a historical core of a civilisation with a unique identity and is, in fact, the largest Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power and one of the world’s most powerful geopolitical centres.

The special military operation creates ample opportunities for reclaiming this identity. Russians, Chechens, Avars, Tatars, Yakuts, Tuvans and members of other indigenous peoples are all fighting within a multi-ethnic and multi-faith Russian army against the troops of Kiev’s puppet regime, which has put its stakes on a retrograde policy of radical nationalism and an unconditional and humiliating subordination to its foreign masters. Cossacks and Chechens had been adversaries for a long time, but now they worked together to liberate Lisichansk and call each other comrades in arms. A Chechen commander received a Cossack military award. This is something that deserves some thought. It emerges that efforts to promote an interethnic unity and traditional values generate creative energies, while relying on a falsified vision of history and illusions about the future is unnatural, paving the way to domestic instability and aggression against dissenters.

Of course, going back to one’s roots would be impossible without mobilising the state and society on the ideological front. This is another essential prerequisite for an effective foreign policy as we move away from our dependency on the West in all its forms and manifestations. Prominent Russian researchers have been making this point as they presaged many of the issues that emerged at the current historical stage. Ivan Solonevich wrote back in 1951 that the unique nature of the Russian civilisation can be defined as a “singular national state and cultural whole that is clearly distinct from both Europe and Asia.” In 1993, Vadim Tsymbursky referred to Russia as a “special ethnic and civilisational platform.” Alexander Zinoviev wrote in 2003 that Europe was the Western tip of the Eurasian continent saying: “The prosperous West that Russia is dreaming of is but a small island in the ocean of filth and suffering.”

History has chosen Russia as a force poised to accelerate the transition to a new world order through its persistence and steady resolve to achieve truth and justice for all. Not only Russia’s foreign policy positions but the stability of the entire system of international relations hinge on our ability to play a unifying role and create a cross-civilisational network of priority partners within the next decade.

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