Should Obama listen to calls for a full-scale containment of Russia

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Should Obama listen to calls for a full-scale containment of Russia
Published 19-02-2013, 14:05

In a recent report titled "Contending with Putin’s Russia: A Call for American Leadership”, Freedom House paints an alarming picture of what it sees as the unrelenting rollback of democracy in Russia. The Washington-based NGO contends that the human rights situation has deteriorated markedly following Putin’s return to the presidency and is now "at its worst since the Soviet era”. As regards external affairs, it alleges that Putin’s Russia is obstructing the US’s policies in Syria and elsewhere while making "anti-Americanism the centrepiece of its propaganda”.

For this reason, the report urges President Obama to abandon the "re-set” during his second term in office. Echoing calls that were made earlier this year, it advises the White House to actively challenge the Putin regime, deny Russia membership in the OECD and end its current "win-win” strategy of engagement because Putin "will not pursue such mutual benefits in good faith.” Moreover, President Obama should refuse to meet one-on-one with Putin and make his attendance at the Moscow G20 summit (scheduled for September) conditional on a "serious turnaround in Russia’s human rights situation”. 

Shortly after the publication of the Freedom House report Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow wrote in the Financial Times that Putin has de facto given the West an ultimatum and that "Russia is now ruled by people with a greater propensity to violence than the aged leadership of the final days of the Soviet Union”. She goes on to ask "whether a regime already cracking down on its citizens will hold back from a confrontational stance to the outside world?” 

It cannot be denied that the Kremlin – believing Washington to have encouraged recent street protests in Russia – implemented some strong measures targeted especially against NGOs and individuals who receive financial support from the West. However, those who are, in effect, advocating a new cold war with Russia must surely be aware that depicting Putin’s regime as a modern-day mutation of Communist totalitarianism is an extreme distortion of reality. 

Communism ended in 1991 and since then Russia has undergone an irreversible transformation on all fronts. While during the Soviet era repression constituted the very essence of the state and was practiced in all spheres, today its use is sporadic and marginal. That is not to condone the selective – or indeed any – use of unjustifiable repression; but it is important to point out that the human rights situation in Russia today is a far cry from what it was under Communism. 

Moreover, since 1991 Russia has witnessed the rapid expansion of economic, civic and creative freedoms – a process that has continued apace under Putin. The regime not only understands that these changes cannot be reversed; it has no intention of turning back the clock, not least because this transformation is the main source of Russia’s regeneration, including in the military. 

Omitting even to mention these and other salient facts paints a one-sided picture. Moreover, making policy recommendations based on such a distortion, which de facto call for a renewed cold war with Russia, is not only highly irresponsible; it also raises the question of whether the authors of such policy recommendations are upholding the very democratic values they claim to promote. 


  • The advocates of a "gloves-off” approach toward Russia are surely aware that, if anything, the Kremlin will respond by further ratcheting up its anti-Western rhetoric and responses. Is their stance justifiable?
  • Is it conceivable that the Kremlin’s hard-line against West-supported NGOs might cease if Washington shows understanding for the regime’s need to be seen as fully sovereign? 

The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell,

Editor, Expert Discussion Panel

Professor, New York University, Prague

Editor, Consensus East-West Europe




Expert Panel Contributions


Dmitry Mikheyev

Former Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, teaches "Leadership in the 21stcentury” at variousbusiness schools in Moscow

America is a fighting nation and always has been. Her long-term strategy, her raison d’être, is the remaking of the recalcitrant world according to her own image. The prosecution of this noble mission takes many forms of warfare and the use of all sorts of power – hard, harsh, soft and gentle. Their use has to be carefully balanced and calibrated according to the size and status of the country in question.

No country can be entirely free from the world Hegemon’s pressure. Even the staunchest European allies, including Britain, are periodically subjected to prophylactic reprimands, admonitions, ratings, and economic embargoes. Look who is at the top of Transparency International’s list of the least corrupt nations – small guys like Denmark, Finland, and Singapore, while the big ones, France, Germany, Japan and Italy, hover some twenty notches below. They shouldn’t forget where they stand in the hierarchy of purity. Just in case – lest they begin to fantasize about ganging up against the Hegemon.

The Cold War has never ended. It is being transformed into a new kind of war – a low-intensity ideological war by proxies. This war is conducted by NGOs, such as Freedom House, by think-tanks, rating agencies, and media outlets. According to those mercenaries who monitor democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, corruption, and the "investment climate” around the world, Russia is rated as the most corrupt, un-free, lawless, and business-unfriendly nation among all countries of significance. It is difficult for any country to swallow such an insult. Many, if not most, Westerners who live and work in Russia bemoan this harsh and unfair treatment of Russia. Russia sympathizers who dream of Russia-America friendship wrack their heads over how the Hegemon can disregard Russia’s demonstrable progress in all spheres, including human rights.

These ratings are conducted by the intellectual mercenaries who, like drones, are remote-controlled from Washington headquarters. These "private,” "independent,” not-for-profit organizations are the exact equivalents of private security companies, such as Blackwater, which are increasingly carrying out military operations in the "uncivilized” world. Of course, these mercenaries are interested in dragging out the conflict with Russia, and the rest of the world for that matter, for as long as possible. So, the low-intensity Cold War against Russia and Putin is likely to continue and become only more sophisticated, no matter who is in the White House.

How do you fight this type of war? Do you hire your own intellectual mercenaries – ones who have no qualms against using disinformation and other dirty tricks? All my instincts are opposed to such a strategy. I believe in the effectiveness of openness and in the ultimate triumph of honesty. I think Russians fight the old-fashioned way. They are serious and earnest but tend to fall into one of two extremes – either rudeness or squeamish political correctness. Therefore they have yet to learn the art of the 21st Century information warfare, with its smart, subtle, yet deadly munitions.

Russian politicians have to learn how to be polite yet aggressive, how to sting by niceties, how to kill with a friendly smile and even an apology: "Sorry, old chap, nothing personal”. At the public forums and particularly during interviews, they have to attack, keep the Western mercenaries on the defensive, ask embarrassing questions. Remind the public who these "soldiers of fortune” are, what their goals are, where their funding comes from. There is nothing wrong about reminding the esteemed expert of his silly remarks and ridiculous predictions about Russia’s future.[1] But at the same time you must remain cool and polite. Believe me, they will be afraid and respect you. Which brings me to Putin.

In September 2008, Ralph Peters of USA TODAY, wrote: "Putin combines merciless calculation and a sense of mission; he is cold-bloodedly pragmatic when planning, but when he decides to strike, he doesn't look back. This is not good news for his opponents, foreign or domestic … Our next president will have to cope with this brilliant, dangerous man. That's going to require the experience and skills to exploit every element of our national power.”

Doesn’t this say it all? American conservatives love to hate Putin because they can’t forgive him his Russianness. How come, they fret, that this superbly intelligent, self-confident, highly organized, and masculine man, who almost perfectly incarnates an Anglo-Saxon specimen,[2]somehow happens to be an Orthodox Slav who represents and defends such an uncivilized, reactionary and dangerous country as Russia? Nobody else has dared look straight in the face of Hegemon and criticize it for "unilateralism,” and for "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts,” as Putin did in Munich six years ago. This is what makes them furious, but also afraid and respectful; and this is how ideological wars are won. Á la guerre comme à la guerre.

[1] Thomas E. Graham, A World Without Russia? June 9, 1999; Martin Wolf, "As long as it is trapped, the bear will continue to growl," Financial Times, February 21, 2007

[2] Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (Atheneum, 1992) and Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (Harvard University Press, 1981)


Patrick Armstrong

Patrick Armstrong Analysis,

Ottawa, Canada

Should Obama pay any attention to Freedom House’s rating of Russia? No, and neither should anyone else. They are not "independent” ratings of freedom.

Freedom House doesn’t like Putin very much: Russia’s "democracy score” has declined from 4.96 in 2003 to 6.18 in 2012 on a scale where 1 is the best and 7 the worst. Worse today, oddly enough, than either Libya or Kosovo but at least not quite as bad as Zimbabwe or North Korea. It doesn’t like Russian elections either. In 2006 we were told "Russians cannot change their government democratically.” But the fact that they have not chosen to elect the Communists, Zhirinovskiy or any of the ephemeral and self-destructive "liberal” parties is not evidence that they cannot; only that they have not.

The goalposts are always moving: new regulations on registering political parties reduced pluralism in 2003but the registration of many new parties in 2012"seemed designed to encourage division and confusion among the opposition.” The centralised appointment of regional governors was condemned in 2005but the return to election in 2012 apparently only helps pro-Kremlin incumbents. Even going uphill, Russia is going downhill.

In 2013Russia gets a downward arrow "due to the imposition of harsh penalties on protesters participating in unsanctioned rallies and new rules requiring civil society organizations with foreign funding to register as ‘foreign agents’”. It’s OK for Washington to require permits to demonstrate and charge hefty fines or imprisonment for violations, but wrong for Moscow. It’s OK for the US to demand foreign financed organisations register as such, but wrong for Russia to do so. Why? This is "decision-based evidence making”. To Freedom House, elections, whether the ruling party wins two-thirds of the vote or drops to one half, are always "deeply flawed”. Press freedoms, no matter how many are free to travel to Washington to complain, are always "curtailed”. Demonstrations, no matter how many, are "consistently reduced”.

How "non-government” is Freedom House? Well, it is certainly very much government funded. How about the freedom part? The cynic, looking at these scores over 2003-2012: Latvia from 2.25 to 2.11. Georgia, 4.83 to 4.86. Ukraine 4.71 to 4.82, Armenia 4.92 to 5.39, Kazakhstan 6.17 to 6.54 might be forgiven if he saw a pattern. A pattern that, oddly enough, was replicated in the famous "colour revolutions”. In Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership suddenly shot to the top of the new "democratic” governments’ priorities and in the Kyrgyz Republic a NATO base became very important. Could it be that Freedom House’s assessment correlates closely with geopolitical purposes?

Every now and again, someone gives the game away. The Executive Director of the US branch of Amnesty International when Pussy Riot was declared to be prisoners of conscience was Suzanne Nossel. In and out of US Administrations and NGOs, at AI she boasted she was the author of a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled ‘Smart Power’. "Progressives now have a historic opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy around an ambitious agenda of their own… the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism… liberal internationalists see trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values as equally important.” She now heads PEN American Center and is still proud of "smart power”. She evidently sees no conflict of interest between advancing "human rights” and advancing US foreign policy.

So, not so "non-governmental” or "human rights” after all; more like a government funded organisation supporting US foreign policy.


Edward Lozansky

President American University in Moscow

Professor of World Politics, Moscow State University

At a time when Obama's administration is searching for fresh foreign-policy ideas to meet the growing list of enormous economic and security challenges, some "helping hands” are making sure that the list of those challenges keeps growing.

For example, when one looks at Freedom House recommendations to President Obama one can't help wondering whether American taxpayers should have to continue paying for the formulation of proposals which are obviously detrimental to US security interests. This organization has already wasted enormous amounts of taxpayers' money on supporting the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space, which ended in total fiasco in all three countries – Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan – while inflicting, for good measure, massive collateral damage on US-Russia relations. 

Now they want America not only to "stand in solidarity with Russian activists –financially and vocally – by finding innovative ways to continue supporting those who seek political liberalization in Russia" but also to "challenge the various authoritarian groupings in which Russia plays a prominent role, such as the Eurasian Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)." No wonder Freedom House is so scornful about the pitiful US$50 million allocated for democracy promotion in Russia. This is just pocket money, given the agenda they have outlined. Never mind the looming budget sequestration for social and military spending. Freedom House folks are sure that a drastic increase in financing the Russian opposition is obviously more important. 

One item on that agenda is particularly laughable: the call to challenge the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where China plays a key role. In other words, Freedom House expects China, a top foreign US lender, to provide more funds to the US Treasury to finance the challenge against itself. This is rich even by Freedom House standards. However, an even more earth-shattering call to the West comes from an office in the heart of Moscow, on Pushkin Square – from the Russian division of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Lilia Shevtsova, one of its senior associates, finds the Freedom House challenge approach too modest; she calls for a "new way to contain Russia," no more and no less. 

The term "containment” was first used in reference to foreign policy by the late George Kennan in his 1946 cable from Moscow. It is a translation of the French cordon sanitaire, a term used to describe Western policy toward the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Containment designated America's policy of preventing the spread of communism abroad. At that time it was fully justified; but I am not sure that Shevtsova is aware that the same George Kennan strongly denounced NATO’s expansion to the East, which started under the Clinton administration, calling it a "fateful error” and "grave mistake”.

There is no question that Russia's democratic institutions are still too weak and afflicted with all the ills that one would expect during this early phase of their development. Yet to seek to justify Russia’s containment by saying that the country is spreading its inhumane ideology or throwing its military weight around is sheer nonsense. Today’s Russia is above all a regional power with no global ambitions. It does have economic and security interests of its own which sometimes clash with those of the United States. However, on the most important security issues – such as international terrorism, drug trafficking, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, among many others – the interests of Russia and the US coincide. So Shevtsova’s call for the second coming of containment does a great disservice to both countries – to America, which pays her salary, and to Russia, which provides prime real estate for the Carnegie offices in Moscow. 

Frankly, the Carnegie Endowment's stand on all this is a bit of a mystery to me. Jim Collins, who heads the Russian desk at their Washington headquarters, his deputy Matt Rojansky and the head of the Moscow office Dmitry Trenin are all known for their very pragmatic approach to US-Russia relations. When they speak out, theirs is mostly a voice of reason that both Washington and Moscow would be advised to listen to. Sure, I realize that the Endowment's fellows and associates must have total freedom to express their views. The question, though, is whether those views shouldn't be broadly in line with the organization's strategic goals and objectives? If they are, are we then supposed to think that the Carnegie Endowment's leaders also believe that the containment of Russia is a wise policy to recommend to the White House? 

Well, enough of bad news; there's also some good news coming from the States. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the son of former Congressman Ron Paul, spoke at the Heritage Foundation, the place where all Russia bashers and containment advocates would always be welcome. And yet Rand Paul spoke there about the real issues and security threats, not the imaginary ones fabricated by Putin-haters. He identified radical Islam and nuclear Iran, not Russia, as major threats to the United States. In these areas, the interests of Russia and America clearly coincide. A rational US policy could therefore be built on these common interests and expand into other areas – instead of cultivating yet another enemy in addition to the long list that we already have. 

As Martin Sieff of The Globalist magazine has observed: "Far more interesting is where Rand [Paul] spoke. The Heritage Foundation … the home of unrelenting hostility towards Russia … Perestroika is coming even to Heritage." 

Perhaps this has to do with the change of guard at Heritage where a new boss, former Senator De Mint, has taken the helm. Despite his often very critical remarks about Russia, Senator De Mint has for many years been a sponsor of the Annual World Russian Forums, a venue for truly balanced discussion on what is really going on in Russia and in US-Russia relations. 

It is widely believed that Rand Paul plans to run for president in 2016. Good for him, as well as for Republican voters and the whole country. We need no more McCain or Romney types, no sir. We badly need foreign-policy realists, and right at this moment it is Rand Paul who sounds like the right guy for office. 


Andrei Tsygankov
Professor of International Relations & Political Science
San Francisco State University
Obama should, of course, ignore such calls for the reasons mentioned byVlad Sobell. The Kremlin does not want another Cold War and its domestic system should not be the reason to contain Russia. As Gary Hart writes in New York Times, in these respects Russia is no worse than China with which the United States maintain much better relations.
The hostility toward Russia has more to do with the lingering legacy of the Cold War than with Russia’s domestic policies, however unappealing they may seem. Some members of the American political class feel they must take a moral uncompromising stand against the "authoritarian bully” hoping that with time the recommended containment strategy will work. Others tend to view democracy promotion through the lens of national security. They assess political changes in Russia in terms of bringing the country in line with the United States’ international policies. Their view is that a Russia that follows the US institutional model will be more likely to comply with the United States’ strategic priorities. In the latter case, democracy promotion becomes not just a foreign policy objective, but also a tool for exerting international pressures. 

The Freedom House associates frequently hold hawkish views on Russia and these views are partly rooted in the Cold War era. In attempting to exert pressures on Russia,FH and other organizations of similar convictions, launched a propaganda campaign through media, lobbying, and public testimonies. Their image of Russia is that of an alien and hostile regime that has to be confronted, rather than engaged. Organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the International Republican Institute, and the Project on Transitional Democracies have been promoting the view of Russia as a rising dictatorship with no space for opposition since the early 2000s.FH decision to place Russia in 2005 as "Not Free” at the bottom of its list, next to the Philippines, Rwanda, and Tajikistan and below Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya provided the desired expert justification and the rationale for isolating Russia. 

The neo-conservative groups and Freedom House played a key role in discrediting Russia at the time of the arrest of MikhailKhodorkovsky, the Kremlin’s attempt to influence results of Ukrainian presidential elections in October 2004 and the state centralization in Russia after the colored revolutions. PresentingKhodorkovsky as a freedom fighter against an oppressive state, the electoral revolution in Ukraine as the victory of freedom against the autocratic Russia, and more recently Russia’s "sovereignization”, as a return to Stalinist regime are common propaganda tools fromFH’s arsenal. The recent statements byFH leadership should be understood in the same context. 

For its part Russia has been practicing anti-Americanism, to some extent with support from the Kremlin. This problem in US-Russia relations is not likely to go away because Russia cannot really be fully sovereign. Realistically, full sovereignty comes with adequate power capabilities, and Russia is in no position to match those of China or the West. Russia’s anti-Americanism, however, may be controlled if the West develops projects of mutual significance with Russia thereby recognizing its significance. The Chinese example is instructive here: Russia’s sovereignty is being increasingly compromised by the Chinese, yet there is no powerfulSino-phobia coming from Russia. This is because the Chinese don’t try to humiliate, much less isolate, Russia. The Chinese did not pursue a Cold War against Russia. The anti-Russian lobby in China, therefore, isincomparably weaker than in the United States. As a result the Chinese today pursue a consistent strategy of engagement with Russia in areas of mutual interest.


Dale Herspring

University Distinguished Professor of Political Science

Kansas State University 

I will probably be criticized by colleagues in the West, but this issue goes back to Jimmy Carter.He forced the State Department to make human rights a factor in formulating and implementing foreign policy.The problem with this type of policy is that it assumes there is one definition appropriate for all cultures and polity.I would argue that there are different definitions of the term "human rights”, depending on the state's political culture.I would, therefore, argue that democracy and demokratzia don't mean the same thing. 
It cannot be questioned that Putin has tightened up central control.One can argue that given the chaos under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin had not alternative but to tighten control.Some will maintain that he has gone too far in centralization.However, polls seem to suggest that Russians are not as concerned with central control as they are with social and economic prosperity. It would appear that Putin's main concern is to ensure further improvements in the Russians’ standard of living.

Stephen F. Cohen 

Professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University 

How Obama can avert another Cold War 

The domestic problems facing President Obama have obscured an equally grave crisis: the unfolding Cold War-like relationship between Washington and Moscow. The recent spate of punitive legislation and abrogated agreements on both sides reflects a larger, and growing, antagonism. A new Cold War would further diminish, if not end, Russia’s cooperation in vital areas of US national security — including not just North Korea, China, Afghanistan and the Middle East but also the prevention of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation. It would also almost certainly trigger a renewed nuclear arms race — instead of the deeper cuts that Obama wants — with the attendant dangers and budgetary burdens. 

Why is another Cold War possible two decades after the Soviet Union ended? The US policy establishment dates the causes to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power 10 years ago, blaming his policies. A more historical analysis, however, would date the primary factors from the 1990s and locate them in Washington. 

Moscow has bitterly resented four components of US policy since they were initiated by the Clinton administration: NATO’s expansion (now including European missile-defense installations) to Russia’s borders; "selective cooperation,” which has meant obtaining concessions from the Kremlin without meaningful White House reciprocity; "democracy promotion” in Russia’s domestic politics, which is viewed by Russian leaders as interference; and the general sense, repeatedly voiced in high-level Moscow circles, that "the Americans do not care about our national security.”

Well-informed observers can reasonably disagree about Putin’s leadership at home and abroad, but fair-minded students of US-Russian relations cannot lightly dismiss Moscow’s four abiding grievances. Unless these components of US policy change — they were not revised even during Obama’s "reset” of relations— another Cold War is exceedingly likely.

Obama has a historic opportunity. By transforming policy toward Russia in four fundamental ways, he could avert that possibility while greatly enhancing U.S. national security and his own legacy:

  • Since the 1990s, the creation of a NATO sphere of military and political influence ever closer to Russia has caused the largest and most dangerous conflict. Assuring Moscow that NATO will no longer seek to extend membership to the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine, which the Kremlin has declared "red lines,” would simply recognize realities: Neither country meets NATO’s criteria. Georgia does not control two of its territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have declared independence; Ukraine lacks sufficiently democratic governance and the popular support for NATO membership.
  • Putin has never forgotten that his vital assistance to the US war in Afghanistan in 2001 was later rewarded by President George W. Bush’s further expansion of NATO andwithdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Discarding "selective cooperation” for real negotiations should begin with the missile-defense installations that Washington and Brussels are deploying near Russia. Formally, they are a precaution against a future Iranian threat, but Moscow fears that the installations will eventually jeopardize its nuclear security. The program is enormously expensive, plagued by technical problems and needlessly provocative. Moscow has demanded at least minimal participation in the European system or, failing that, a written guarantee that it will never be directed against Russia. The Obama administration has repeatedly refused on both counts. Moscow says it will respond with new nuclear weapons. Meeting the Kremlin partway would defuse today’s most militarized issue and avoid a nuclear arms buildup on both sides.
  • Ending direct US "democracy promotion” in Russia, as with the National Endowment for Democracy, may be the hardest policy to change. But having been involved with Russian democrats since the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s, I cannot think of a single US intervention that significantly abetted Russia’s democratization, only ones that made no real difference or hindered it. Americans, official and private, can criticize the Kremlin’s practices. But US government funding of nongovernmental organizations involved in Russia’s political life, a practice long resented by Russia’s political class and recently banned by Putin, is counterproductive. Nor would Americans tolerate a reverse form of interference.
  • These changes would go a long way toward placating Moscow’s fourth complaint, that Washington does not take into account Russia’s legitimate security concerns, particularly near its borders.

There are good reasons to think Putin would respond positively to such US initiatives: the essentially reactive nature of his foreign policy; his assistance to US troops in Afghanistan since 2001; his support, in 2010, for tougher sanctions against Iran; his often-stated preference for "mutually beneficial cooperation” with Washington; and his own towering economic problems. The result could well be the post-Cold War partnership expected more than 20 years ago that got lost along the way.

But for this to happen, Obama would have to adopt the kind of revisionist thinking and bold leadership undertaken by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who achieved, with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, such historic changes that all three believed they had ended the Cold War forever.

This article was published in The Washington Post on 15 February
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