Giving Russia the cold shoulder

Blanca Schofield-Legorburo 24 October 2017

It was a cold, damp evening in week three and fresher’s blues were beginning to kick in. A night of Cold War-esque mud-slinging was promised to lighten the load of Russian declensions I had to learn by my next rapidly approaching oral class. Disappointment was in the air as Vladimir Pozner, son of a Soviet spy and now Russian TV presenter himself, had pulled out as a result of illness.  The audience did not and could not have foreseen the train of events that the remaining eclectic mix of characters would deliver in this polemic and highly-strung debate.

First to the podium was Oksana Boyko, the host of Worlds Apart, a geopolitical analysis show on the notorious, vaguely pro-Putin Russia Today channel. Despite “cold shoulder” not being defined, nor a plan of attack given, we were just about able to gather a few things from the somewhat convoluted speech.  She confessed that Russia has learnt some lessons from the Ukraine sanctions, such as the importance of investing in industrialisation other than hydrocarbons.  Russia has a history of “planning big vs getting by” and reform and an independent judiciary might just be needed.  Oksana concluded with an inspiring “moral politics is like good parenting” and good parenting is never achieved with sanctions.  I was able to follow up on this point and to my question, “so do you view the west as a parent to Russia?” a “no” was returned and over three minutes of detail in which I learned that, “there are good and bad actors within any system […] For the westerners it is all about Putin and the bloody Putin regime. For me it is different, I know there are corrupt hoards […]. There are people who are being killed in prisons and there also lots of people in Russia who are trying to change the culture. There are people introducing totally new policies, and now it is a very very moving field.” Perhaps not very related to my question, but good to know nonetheless.

The opposition was then introduced by the humble Radislaw Sikorski, former foreign-minister in Poland and Bullingdon club member. Decked in military medals, he stepped up to the plate with “I came from Poland probably for the last time with a visa.” Round of applause for the mandatory Brexit banter! From the onset, the ex-Oxford Union president had his audience enraptured. Tales of his work in politics and Poland’s old friendship with Russia abounded. He reeled off the establishment of visa-free travel between Kaliningrad and Poland, his unblocking of Russia from the OECD, its invitation to G7, WTO and the Council of Europe, to assure us that it was not as if the west has “somehow been snobbish or irrational towards Russia.” Yet Putin, he informed us, “had decided that it was just too hard”, and thus the cleptocracy of oligarchs had ensued. Radislaw asserted that the Russian president had prioritised “national glory” and “grabbed Ukrainian territory”, “the first time since WW2 that borders had been changed by force”, a pronouncement which was challenged by member of the public.

Somewhere along the way we were reminded that, “the West has been playing Pictionary with African and Middle Eastern borders” and that the sanctions were “not directed at Russian people”, yet until Russia left Ukraine they would continue. A vibrant bow-tie-clad character in the audience stood up abruptly and questioned Poland’s own aggression in asking for €1 trillion in reparations from Germany. A silence hit the crowd as Radislaw’s face darkened, not for the first time in this debate. And with his heated response of a “moral case” and a reorientation to the Russian question, he retired.

Next up for the proposition was Cambridge researcher on Sino-Russian relations, Tim Reilley, stepping in for Vladimir Pozner. All clichés of reserved academics were blown out of the water while he instructed us on this “marmite subject”. We need to “put Russia in a geopolitical setting”, he announced, “forget Crimea, and look forward”. Our hypocrisy was laid bare as he compared the inequality in the US to that in Russia, while warning us that “they take risks and we don’t […] they are moving fast.” Arguing for the need to accept Russia in order to not be left behind in the Sino-Russian ascension, the quotable sections of his position are endless; indeed it may be worth having a go at fitting in as many juicy bits as possible: “we have to have leadership to make things happen”, “we need effective not efficient people”, “China is converting petro-dollars to petro-yan”, “your life is predictable”, and perhaps my favourite, “we have forgotten the rules […] we are at war”. I followed up on this spicy nugget after the debate and Reilly said it wasn’t about war but seeing Russia as it is and knowing that it still “thinks as a superpower”. A hark back to the days of détente, how comforting!

It would be nice to elaborate fully on opposition Tom Brake, Lib-dem MP, but difficult as the majority of his time was hijacked by Oksana. After two minutes on the importance of human rights, and another reminder of long-forgotten Brexit, which Tom narrowed down to “traipsing around begging for deals” (with Russia and the like), he talked about his refusal to partake in meetings that involved the corrupt Kremlin and Russia Today.  He has allegedly been invited on numerous occasions, but only after having been quoted criticising the UK government.  At this, Oksana burst out with, “you are talking about something that you have no idea about […] why does everyone criticise the Putin regime? […] you are telling a lie […] libel!” After this dramatic interlude, with one minute for concluding remarks, Tom persisted in claiming that RT had been investigated by Ofcom for opinion polls on Ukrainian and Crimean independence, and had also misquoted Hollande about sanctions. To a question on the feasibility of promoting human rights in a country we are giving the cold shoulder to, an answer was not noticeably given, and actually, the most memorable bit of his ending was Tim Reilly standing back up and proclaiming: it is “important to maintain dialogue […] watch them walking in the door”.

The final two speakers were Maria Long for proposition and Sarah Lain for opposition. Both were a relatively subdued affair in contrast to the preceding hour. For Maria, who works with Open Russia and Modern Russia, Russia is comprised of two countries: politicians, oligarchs and their friends and then everyone else. “Don’t equate Russia with Kremlin” as “70% of Russians want normalisation of relations with the West”. When questioned on her position by a son of East Germans in the audience who said that East Germany would not have been liberated if it weren’t for sanctions, Maria argued that times were different now as “civil society needs civil society”. If unsure what this means, fear not as she clarified by saying “don’t roll the red carpet” for the corrupt officials. Surely she is pro-cold shoulder then? No, as “Putin is not here forever”, and for the sake of Russian youth, “don’t make Russia a threat”. Use more “targeted sanctions […] seize stolen property […] don’t legitimise the power of those people.”

In the case of academic and Cambridge alumna Sarah Lain, straightforward arguments sufficed. It is difficult for sanctions to pass in the EU, and they had a reason: Russia had boosted the Ukrainian civil war with a “campaign to ferment instability”. The aforementioned colourfully-attired member of the audience then shouted about the West’s role in the Iranian revolution, to which she gave the blunt response: “I’m talking about Ukraine.” There had been huge HR violations in Donbas, the shooting down of the MH17 plane, and at the end of the day sanctions had ensured that Russia did not install a pro-Russian government in Kiev. Concluding by referencing “a New Cold War” may not be useful but we can certainly learn from the past, she returned to he subdued but forceful seat.

The night left me thinking there was a hopeful future.