Professor stands by attending controversial Russian conference | CBC News


A University of Manitoba professor is under fire for participating in an event organized by a Russian think-tank on Canada’s sanctions list for spreading disinformation — during which, critics say, she helped Moscow’s propaganda efforts against Ukraine. 

Radhika Desai and her husband attended the Valdai Discussion Club, all expenses paid, in Sochi, Russia, earlier this month. The forum is billed as a wide-ranging conference about international issues. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at it every year. 

Desai then made international headlines when she asked Putin for his opinion on the scandal involving the Ukrainian veteran of a notorious Nazi unit, who was honoured in the House of Commons during a Sept. 22 visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The exchange played into Putin’s oft-repeated but unsupported claim that Russia is trying to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. 

“Her actions are morally reprehensible,” said Andres Kasekamp, chair of Estonian studies at the University of Toronto and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

“She gave [Putin] the big gift,” of being able to say Canada has further justified the invasion, he said. “Which is pretty horrendous.” 

A man points while speaking at a lectern.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Valdai forum on Oct. 5. (Reuters)

The forum was founded in 2004 by the Russian government, NGOs and others as a meet-up for academics, politicians and diplomats — but has since lost much of its legitimacy, Kasekamp says.

Since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and last year’s invasion of Ukraine, participation is “basically a sign of agreement with Russian brutality,” he said. 

The forum was sanctioned by Ottawa in September for “generating and disseminating disinformation and propaganda.”

“It is basically a Putin-curated, Kremlin-curated propaganda-fest,” said Marcus Kolga, founder and director of DisinfoWatch and a senior fellow at both the Macdonald-Laurier and CDA institutes.

It has “descended into a cesspool of Russian disinformation,” he said. 

But Desai rejects those descriptions of Valdai.

Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Several Jewish advocacy organizations condemned members of Parliament on Sunday for giving a standing ovation to a man who fought for a Nazi unit during the Second World War.
Yaroslav Hunka, right, a Ukrainian veteran of a notorious Nazi unit, was honoured in the House of Commons during a Sept. 22 visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

She says it’s a privilege for an academic “to meet such people, to be able to converse with them, to understand what was happening in such key moments.” 

“If I thought it was wrong of me to go, I would not go,” she said last week from her university office.

Desai says she understands the criticism of her question to Putin — and remarks made in its aftermath — but says it’s the House of Commons scandal that’s “morally reprehensible.”

She says she submitted her question in advance. In her preamble, she said the incident made Canada an international “laughing stock.”

Desai and her husband, Alan Freeman, were traveling in China when they heard Valdai had been sanctioned.

She says they read the legislation and got legal advice. They concluded the sanctions did not apply because they were not doing business with anyone and had already accepted the invitation. The legislation includes an exception for any contract entered before the sanctions were announced. 

Still, Desai says they were separated and questioned by border officials upon their return at the Vancouver airport on Oct. 9.

“They tried to intimidate me,” she said. “They … implied that I should be ashamed of myself. And I said, ‘I’m not ashamed.'”

Global Affairs Canada, the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency won’t say if the couple is under investigation.

International legal experts say sanctions are generally aimed at halting financial transactions. Violations can lead to fines or imprisonment. 

“However, when we look at the intangible property or intellectual property, it can get a little murkier,” said Sean Stephenson, an international trade lawyer at Dentons Toronto office and co-leader of the Canadian Bar Association’s Working Group on Sanctions. 

Still, Canadians traveling to Russia must be cautious, according to John Boscariol, head of the International Trade and Investment Law Group at McCarthy Tétrault.

WATCH | Desai defends going to Valdai:

Manitoba professor defends participating in event attended by Putin

Featured VideoRadhika Desai, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba, explains why she attended the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, where President Vladimir Putin called out former House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota for honouring a Ukrainian man who fought with a Nazi unit in Parliament.

“Many companies that an individual consumer would typically deal with in Russia, such as banks or telecom operators, are sanctioned under Canadian law,” he said.

Canadians are also banned from providing a wide range of goods, services and technology to anyone in Russia, and from acquiring “luxury goods” such as fish, caviar, wine and liquor from Russian entities, Boscariol said.

Desai teaches a variety of courses, including Introduction to Comparative Politics and Theories of the Capitalist World Order, based on one of her books.

She says her question to Putin came up in one of her first classes back, sparking discussion.

Desai says she has no concerns about how her opinions reflect on the university or her teaching.

“I think that I should do what I believe to be true. I should follow what I consider to be true. That’s what I’m doing,” she said.

In a statement, the University of Manitoba said it follows Canadian law, including any sanctions. It doesn’t censor or comment on opinions expressed by individual faculty, according to its policy on academic freedom.

A spokesperson also pointed to a 2022 statement on the “horrific and unjust invasion” of Ukraine by Russia, saying the university still stands by those comments.


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