A University of Manitoba professor is under fire for participating in an event hosted by a Russian think tank placed on Canada’s sanctions list for spreading disinformation, during which critics say she aided Moscow’s propaganda efforts. against Ukraine.
Radhika Desai and her husband attended the all-expenses-paid Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, earlier this month. The forum is presented as a wide-ranging conference on international issues. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks there every year.
Desai then made international headlines when he asked Putin for his opinion on the scandal involving the Ukrainian veteran of a notorious Nazi unit, who was honored in the House of Commons during a September 22 visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. .
The exchange contributed to Putin’s oft-repeated but unsubstantiated claim that Russia is trying to “denazify” Ukraine.
“Their actions are morally reprehensible,” said Andrés Kasekamp, professor of Estonian studies at the University of Toronto and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
“She gave [Putin] “The great gift” of being able to say that Canada has further justified the invasion, he said. “Which is pretty horrendous.”
The forum was founded in 2004 by the Russian government, NGOs and others as a gathering of academics, politicians and diplomats, but has since lost much of its legitimacy, Kasekamp says.
Since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and invasion of Ukraine last year, participation is “basically a sign of agreement with Russian brutality,” he said.
The forum was sanctioned by Ottawa in September for “generating and spreading disinformation and propaganda.”
“It’s basically a propaganda festival curated by Putin and by the Kremlin,” said Marcus Kolga, founder and director of DisinfoWatch and senior researcher at the Macdonald-Laurier and CDA institutes.
It has “descended into a cesspool of Russian disinformation,” he said.
But Desai rejects such descriptions of Valdai.
She says it is a privilege for an academic “to meet people like that, to be able to talk to them, to understand what was happening at such key moments.”
“If I thought it was wrong for me to go, I wouldn’t go,” he said last week from his university office.
Desai says he understands the criticism of his question to Putin – and the comments made afterwards – but says what is “morally reprehensible” is the House of Commons scandal.
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 learned that Valdai had been sanctioned.
She says they read the legislation and got legal advice. They concluded that 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 contracts entered into before the sanctions were announced.
Attending Valdai at Putin’s invitation could have been excused as poor judgment before 2022, but is now an unequivocal endorsement of the ongoing genocide. https://t.co/lVhkCJ8bvp
Still, Desai says they were separated and questioned by border officials upon their return to Vancouver airport on October 9.
“They tried to intimidate me,” he said. “They… implied that I should be ashamed of myself. And I said, ‘I’m not ashamed.'”
Global Affairs Canada, the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency did not say whether the couple is under investigation.
International legal experts say sanctions are generally aimed at stopping financial transactions. Violations can result in fines or imprisonment.
“However, when we look at intangible property or intellectual property, things can get a little murkier,” said Sean Stephenson, an international trade lawyer in Dentons’ Toronto office and co-chair of the Association’s Sanctions Working Group. of Canadian Lawyers.
Still, Canadians traveling to Russia should be careful, according to John Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tétrault’s International Trade and Investment Law Group.
“Many companies that an individual consumer would normally deal with in Russia, such as banks or telecommunications operators, are sanctioned by Canadian law,” he said.
Canadians are also prohibited from providing a wide range of goods, services and technology to anyone in Russia, and purchasing “luxury goods” such as fish, caviar, wine and spirits from Russian entities, Boscariol said.
Desai teaches a variety of courses, including Introduction to Comparative Politics and Theories of Capitalist World Order, based on one of his books.
She says her question to Putin came up in one of her first classes, sparking an argument.
Desai says he is not concerned about how his opinions are reflected in the university or its teaching.
“I think I should do what I think is true. I should follow what I think is true. That’s what I’m doing,” he said.
In a statement, the University of Manitoba said it follows Canadian law, including penalties. Does not censor or comment on opinions expressed by individual teachers, according to their academic freedom policy.
A spokesperson also noted a declaration 2022 about Russia’s “horrible and unjust invasion” of Ukraine, and said the university still stands by those comments.