Russia's naked military aggression in Ukraine has been accompanied by an authoritarian domestic campaign, which includes bringing most of the electronic media under effective government control, reimposing Soviet-style controls over contact with foreigners, and most recently limiting academic freedom in Russian universities. Although anti-Americanism has become the centerpiece of Vladimir Putin's policies, his newest cultural offensive is targeting the European Union and the Head of its Permanent Mission to Russia.
In mid-January the International Department of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science sent out a special letter to the country's universities, asking to be notified about planned events involving staff members of the EU Mission to Russia.
Singled out for criticism was Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas, the EU Mission Head in Russia. Under his leadership the EU has been holding a variety of public meetings called "European Schools" around the country, many of them at universities. Inevitably, uncomfortable topics like Ukraine have come up for discussion.
Ušackas, an energetic 50 year-old, is a fluent Russian speaker who grew up in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, then entered independent Lithuania's diplomatic service. After posts as Ambassador to the United States and to the U.K., he served as Foreign Minister before being tapped by the EU to be its Special Envoy in Afghanistan. Since he took over the EU's Mission in Russia in 2013 he has taken a personal hand in the public educational events.
The Kremlin is unnerved. According to an article in "Izvestiya" the Ministry of Education and Science gave an especially strong warning about the EU's "Erasmus for All" program, which offers student exchanges and internships, claiming that its real goal is disseminating propaganda.
The Ministry's Big Brotherism elicited a sycophantic chorus of support from university and institute administrators. "Izvestiya" quoted the Rector of the Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States who said that the current situation, "in which Western experts will have the right to impose the values of the European Union in defiance of state interests of Russia, is impermissible."
Betraying the Putin regime's obsession with self-preservation, the Rector of Voronezh State University called open discussion with EU officials "literally the gunpowder of color revolutions." To forestall an explosion the rector insisted that when "foreign ambassadors are given the opportunity to speak, the students must be given a chance to hear alternative points of view too." He added that European policy is dependent on the U.S., a revelation which will come as a surprise to both Washington and Brussels.
The Director of the Institute of Globalization Problems told "Izvestiya" that European educational programs in Russia have been propagandistic in nature from the very beginning. "Probably there are certain programs that teach us good, but we also understand that the majority of them are aimed at promoting and setting up a fifth column. No doubt, they must be closed" the Director stated. He concluded his tirade by warning darkly: "If Ambassador Ušackas conducts anti-state activity, such Ambassadors are to be declared persona non grata and sent out of the country."
Ušackas seemed unfazed by the new regulations and the verbal attacks on the EU programs, replying that "the strength of any society is reflected by the way it manages diversity, pluralism, and tolerance and remains open to dialogue. Attempts to isolate society from contact with the outside world benefits nobody." Taking the high road, he concluded: "During the acute crisis in our relations we should talk and listen to each other with a view to understand each other better and to promote the bridges between our people."
The ham-handed Russian government regulations and obsequious testimonies of support from university officials are a pathetic throwback to Soviet times. They reflect the insecurity of Putin and his inner circle who realize that high public approval numbers in a controlled media environment are fragile at best.
Moreover, the Kremlin's action has implications for Western policy. Restrictions on free debate at institutions of higher learning ostentatiously reject a central tenet of Western culture, not to mention being a direct slap at the European Union. Individuals in the U.S. and EU who in opposing sanctions have raised a straw man that the West is trying to isolate Russia must now understand that it is President Putin who is doing an excellent job of self-isolating his own country.
Michael Haltzel is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.