With Russian poisoners stalking the streets of Salisbury and the real possibility of a hot war with the Kremlin’s troops in Syria, The Spectator’s debate this Wednesday – What does Russia want? – could hardly be more timely.
The line-up of guests we’ve assembled promises to be an explosive mixture. Russian Presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who made a doomed run against Vladimir Putin in March’s elections on a platform of liberal reform, will lead the anti-Kremlin side. Sobchak is more than just a prominent liberal politician – she’s the ultimate political insider. Sobchak’s father Anatoly was an iconic liberal mayor of St Petersburg – and was Putin’s boss and political mentor in the years after he left the KGB. Putin has been a close family friend for two decades. During her Presidential run Sobchak was publicly pilloried on State television by Putin’s supporters – and even many liberals condemned her for lending legitimacy to the charade of Putin’s election.
We will also be joined by Mark Galeotti, author of The Vory, a newly published study of the history of Russian organised crime, who is one of the best informed Western commentators on Russia’s security services and criminals. The chilling message of The Vory is that these are often one and the same thing, and that Putin has created a mafia state on an unprecedented scale.
Sir Roderic Lyne is an old Russia hand who served as HM Ambassador to Moscow in the first years of Putin’s rule. He has first-hand knowledge of how Putin first consolidated his power by suppressing the oligarchs and the free press – and ever since has had an insider’s view of how the Kremlin’s expanding ambition spilled into military aggression, hacking attacks and hybrid warfare.
The aim of the evening will be to understand Russia, not simply bash Putin, which is why we are delighted to welcome two key pro-Kremlin voices. Vladimir Pozner is one of Russia’s most distinguished broadcasters and political commentators. Just as importantly, he’s a fascinating example of a Gorbachev-era liberal who now strongly supports the Putin regime. He’s articulate, thoughtful and brilliant at skewering what he sees as Western hysteria and hypocrisy.
We are also lucky to have Oxana Boyko, a talk show host on RT – the Kremlin-funded channel formerly known as Russia Today – who will doubtless give a robust rebuttal of allegations of Moscow’s electoral meddling, hacking, trolling and black propaganda operations. Boyko’s show – true to RT’s motto of always questioning more – regularly highlights what she calls Western double standards and cliched thinking about Russia and its intentions.
It promises to be a heated, fascinating and revealing debate, chaired by the redoubtable Andrew Neil. At a time when increased tensions have generated hysteria on both sides of the old Cold War divide, it’s more important than ever to take time to listen and understand what it is that Russia wants.
What does Russia want? takes place this Wednesday, 18 April, in Westminster. Tickets are selling fast so book soon to avoid disappointment. Owen Matthews, Spectator contributor and former Moscow Bureau Chief for Newsweek, will also be speaking.