The Russian Ambassador to the UK, Andrey Kelin, addressed the Oxford Majlis Society at the Randolph Hotel on 29 November. His talk covered the shift to a multipolar world, the Russian position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This was not Kelin’s first time speaking for a student society at Oxford. Last May, the Oxford Russian Club hosted a Q&A with the ambassador, sparking much controversy throughout the University. Ultimately, the May invitation helped spur disaffected Russian students to form the New Russian Society.
It was this newly formed society that organised one of the protests against Kelin’s Majlis Society address. Half an hour before Kelin’s 6 p.m. speech, about forty protestors gathered outside the hotel to demonstrate against the ambassador’s presence at the University. The student society explained their motivations for the protest in a social media post earlier this week, writing: “We believe it is inappropriate to provide a platform for Russian state officials to disseminate their warmongering narratives and justify their brutal invasion of Ukraine. We have already reached out to the organiser society, but they dismissed our concerns.”
Another protest against the Russian ambassador was organised by the Ukrainian Society, which told Cherwell that the invitation “ha[d] nothing to do with freedom of speech, as it only [gave] platform to the dissemination of propaganda and the legitimisation of the aggression against sovereign states.”
When asked about the decision to host the ambassador, one protestor told Cherwell: “He has no business speaking here.” He continued: “It’s not because he’s Russian I’m Russian too.” Instead, the protestor said it was the ambassador’s connection with the Russian government that warranted rescinding his invitation to speak.
Another protestor held a sign that read: “My previous university was banned in Russia. Thank you for securing the freedom of speech for prosecutors [sic] of academic freedom!”
Some protesters brandished the Ukrainian flag and the “white-blue-white” flag, created by anti-war activists to represent opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The ambassador began his address by saying that he would state his views on the current situation and that he “welcome[d] all sorts of questions as long as they [were] in the form of civilised discussion.”
His first topic of discussion was the shift toward a multipolar world, which he said arose from “new centres being created in Latin America, Africa, and Asia” despite the US’s best efforts to avoid multipolarity through its policy of “divide and rule.”
On the conflict in the Middle East, the ambassador criticised Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, stating: “In Israel, they were thinking that if they wouldn’t mention Palestinian issues for a period of time, everyone would forget about the Palestinians, and other Arab nations would resume relations with Israel.
“I would like to confirm that we are against all forms of terrorism. Of course what Hamas did on October 7 is in this category…What is being done in Gaza and in Palestine is also unacceptable.”
The ambassador told the audience that Russia’s position since the first day of the crisis in the Middle East has been for the full cessation of hostilities, the protection of civilians, and the opening of humanitarian corridors. He also affirmed his support for a two-state solution based on June ‘67 borders.
The ambassador then drew an analogy between the West’s approach to Israel-Palestine and the West’s approach to Russia-Ukraine: “Western nations forget the history of the crisis…They are trying to say the crisis in the Middle East started on October 7. They are trying to say conflict in Ukraine began on February 24 , 2022. This is not true.”
Before taking questions, the ambassador stated: “My last point is that we are not against Ukrainian sovereignty at all. We would like to have as a neighbour the neutral and prosperous Ukraine.”
One audience member asked the ambassador about Russia’s policy of punishing dissidents, citing cases where non-violent dissidents received harsher sentences than convicted murderers. The ambassador said he was not familiar with the details of specific cases but criticised Western journalistic coverage of dissidents in Russia. He told the audience: “It’s one thing to say you dislike an operation. No one is going to touch you. But if you raise money to send to Ukrainian forces it’s another thing. Or, if you gather information to send to Ukraine, the state has to protect itself.”
Human Rights Watch has, however, released detailed reports on the Russian government handing down “long prison sentences for ‘offences’ such as referring to the armed conflict in Ukraine as a ‘war,’ criticising the invasion or the conduct of Russian armed forces, and reporting on war crimes by the Russian military or on Ukrainian civilian casualties.”
One woman in the audience told the ambassador that she “felt sorry if Russian speakers had been oppressed in Donbas” before asking what Russian troops were doing in Odesa and Kyiv. Ambassador Kelin interrupted to say that there were no troops in Odesa, which prompted the woman to ask, “Then why are there Russian missiles there?” The ambassador claimed that Russia was only targeting military assets: “This is what every country does.”
Another audience member stated she was from Odesa, Ukraine. She said one of her former students had been killed along with her six-month-old child by a Russian airstrike. She then asked the ambassador what the security guarantees would be for Ukraine if it became a “neutral state” and how the Ukrainians could know that they would be safeguarded against Russian aggression.
The ambassador said that it was unclear whether the strike in Odesa came from an anti-aircraft missile launched by Ukraine or from a weapon launched by Russia. He then claimed that Russia had already proposed security guarantees to Ukraine that were rejected by the US and NATO in December 2021, months before the start of the war. He invoked similar guarantees made in 2009 and 2005, which he said were also rejected.
After the event, several dozen protestors outside chanted “shame” as the ambassador left The Randolph Hotel.
The Ukrainian Society has also told Cherwell that some people were refused entry to the event while carrying Ukrainian flags, which would have allegedly “provoke[d] the ambassador.” They added: “It is interesting how selective in the eyes of the Majlis Society freedom of speech is.”
In response, The Majlis told Cherwell that “threats of physical violence by members of Ukraine Society” were the reason some had been denied entry. They further stated that they regretted “accusations of selective free speech” and said that they had offered to host a similar type of event for a Ukrainian representative.
The Ukraine Society has since denied making threats of physical violence. In an extended response to Cherwell, the Society wrote: “We are deeply disturbed by Oxford Majlis Society’s allegations against Oxford University Ukrainian Society, specifically by the patently untrue claim of our members threatening the attendees with physical violence. There have never been any attempts or plans to threaten the community by any of the members of the Oxford University Ukrainian Society.
“The person who was denied entry to the event was a Ukrainian journalist. Wrapping her shoulders with the Ukrainian flag, she attempted to enter the premises with her child but was rudely banned. Despite having the ticket and presenting her ID, the guards did not provide a reason why they denied her right to enter the event…
“We have some of the recordings of the conversation between our members and the Oxford Majlis representatives that confirm there have not been any threats from our side. Additionally, there have been countless witnesses to every conversation and argument happening. Moreover, the police have been present at the location of the event. The police did not record any threats nor were informed of any threats by members of the Majlis Society.”
This article was updated to include comment from the Ukrainian Society and the Majlis at 23:05 on 6 December 2023. The Majlis have been reached out to for further comment.