Meeting Russia… again
By Rosanna Lockwood
Rosanna Lockwood
British broadcast journalist based in Dubai, Meeting Russia 2018 Alumni
Rosanna Lockwood, participant of the Meeting Russia 2018, writes about her impressions of Russia and the program itself in her blog. With the permission of the author we publish her text.

The Creative Diplomacy team sincerely thanks Rosanna for her active participation in the Meeting Russia program and for sharing her personal observations.
I lived in Russia in 2017, and the whole experience clearly made a pretty big impression on me, because I am still talking about it and sorting through my thoughts almost exactly a year after I left. I don't think this percolating process will be quick, or something that might ever reach a conclusion, because Russia is so big that it defies any sort of neat explanation (11 time zones, remember!). Furthermore, Russian people are as diverse in their thoughts, attitudes and outlooks as the many different cities and villages they inhabit.

To simply say that "Russia is an [X] type of place," or that "Russians are an [X] type of people" is a disservice to Russia and a clear marker of someone narrow-minded enough to think that they can define any country or its population in a single sentence. And yet, I frequently meet people who try to do this with Russia and, guess what: they have almost always never visited the place. When it comes to being a "Russia expert" in London, New York or Washington D.C., it seems that first-hand experience is just not necessary.

What is even more dangerous than trying to define Russia-the-country in one sentence, is the habit of trying to define Russia-the-country entirely by its government. This is obviously an inadvisable approach when talking about countries generally, but it is one that is especially pervasive with regard to Russia and it is something the average Russian has to work particularly hard to counteract. Another Moscow ex-pat puts it far more succinctly than me in their blog:

"I try to differentiate between Russia the country, and the Kremlin, i.e. its government. Same thing goes when talking about Putin. Putin is not Russia, Russia is not Putin, period."

Predictably, I found most of my preconceptions about Russia blown out of the water in my first week of living there, and I know this is not a unique experience. Contrary to popular "Western" beliefs, Moscow is an exciting and welcoming city, with an almost unlimited number of interesting people to meet and things to do. The only major challenge you might face there is the very real language barrier, so the quicker you can pick up some "survival Russian" the better (and I still use my basic skills more than I could have ever predicted).

I intend to write a lot more about my day-to-day experience of living in Moscow at some point, but this particular blogpost is actually about the occasion that brought me back to the city, just six months after leaving: Meeting Russia: A Public Diplomacy Program for Young Leaders from the United States and Europe - held over three days from March 21–25, 2018.

Creative Diplomacy
I found out about Meeting Russia on IJNET (which, incidentally, is a really useful resource for international journalists). The annual initiative is run by an organisation called PICREADI Creative Diplomacy, which describes itself as: "a Russian NGO founded in 2010 and working in the fields of soft power and public diplomacy." Despite the 'NGO' title, it is definitely worth making clear that the Meeting Russia program I was on is funded by a grant from the [Russian] Presidential Grant Foundation. I paid for my return flights to Moscow and nothing else.

The stated aim of Meeting Russia is:

"To bring together young European and American representatives from academia, government institutions, parliaments, think tanks, the media and the private sector to facilitate dialogue about Russia's foreign policy and its relations with the West."

This, they promise, is achieved through meetings with senior Russian officials and top experts in the field of Russian foreign policy. On reading this, my interest was piqued, because if there are three things I like doing as a professional journalist, they are: 1) Getting a better understanding of Russia, 2) Analysing Russian foreign policy, and 3) Getting access to senior officials and experts. Also: any excuse to go back to Moscow for a few days…

So, I filled out the application form and was lucky enough to be one of the 24 candidates selected for the program in 2018. (I later learned that I almost wasn't selected! Just in case you were incorrectly assuming that my previous work experience in Russia made me a shoe-in for the cause).

Timing is everything….

Returning to Moscow in March was never the plan. I say this as a British person who has lived there, because - like London - March is inarguably the worst month to visit Moscow, with April coming in a close second.* All the snow that has blanketed the city's roads and rooftops throughout the magical deep winter melts into a grimy brown slush and it is weeks before leaves reappear on the trees for the beautiful, warm summer. What I am saying is that March is not the month I would pick to showcase the Russian capital to a delegation of foreign guests, but at least this year we did have the 2018 Presidential Elections, held one week prior, to provide some useful context for our meetings.

The participants

The 24 program participants, all under the age of 30, represented a pretty even 50/50 split between candidates from North America and candidates from Europe. A lot of them either worked for think tanks, ran their own think tanks or provided academic research to think tanks. There was also a small smattering of journalists, NGO workers and political consultants for variety.

A few participants had visited Russia before, and two were Alfa Fellows currently living in Moscow, but for many on the program, this was their first real taste of the country. This is important to highlight because it is one of the reasons that this initiative is so valuable: On its most basic level, it brings people who are building careers around analysing Russian foreign policy actually in to Russia to get some experience and meet Russian foreign policymakers on the ground.

We were moved around the ice-covered city mostly by private bus and sometimes by foot, getting to know one another in the few brief minutes between meetings. I very much enjoyed speaking to everyone that I met on the program. They were all exceptionally bright, principled and ambitious people and made me feel quite lacking, with their impressive knowledge of highly specific (for a news-generalist like me) public policy initiatives and their publication of substantial and thought-provoking analysis in the weeks after the trip had ended. In stark contrast - some might say - to this rambling blogpost, casually typed-up months after the event.

For example, I can highly recommend these interesting pieces by my fellow program participants:

The agenda

The Creative Diplomacy organising team were all exceptionally welcoming and fun to be around. No one could doubt their energy, enthusiasm or commitment to their work. Thus it followed that the agenda for the Meeting Russia program was very tightly packed. It was pretty much back-to-back appointments starting at 10am and finishing at 9pm across all three days, with minimal time for independent work or exploration in-between.

For me, the agenda highlights were as follows:

  • A discussion at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Alexey Drobinin, 1st Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Planning Department and Mikhail Kalugin, Head of the BRICS Unit. They described Russia's foreign policy goals as: national security via foreign diplomatic means and creating the best achievable international conditions for domestic development, in terms of economy, culture, technology and demography. They also stated that Russia is open to developing mutually beneficial open relations with any country that is prepared to develop the same ties with Russia, and that everything done in Russia is done for the Russian people - the major objective is not to be liked by other countries or to export Russian social or government models. They also asserted that "the biggest threat facing Russia in the next 6 years is terrorism."

  • A discussion about Russia's military strategy and its impact on foreign relations, with Dmitri Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, in which we discussed Russia's military involvement in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and North Korea.

  • A Q&A at the State Duma with Sergey Shargunov, State Duma Deputy and Member of the State Duma International Affairs Committee. He spoke about Russia's strategy in Syria, the allegations surrounding the Novichok poisonings in the UK, Russia's relationships with the Eurasian Economic Union and China, and allegations of sexual harassment in the State Duma.

  • A panel discussion on Russian "Soft Power", with our host Natalya Burlinova, the President of Creative Diplomacy, Dmitry Polikanov, the President of the Deaf-Blind Support Fund "Con-nection," Alexey Potemkin, an International Relations Adviser for the Russian Humanitarian Mission, and Andrey Devyatkov, a Senior Expert on Foreign Policy and Security for the Center for Strategic Research. The panellists discussed how Soft Power is defined in Russia (Hint: It's quite a different definition to the one commonly used in 'The West') and the various efforts currently being made to export it. For more detail on this topic, I highly recommend you read this article by Natalya Burlinova:

  • A panel discussion on Fake News and Propaganda with Andrew Roth, the Moscow Bureau Chief of the Guardian, Oksana Boyko a TV news presenter for RT, Galina Dudina, a reporter for Russia's Kommersant newspaper and Samantha Sunne, a freelance journalist and Meeting Russia program participant from the U.S. This panel was the final meeting at the end of the packed agenda and, unfortunately, by that point I think it's fair to say that many of us had run out of steam. The discussion never really made it far beyond the semantics of the terms "Fake News" and "Propaganda" and there seemed to be a general lack of drive in the room to probe these sensitive topics much further.
A (sort of) conclusion…

In my opinion, the three messages we heard loudest and most frequently - as expressed by the Russian policymakers and foreign policy experts we spoke to - were:

  1. The Russian approach is realistic, pragmatic and focused on national security and national interests. Russia's foreign policy is fiercely independent. It does not follow other countries.

  2. Russia claims that it is not trying to challenge the current world order and propose an alternative model; but it is really a status quo power and it wants to play by the rules of classical, Westphalian international relations.

  3. Russia feels besieged, and surrounded by states that do not understand Russian interests or behaviours. Russia feels repeatedly blamed and subject to double standards and blocked from international systems. Thus, it frequently responds to criticisms with 'what-about-ism' (pointing to violations by Western countries within similar contexts).

Everyone is aware that trust is key to diplomacy and good foreign relations and it is The Thing that is most lacking in the relationship between Russia and "The West." Of course, foreign policies will never be fully aligned but it does help to open channels of communication to fully understand the reasoning and justification for specific actions and behaviours.

That is why small but ambitious initiatives like Meeting Russia are so valuable. The program provides an unparalleled opportunity to get rare access to institutions and have real conversations with Russian policymakers and experts in Moscow. This is a huge benefit to anyone seeking to further their understanding of Russia and its foreign policy, including those who have lived and worked there, as well as those who study and analyse the country's affairs from afar. I came away from the program with clearer insight into topics I already had some knowledge of, and new insight into topics I definitely should have known more about.

If you would like to apply for next year's program you can do so here:

And for some interesting updates, you should also follow the Creative Diplomacy facebook page here:

*As if I needed a final reminder about why spring in Moscow is not my favourite season, I caught the flu on the final day of the trip and spent the entire Aeroflot flight home alternately shivering and sweating. I will return to Russia… but in December or July next time!