How Russia is using international students as a weapon in the new Cold War
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Russia is a top destination for international students and the most popular place for students from former Soviet countries to study. The country currently hosts more than 243,752 international students and considers international recruitment to be an important geopolitical goal.More recently, Russia has resurrected and intensified the Soviet tradition of politicising student mobility. The government has requested that Russian students studying abroad should leave their new countries, when Russia’s political relations with those destinations deteriorate. Rossotrudnichestvo – a Russian government agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid – issued an information campaign, “Highly Likely Welcome Back, или пора домой!”, in April, with the aim of bringing Russian students back home from these “hostile” countries. The agency explained:
There are serious safely issues for our young people studying abroad. They may suffer from provocations in countries that are unfriendly to Russia. Russophobic sentiments negatively influence [the] lives of our citizens abroad, for example, Russians residing in the UK.The phrase “highly likely” seems to refer to Theresa May’s comment about it being “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The use of this phrase in the slogan suggests the message is directed at students studying in the UK. There are 56,915 Russian students studying abroad, of which around 4,092 are based in the UK. The Highly Likely Welcome Back campaign appears to have had little effect – Russian students in the UK reportedly seem unmoved by the government’s discourse on Russophobia.
Education or politics?A similar decision was made by Russia in 2015 when the government recalled Russian students studying in Turkey. This was after the downing of a Russian warplane by the Syria Turkey border. Russia also proposed a reduction in the quota for international students from Turkey. This politicisation of Russian higher education dates back to the Cold War when exchange programmes became extremely important – especially with emerging communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. As anti-colonial movements spread across Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the mid 20th-century, the USSR saw this as an opportunity to extend its activity to developing countries.
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