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The York Union hosted a debate chaired by Joseph Silke, this paper's Politics Editor, on the motion: "This House believes that the Russian Federation is an aggressive power". Proposing it was James Sherr, a senior academic at Chatham House. Columnist, author and York alumnus Peter Hitchens spoke against.
Sherr and Hitchens were equally formidable guests with differing styles. Sherr's calm, quiet focus on detail was no match for Hitchens' convincing flamboyance, embellished with anecdotes, quips and metaphors. Sherr, sometimes visibly irked, was poker-faced throughout, speaking from scribbles in a small notebook. Hitchens, however, habitually pored over and wrote on piles upon piles of A4 paper sprawled over his table. It was clear that Sherr's work involves detailed discussions with academics and policy-makers, whereas Hitchens thrives on debate.
Russia's foreign policy is partly understood by the endemic insecurity and paranoia which arises from being a vast nation surrounded by potentially hostile powers. This is explained by politics and history as much as geography. Putin's grip on Russia was strengthened by annexing Crimea in 2014 but it is held tight by pure nationalism.
There are historical parallels. Russia's recent surge in nationalism as a result of land lost in the wake of the Soviet Union's inevitable collapse is not dissimilar to what happened in land-stripped, humiliated Germany after the harsh 1918 Treaty of Versailles. After the inevitable collapse of the flawed Soviet Union, Russia's former dominance of Eastern Europe dissolved too.
In a contrast to Russia's subsequent relapse into autocracy under Vladimir Putin, former Soviet states such as Estonia, Latvia, Poland and others developed into Western-style democracies, joining NATO and the EU. Hitchens predictably absolved Russia by spinning this to suggest that some EU-NATO cartel was the aggressor. Yet post-Soviet states may have once been Russia's, but they are not and never were Russian.
"Do you need some cough sweets over there? Perhaps Philip Hammond can provide some for you," Hitchens asked the cold-afflicted audience in a reference to the recent Tory conference. Fortunately Sherr went on to cough up refutations revealing flaws in his opponent's case. The 2014 Crimea crisis threw up some interesting arguments over whether it indicates nationalist Russian aggression or merely defending a region which is essentially Russian against Western provocation.
The lack of debate on hacking must have frustrated Sherr as much as a couple of instances of misspeaking under pressure, which Hitchens leapt upon. The result was 57 for the motion and 80 against; the pre-debate figures being 71 and 59 respectively. Abstentions aside, this swing against the motion won Hitchens the debate.
Whether he won the argument will only become clear in the years ahead. In 1939, Winston Churchill wrote that: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." This is perhaps one notion Sherr and Hitchens would agree on.