Eduvation Blog

Academe’s War on Russia

Good morning!

Today is apparently National Mario Day, Pack Your Lunch Day, Blueberry Popover Day, Name Tag Day, and Skirt Day – and INTERnational Bagpipe Day, Wig Day, Day of Women Judges, and Day of Awesomeness!

Here, though, we’re still exploring the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last week we looked at the War in Europe, the War in Space and Cyberspace. Earlier this week, it was PSE statements of Outrage & Condemnation, Solidarity & Solace.

But as I said Tuesday, actions speak louder than words…


Economic Sanctions

The US, Canada, G7, EU, and much of the UN has responded to Russia’s ground war with an all-out assault on Putin’s pocketbook, through unprecedented sanctions, bans and boycotts to “suffocate the Russian regime” and cripple Putin’s war machine…

Financial sanctions include shutdowns by Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, a freeze on $643B in foreign-held assets by Russia’s central bank, and banning key Russian banks from SWIFT. (Even historically-neutral Switzerland has broken centuries of precedent by imposing sanctions.) The ruble has lost more than half its value, the Moscow stock exchange has been closed, interest rates are now 20%, and Morgan Stanley forecasts the Russian economy could default in just a few weeks. (For its part, Russia has banned its citizens from purchasing American dollars.)

Import tariffs have been raised to 35% on Russian and Belarusian goods entering Canada.

Russian oil has finally been banned by the US and Canada, and will be phased out by year-end in the UK, despite escalating prices at the pump. The EU says it will phase out its reliance on Russia as soon as possible. (Russia provides 40% of Europe’s gas and 25% of its oil.)

Consumers are boycotting vodka, ballet, and even poutine (since some think it sounds too much like Putin).

Russian aircraft have been banned from most Western airspace, while Airbus and Boeing will suspend parts and service to Russian airlines.

Multinational companies are shuttering their operations in Russia, or liquidating them entirely, from McDonalds, Starbucks and Coca-Cola to IBM and Apple. The Metropolitan Opera is cutting ties with all “pro-Putin” performers. Disney and Warner Bros will stop releasing new films in Russia.

Online platforms have cut off access within Russian, including streaming service Netflix, gig work sitesUpwork, Twitch and OnlyFans, as well as many video games. TikTok has banned new video creation in Russia, (In response, Russia is reportedly looking at legalizing software piracy to sidestep some sanctions.)

High tech exports to Russia have been banned by the US, including semiconductors, computers, telecommunications, information security equipment, lasers, and sensors. (This is partly in anticipation of shortages of neon gas from Ukraine and Russia.)

Sports associations from FIFA and UEFA to the Paralympic Games have implemented a complete ban on Russian teams and athletes, which of course will be toughest on the athletes themselves, but will also deny Putin the opportunity to showcase athletes for state propaganda purposes. (Putin may have been calculated in waiting to invade Ukraine until after hosting the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games in Russia.) As 2 Brock U sport management profs put it, “sport serves as a pawn, but pawns are relevant to the endgame. Pawns are tactical pieces that can be sacrificed or used to amplify pressure, and tend to get a lot of media attention.”

“The scales are falling from people’s eyes. There are no more illusions or hopes about cooperating with Russia.”Alexander Vershbow, former NATO deputy secretary general


Drawbacks of Sanctions

The problem, as many analysts have pointed out, is that most of these sanctions and tariffs will hurt Russian citizens and consumers worldwide long before they impact Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs (with a couple of exceptions.) Russians are faced with explosive inflation at the grocery store, have lost their savings and some their jobs. But the economic pain will need to be protracted before it prompts a revolt in Russian streets or in the Kremlin – and that won’t come in time to stop the military assault on Ukraine’s cities, and the bloody destruction there. UBC politics prof Lisa Sundstrom says “there’s going to be a lot more [destruction and death in Ukraine] before anything like [a course correction] is going to happen.” uGuelph agriculture prof Sylvanus Afesorgbor observes that historically, trade sanctions seldom coerce nations to stand down from military interventions: “We must not turn a blind eye to Russians, who are also Putin’s victims.”

And as Viennese political scientist Ivan Krastev writes, “we know that sanctions can’t stop tanks.”



PSE Sanctions

The world of higher education has followed suit, cutting ties with Russia in a range of ways…


Recalling Students Abroad

Just as international mobility was beginning to recover after COVID19, open warfare in Europe has had a significant impact on air travel routes, and the willingness of students and scholars to travel. Academic institutions don’t want to put their people in harm’s way either, nor can they manage the risks of travel near a war zone – or for that matter, the safety of foreign citizens within Russia, either, as internet access is constrained and free speech can lead to a 15-year prison sentence. On Feb 27, the US State Dept warned Americans, including students and scholars, to leave Russia, and imposed a level 4 travel advisory. Study abroad programs in Russia were abruptly suspended at Middlebury College (VT) on Mar 1. Memorial Uannounced Mar 1 that they were suspending all Russian study abroad programs, effective immediately. CIEE is suspending its spring programs in St Petersburg and relocating students to other universities in Eastern Europe.


Rejecting Robots

Grubhub is one of hundreds of companies cutting Russian ties – which also means ending its partnership with Russian robotics company Yandex. Grubhub is pulling 100 Yandex food delivery robots from the campuses of Ohio State U and uArizona, and says it will work with the campuses to find alternatives. Since late last year, the robots were making ~1,000 deliveries a day on the 2 campuses. (Uber is trying to divest its 29% stake in Yandex.Taxi, too.)


Revoking Library Cards

Ukraine education minister Serhiy Shkharlet and 60 Ukrainian PSE institutions have released an open letterimploring the global education community to block access to “all scientometric databases and materials of scientific publishers for citizens and institutions” of Russia, and “dismiss Russian scholars and journals from scientometric databases.” In view of Russia’s “bloody authoritarian aggression,” the letter urges the scientific community to join governments and corporations in imposing sanctions on Russia, such as banning scientists from international grant programs, academic mobility programs, and conferences. (They also ask organizations like QS to prolong Ukrainians’ window of time to review the university rankings database.)

“Perhaps the best answer to tanks, multiple rocket launchers, and rockets is closed access to high technologies, innovations, scientific research and information support.”Serhiy Shkharlet, Ukraine education minister, and 60 Ukraine PSEs


Removal from Rankings

The QS World University Rankings announced Mar 7 that it would “redact” Russian and Belarusian institutions from new rankings, and cease promoting Russia as a study destination. They are also “platforming global education community discussions of the crisis and how we can collectively support those affected through our summits, websites and publications.” Times Higher Ed says it is “taking steps to ensure that Russian universities are given less prominence” in its World University Rankings, and will protect the standing of Ukrainian institutions next year. “We would expect Russian universities’ performance to be impacted negatively by the actions of the Russian government. As such, we will allow the rankings to do what they are designed to do, and show the world the impact of those decisions.”


Cancelling Conferences

The 2022 International Congress of Mathematicians, scheduled for this July in St Petersburg, will instead be fully virtual, and the Fields Medal ceremony hosted elsewhere.

“In a situation where our country has become a military aggressor and, as a result, a rogue state, Russia’s leadership positions in world mathematics will be irretrievably lost.”Russian Mathematicians and 350 signatories


Ejecting Russian PSEs

On Mar 7, after the Russian Union of Rectors wrote in support of Putin and defending the invasion of Ukraine, Universities UK International suspended its MoU with RUR, and the European Universities Associationsuspended the membership of 12 Russian universities who were signatories. The EUA explained that the RUR statement “is diametrically opposed to the European values that they committed to when joining EUA,” and it advised all member institutions “to ensure on a case-by-case basis that continuation of education and research collaborations with Russian academics remains appropriate at this time.” (Many institutions have emphasized that they are “mindful” of the fact that many Russians oppose the conflict.)

“We recognise that many education and research partnerships are often based on academic peer-to peer relationships, and note that many Russian students and academics, at great personal peril, have publicly criticised this invasion.”Universities UK, statement Mar 8


Cancelling Research Ties

On Feb 25, MIT president Rafael Reif (himself the son of Ukrainian refugees) served notice that its relationship with Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology “must end,” terminating the MIT Skoltech program (a “Silicon Valley” near Moscow) and replacing its homepage with the announcement. (This decision has direct impacts on 21 principal investigators and 38 students.) Likewise Germany froze all research ties with Russia as of Feb 24, and it encouraged the EU to do likewise. (Denmark followed suit Mar 1, and the EU suspended cooperation in research, science and innovation on Mar 4.) The UK is conducting a “rapid review” of all research funding with Russian ties. The Scottish universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews and Dundee suspended research links and joint degree programs. On Mar 3, saying it chooses to stand “on the right side of history,” Australian National U announced it was “suspending all ties and activities with Russian institutions, indefinitely and with immediate effect.” CERN announced Tuesday that it will bar Russians from any newLarge Hadron Collider experiments, and suspend Russia’s “observer status.” (Russian scientists at CERN circulated an open letter in which they “stand against the military actions initiated in Ukraine” by Russia.)

“This step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine. We take it with deep regret because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with.”MIT announcement, Feb 25


“No doubt debates along those same lines were had in the 1930s in many countries and institutions. But in the end… the only thing that really mattered, was who stood on the right side of history, and who did not.”Brian Schmidt, president, Australian National U


Banning from Scientific Journals

UK experts  say that the science minister’s actions to sanction Russian scientists might include excluding them from publishing in – or even reading – international scientific journals. The editorial board of the Journal of Molecular Structure was among the first to announce it would no longer consider manuscripts authored by scientists working at Russian universities.

“The position of universities is always that scientific collaboration and research are a vital global endeavour. However, what is happening is a challenge on democracy and the safety and stability of the free world.”Steve West, president, Universities UK


Preserving Communication?

On the other hand, the AACU is not encouraging a complete end to institutional ties: “Russian academics are playing a pivotal role in protests and conflict recovery and peace building.” One uCalgary prof is concerned that the Arctic Council’s sharing of circumpolar climate data will end abruptly. (Likewise, a Russian climate scientist based in the UK says cutting off data from Russia “will be a really big blow for climate science.”)  UC Dublin has reportedly been reluctant to make more than a statement of “concern” about Russia, out of anxiety that it would be expected to take a strong position on China. (UCD hosts the Confucius Institute for Ireland.) As one economist at Australian National U tweeted, “universities do not boycott universities.” Some 19,000 Russian academics have signed open letters strongly opposed to the war in Ukraine, and one explains that “it is like England invading Scotland. Many of us have relatives in Ukraine or were born there.” Another tweeted that Western academics should not “fight Putinism by attacking those who have suffered from it for decades.”

“If we are to sanction Russia in a way that is effective, then that means tearing Russia out of the fabric of the modern international society. That’s economics, that’s sport, that’s culture and that’s academia.” – Ben Tonra, former VP internationalization, UC Dublin


“All the Russian academics I know oppose the war. The internal situation in Russia will get nastier and they will need solidarity, so there is a case for maintaining ties.”Simon Marginson, prof of higher ed, uOxford


Cutting Off MOOCs

Coursera and edX will suspend content from Russian university partners “on humanitarian grounds,” while giving Ukrainian institutions free use of their MOOC content. Users in Russia are no longer able to enroll in paid Coursera courses, and existing students have 90 days to complete.

“We will not support the financial or reputational benefit of Russian instructors or institutions on Coursera while this tragedy is taking place, nor will we look to profit from doing business in the region amid this humanitarian crisis.”Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera


“The Russian government’s unprovoked actions have made it impossible for us to continue to work in good conscience with Russian institutions.”Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX


Divesting from Russia

As hundreds of multinational corporations shutter their operations in Russia, or walk away from their investments entirely, PSE institutions may want to consider divesting their holdings as well. (Although many already divested Russian assets by eliminating fossil fuel assets.) uColorado has already announced that it is liquidating its investments in Russian companies. The Arizona Board of Regents has ordered the state’s 3 public universities (Arizona State U, uArizona, and Northern Arizona U) to sell about $4M of Russian investments, and has voted to exclude Russian investments from its own retirement plan. State governors in California, Virginia, Ohio and Illinois are calling for their state pension funds to divest. The UK’s Universities Superannuation Scheme, the Ł90B pension plan, says it will reduce Russian investments. Alberta’s Investment Management Corp, which holds $160B in assets for provincial pension plans and endowments, started divesting all of its $159M Russian holdings earlier this month.



Bad Ideas

Most of the world recognizes that the War on Ukraine is largely Putin’s doing, and Russian scholars and students are not to blame. (Those Russian rectors notwithstanding.) Still, as the world seeks ways to intensify public pressure on Putin within Russia, plenty of extreme measures have been considered…


Banning Dostoevsky?

It was obviously an overreaction when uMilano-Bicocca in Milan decided to postpone a series of 4 lectures on Dostoevsky, “to avoid any controversy, especially internally, during a time of strong tensions.” Prof Paolo Nori thought the decision ridiculous, and he said so in an Instagram rant: “Not only is being a living Russian wrong in Italy today, but also being a dead Russian, who was sentenced to death in 1849 because he read a forbidden thing.” Days later, the university reversed its decision.


Expelling Russians?

In a CNN interview Feb 24, California representative Eric Swalwell said that “kicking every Russian student out of the US” should be on the table, and other congressmen have agreed – although there was no such blanket deportation of students from Saudi Arabia after 9/11, nor from China under Donald Trump. International education experts rightly criticize turning students into “pawns,” and ask “How on earth would removing innocent students, most of whom stand in opposition to Putin’s practices, help anything?” Even without deportation, Russian students will find it more difficult to obtain student visas, and the devaluation of the ruble and restrictions on international transfers will make it difficult to pay tuition.


Draining their Brains?

On the other hand, Paul Nightingale (prof in the science policy research unit at Sussex U) proposes that Britain and the US consider offering 5-year work visas to every Russian with a PhD, “to prompt a brain drain from the country” – although he acknowledges that could “damage hopes of Russia becoming a more liberal society in the future.” Academic sanctions must be imposed carefully to avoid permanent damage to the possibility of future academic diplomacy: “Unfortunately the people we would be hurting most in trying to damage Putin would be our friends.”

“Links in science are a very important part of maintaining what spark of freedom there is in Russia.”James Wilsdon, director, Research on Research Institute, Sheffield U


A Lose-Lose Proposition?

Academic sanctions are effective when they punish those truly complicit, but the current situation is complex. Russian universities and their rectors have made clear that they are merely arms of the state. Many, if not most, Russian academics are opposed to the war on Ukraine – but it can also be questioned whether any of them actually enjoy academic freedom under Putin’s regime. Cutting off academic links could undermine the competitiveness of Russian scholarship, but also prevent the rest of the world from learning from Russian researchers, and eliminate a channel to combat misinformation in Russia – ultimately “a lose-lose solution.”


Further Reading

Some of the more useful articles I reviewed in preparing today’s issue, which you might find provide helpful balance and perspective too, include:

Simon Baker, “Do academic boycotts work?” Times Higher Ed, Mar 9 2022.

Anna Fazackerley, “UK Universities brace for impact of sanctions against Russia,” The Guardian, Mar 4 2022.




If all of that hasn’t sated your appetite for insight into sanctions against Russia, or if you would prefer to absorb information in video format, here’s an appropriate one…


Are Sanctions Working?

The Economist summarizes the West’s efforts at “economic warfare” against Putin’s Russia (as of Mar 4) in this 8-min video that asks, “are sanctions working?” (Spoiler: not to make Putin pull military forces out of Ukraine.)  YouTube


As always, thanks for reading!

Stay safe and be well, 


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