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22 June 2022

Lawrence Freedman’s Diary: My ban from entering Russia and memories of Cold War encounters with the KGB

I was last on the Kremlin’s most recent list of people to be sanctioned. This suggested I was something of an afterthought.

By Lawrence Freedman

On 14 June the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a list of individuals sanctioned for the deliberate “dissemination of false and one-sided information about Russia and events in Ukraine and the Donbas”, and generally contributing to the “incitement of Russophobia in British society”. The individuals were to be punished by being denied entry into Russia. At the top of the list was Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s excellent correspondent, followed by many other distinguished names, including those BBC journalists who reported so bravely from Kyiv. Last on the list, at number 29, was me. This suggested my inclusion was something of an afterthought. In addition to the ludicrous indictment, I was there under false pretences. My stated affiliation as columnist for the Sunday Times, for whom I write occasional comment pieces, did not suggest enormous research. Most of my writing on the war has been for the Substack (Comment is Freed) I set up with my son, and is syndicated to newstatesman.com.

Many congratulations have since come my way, as if this is a great honour. I have even detected a little bit of jealousy from colleagues who feel that their credentials have been overlooked by the Kremlin. Other than perhaps being careful with whom I take tea, it is not going to make much difference to my life. I decided, regretfully, some time ago that Russia was off limits. I’ll carry on commenting as before, trying to make some sense of this terrible conflict, and wondering about where Vladimir Putin thinks this war is going and what he can possibly achieve as a result.

A colourful cold warrior

My first visit to Moscow was in 1984 to take part in a debate with a couple of Soviet policymakers for a TV show. The topic, at a frosty moment in the Cold War, was nuclear deterrence and arms control. As this was my specialism, I had regular contacts with officials from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. Then as now, any departures from the official line were rare, so the challenge in these encounters was to try to pick up any nuances that indicated a possible policy shift and find an interlocutor who might say more interesting things in private than they would do in public. A rare, colourful figure on this scene was Lieutenant-General Mikhail Milstein, a witty, knowledgeable man with a fascinating backstory – which included being taught Spanish by the KGB so he could work as a spy in New York in the 1930s. After working on Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s staff during the war, his military career was constrained by anti-Semitism. But he then joined the main Moscow Institute, which engaged with the West. He enjoyed the freedom this gave him to visit Western countries, and he cultivated a reputation for straight talking, using his rank to shut up his colleagues when they were talking nonsense. I don’t recall him disclosing any secrets, but at least after a conversation you felt you understood the Soviet position better. He died on a Moscow tennis court in 1992.

[See also: Jess Phillips’ Diary: Saying goodbye to my mother-in-law, Angela Rayner’s right to cross her legs, and non-dom condoms]

The spy who bored me

Not all of my Soviet interlocutors were so much fun. When I was at Chatham House in the late 1970s, I got to know a diplomat at the Soviet embassy who occasionally invited me for lunches for what were normally pointless discussions, as he conveyed official positions in a routine way and I desperately tried to find something interesting to talk about. Eventually, I got a visit from a chap from MI5 who informed me that I had been meeting with a member of the KGB, and I should report back if he tried in some way to recruit me. “But he’s not very bright,” I observed. “Well,” said the MI5 man cheerfully, “you’re not very important.”

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Forty years since the Falklands War

On a trip to my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne on 16 June, to give a lecture to the British International Studies Association marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War, I am reminded of my panic when that war broke out. The day before the Argentine invasion I had started as a professor of war studies at King’s College London. Now I had a war for which all my studies of nuclear issues had left me totally unprepared, and I struggled when asked by the media to explain what was going on. So, chastened, I shifted the focus of my research to help understand actual wars rather than the speculative ones I had been studying. I now generally know what issues to look out for when a war begins, leaving me in the uncomfortable position of being at my busiest when, as now, a conflict takes a murderous, destructive and cruel turn.

[See also: Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?]

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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working