Universities face crisis of isolation, scientists warn

More than 150 Russian scientists and scientific journalists have signed an open letter declaring a “strong protest” against the “hostilities launched by the armed forces of our country on the territory of Ukraine”.

The letter’s signatories include around 85 scientists who are members of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

They warned that the “unjustified” military action will plunge the country into isolation and scientists will no longer be able to do their job without full cooperation with colleagues from other countries.

Within days of the invasion of Ukraine these fears were already being realised. The majority of foreign universities, research institutions and scientific journals have been forced to revise their contacts and extent of cooperation with colleagues from Russia.

As a result, Russian universities and scientists have begun to face difficulties in cooperating with their foreign partners, and in some high profile cases their cooperation agreements have been terminated.

All international university science conferences due to be held in Russia have been cancelled.

Refusal to publish by Western journals

Russian scientists are also being denied publication of their papers in leading Western research journals that regularly published their work in the past.

In recent statements, Vadim Batayev, a leading researcher at the Molecular Spectroscopy Laboratory of the Moscow State University's faculty of chemistry, said that he was denied the right to publish an article in the International Journal of Molecular Structure.

"The editors of the journal have decided to ban manuscripts received from Russian institutions and scientists. They say that such a decision is related to [the] special operation of the Russian Federation in Ukraine,” Batayev said.

Acting Vice-Rector for Research and Organisational Activities of Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU) Yuri Klochkov said the limits on publication of domestic scientists in Western journals will affect the rankings of Russian universities.

He said most scientists will be forced to switch to publishing in Asian and domestic journals.

MIT cancels Skoltech agreement

The termination of scientific cooperation between Russia and the West is being observed at university level with leading Western universities unwilling to continue their joint scientific work with Russian partners.

On Tuesday the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), which was founded with MIT’s support in 2011 and is one of Russia’s leading research institutions, ended their partnership.

In an exclusive statement, a representative of Skoltech said: “The formal agreement between Skoltech and MIT will be terminated as requested by MIT. We regret the termination of cooperation.”

A spokesperson of Skoltech also added that the partners launched nine joint projects in mid-2020 which were designed to extend over three years. According to him, in the near future, the parties must submit interim reports and decide whether to continue work on their own.

According to Russian business newspaper Izvestia, the situation is complicated by the cancellation of all scientific conferences in Russia, such as the International Congress of Anthropologists and Ethnologists, scheduled for 25-31 May in St Petersburg, the International Congress of Mathematicians, and other similar events, many of which were supposed to be conducted in hybrid format.

Rumours of student expulsions denied

Reports have also been circulating about Russian students studying in Western universities being expelled from them. The claim was repeated by Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia Tatiana Moskalkova who said most of these cases are observed in such countries as France, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

However, the European University Association (EUA), which represents more than 800 universities and rectors’ conferences, dismissed the allegation. It a statement posted on Twitter, it said: “Various rumours have emerged that European universities have been expelling Russian students since the aggression on Ukraine.

“As stated by the French universities association, it is untrue and EUA hasn’t received any report of potential expulsions by any of its members.”

France Universités, representing higher education and research leaders, also forcefully denied the allegations, which it said were being spread by “some Russia-operated media attempting to smear the reputation of French universities”.

In the meantime, responding to the claims of expulsions, leading Russian universities, among which are the Moscow State University, the St Petersburg State University, the Higher School of Economics and others, said any Russian students expelled from Western universities would be enrolled without any exams.

For this purpose, the Russian government together with the administrations of universities plans to increase the number of state-funded places.

Academics call for peace talks

Thus far, a number of leading Russian scientists and university professors have called on Russia and Ukraine to begin talks. Most of them were not available for comment.

The Russian state has launched a massive crackdown on street protests against the war in Ukraine since masses of anti-war demonstrators took to the streets on 24 February and for several days afterwards.

Despite the crackdown, the list of 150 academics and journalists who signed the open letter criticising the invasion of Ukraine has been bolstered by more than 7,000 other signatures.

In the letter they said there is no rational justification for the war.

“This fatal step leads to huge human losses and undermines the foundations of the established system of international security. The responsibility for unleashing a new war in Europe lies entirely in Russia.

“Attempts to use the situation in Donbass as a pretext for launching a military operation do not inspire any confidence. It is clear that Ukraine does not pose a threat to the security of our country. The war against her is unfair and frankly senseless.”

A ‘cynical betrayal’

They added: “Unleashing a war for the sake of the geopolitical ambitions of the leadership of the Russian Federation, driven by dubious historiosophical fantasies, is a cynical betrayal” of the memory of their “fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers [who] fought together against Nazism”.

By unleashing the war, Russia had “doomed itself to international isolation, to the position of a pariah country”.

“This means that we, scientists, will no longer be able to do our job normally: after all, conducting scientific research is unthinkable without full cooperation with colleagues from other countries.

“The isolation of Russia from the world means further cultural and technological degradation of our country in the complete absence of positive prospects. War with Ukraine is a step to nowhere.”

The open letter claims to have more than 7,400 signatures as of Friday 4 March.