Amidst Russia receiving serious threats from the U.S. and the international community for moving military troops toward Ukraine, the Russian First Deputy Ambassador at the U.N. spent an hour talking with a group of Lehigh students on Feb. 11.
This year, Lehigh students were back in the U.N. Missions, which are similar to embassies, for the first time since 2020. A group of 26 students went to the Russian Mission in New York and spoke with Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy, and the German Mission to meet with a diplomat. A once regular occurrence, the pandemic halted Lehigh’s in-person visits to the U.N.
Lehigh has Non-Governmental Organization status with the U.N., giving the school access to briefings, conferences and meetings with officials.
Director of Fellowship Advising and U.N. Programs Bill Hunter said the original goal for the trip had been to meet with representatives from both Russia and Ukraine to talk about their joint situation.
The situation being that Russia denies intent to invade Ukraine, while over 100,000 of their troops sit at the Russia-Ukraine border.
Hunter said he wasn’t the least bit surprised when the Ukrainian ambassador said he could not meet with the Lehigh group.
Instead of meeting with the Ukrainian ambassador, Lehigh students met with a German diplomat, who also offered a vastly different perspective on the Ukraine situation than the Russian ambassador did.
The German diplomat expressed concern over Russia’s troops at the border of Ukraine.
Hunter said within 24 hours of sending the invitation to meet, the Russian ambassador responded saying yes.
“We had no idea if our invitation or requests for meetings would be accepted,” Hunter said. “In fact, we expected the answers to be no.”
Assistant Director of Fellowship Advising Elena Reiss is fluent in Russian and went on the U.N. trip. She started her role in January. Reiss said she did not expect her Russian to come in handy so soon.
“I was very excited to hear that they (the Russian ambassador) agreed to the meeting and that the meeting was going to be in person, especially during this time where we didnt expect that at all,” she said.
Kevin Simons, ‘24, went on the trip and said he liked hearing the Russian ambassador talk about the Ukraine situation and hearing an alternate perspective from the German diplomat. Simons is majoring in international relations and economics.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” he said. “The Russian ambassador was very intense but he was open to questions.”
In the meeting with the Russian ambassador, he told students they could ask him anything. The ambassador said no topics were off the table. Hunter said this openness was surprising.
Shaun McNulty, ‘22, said he expected some level of censorship in the meetings. McNulty is majoring in international relations and theater.
“My expectations were turned on their head,” he said.
In the ambassador’s answers to student questions about U.S. and Russian dynamics, he referred to the U.S. as “United Sanctions of America.”
The U.S. has threatened to put sanctions on Russia if they invade Ukraine.
Hunter said the students came into the meetings well prepared.
“We encourage students to ask challenging questions and they did,” Hunter said.
Reiss said she was very impressed with the student questions and could tell that the students were well researched on the topics they were talking about. She said there were also a few provocative questions for the representatives.
“I was incredibly excited to see everything and how they would treat us,” McNulty said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”
Hunter said they will get as many trips going to the U.N. Missions as they can, now that places are opening up.
“Today (Feb. 11) is almost two years to the day since we’ve been at U.N. Headquarters and the missions around them,” Hunter said. “It’s such a tremendous delight to be back and engaging directly face-to-face with diplomats, particularly on such tense issues.”