Part one

Mehdi Hasan (Voice Over): Russia is at war: Fighting beyond old Soviet borders, for the first time since its crushing defeat in Afghanistan; coming to the rescue of Bashar al-Assad's repressive regime; President Putin turned the tables in the Middle East, challenging US dominance...

Vladimir Putin (archive): Iraq, Libya, Syria, have plunged into chaos and anarchy.

Mehdi Hasan (VO): ... but putting Russia directly in the line of fire. Moscow had already surprised the West with its aggressive intervention in Ukraine. And with Crimea now firmly under its control, Russia is flexing its muscles again. But has Putin bitten off more than he can chew?

Arseniy Yatsenyuk (archive): Russian aggression is a threat to the global order, to the European security, and is a threat to NATO member states. 

Mehdi Hasan (VO): Back at home, critics say he is becoming a dictator, and Russia, a police state. 

Garry Kasparov (archive): Many Russians, especially in Moscow, are not going to accept Vladimir Putin as a legitimate president. 

Mehdi Hasan (VO): But many adore him for restoring their nation's pride. 

Vladimir Putin (archive - dubbed): Thank you to all those who said yes, to a great Russia. 

Mehdi Hasan (VO): My guest tonight is a Putin supporter, who thinks Russia has had a bad press in the West for far too long. 

Natalia Narochnitskaya (archive): It is the West who pushed Russia to the corner, and now Russia has shown the red line. 

Mehdi Hasan (To camera): I'm Mehdi Hasan, and I've come here to the Oxford Union to go head to head with Natalia Narochnitskaya, the Russian ultra-nationalist, and former politician.

I'll ask her whether Russia is trying to reclaim its old empire in Europe, and why exactly is President Putin backing the brutal Assad regime in Syria. 

Mehdi Hasan (VO): Tonight I'll also be joined by: Masha Karp, a UK-based journalist from Russia, and a trustee of the Rights in Russia NGO; Martin McCauley, British historian and author on Russia, and a former lecturer at University College London; and Vasyl Myroshnychenko, cofounder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, and director of the Ukrainian British City Club.

Mehdi Hasan: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Natalia Narochnitskaya.

Mehdi (VO): Narochnitskaya was a representative of the Motherland Party, and vice-chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee. She currently heads the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a conservative think-tank based in Paris.

Mehdi Hasan: Natalia, Russia opposed the West's military interventions in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya. They said it would destabilise the region. They said that it would lead to more extremism, and yet when Russia's only ally in the region, Bashar al-Assad, is in trouble, Russia then sends in its own war planes, its own bombers. Is that not the height of hypocrisy on Russia's part?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, it is not, but of course we understand that after already three pillar states of the Middle Eastern equilibrium, which is proven to be so fragile now, were ruined like Egypt already. Then Libya, Iraq.

There is such a chaos and turmoil that if you crush the Syrian state then there will be such chaos which will endanger not only Europe, like it is doing already now, but Russia too. So we are not at all such fans of Bashar al-Assad. We know that …

Mehdi Hasan: You say you're not a fan of Bashar al-Assad. You said that Syria was a "wonderful, secular state", and that the only, "proper army in a sovereign state resisting ISIL is the Syrian army and Assad".

The problem for you surely is that many analysts, most analysts, would agree that the Syrian army and Assad have helped fuel the rise of ISIL by killing tens of thousands of innocent Syrians so if you wanted to stop chaos and violence in the Middle East, why wouldn't you first start by stopping your ally, Assad, from doing the killing?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well, he's not our ally and

Mehdi Hasan: You just arm and fund him as a favour?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: We do that only to restore the equilibrium in the Middle East. Because the ISIL state poses much more danger to the whole world than the Syrian authoritarian regime, and we are not insisting any more that Assad must stay by all means. And of course now, maybe you know that Russia is in contact with some parts of so-called Syrian opposition. When Americans accused us that we …

Mehdi Hasan: The Syrian opposition say that you're bombing them, you're not bombing ISIL. Jamil al-Saleh, a Syrian rebel commander, says, "I want the world to know that the Russians appear to be here not to fight ISIL but to help Assad regime exterminate the Free Syrian Army".

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, I don't agree with this information because I have read -

Mehdi Hasan: These are the guys on the ground who are having to face your country's bombs.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I have totally different data about it. Of course, and I have seen even the contacts with Syrian, some Syrian Free Army. For instance, there are some places where part of the region is controlled by ISIL and another part of the city's controlled by the Free Syrian Army and they cooperate.

Mehdi Hasan:  Isn't it ironic and tragic that in the very first month that you started bombing Syria, more than 200 Russians were killed on an airliner over Egypt and according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: "In October, Russian air strikes left 185 civilians dead, 131 ISIL fighters." So in Syria, you're killing more Syrian civilians than ISIL fighters. And outside of Syria, you're losing more civilians than ISIL fighters.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, no. Of course, in such a turmoil like we have in Syria, for any programme for which you have collect facts of some civilians killed by these forces, another party who's participating in the debate will bring you the data that so many were killed by the other side, etc.

Mehdi Hasan: Your foreign minister, Russia's foreign minister's solution to the Syrian conflict is for the country to have elections. For a new parliament and a new president. How do you have free and fair elections in a country in which more than half the population has been displaced by that government? Or are these free and fair elections Russian-style?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: In this country a lot of Syrians were displaced not by the government action but ...

Mehdi Hasan: The vast majority have been displaced by the government.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: ... because the crimes of ISIL and extremists in the Middle East have outdone hundred times the sins of Syrian government.

Mehdi Hasan: Oh, come on!

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Which hasn't been, of course, the ...

Mehdi Hasan: Did you know that in the first six months of this year, the Assad regime killed seven times as many people as ISIL did

Natalia Narochnitskaya: It's not Assad who cut the heads. It's not Assad.

Mehdi Hasan: No. He did not cut the heads, but he did drop barrel bombs on various towns and cities in Syria, killing dozens of children in market places.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well, the issue ... 

Mehdi Hasan: The blood from that barrel bomb's surely on the Russian government?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No. No. Don't be so tricky so that every fact of …

Mehdi Hasan: Did he not drop barrel bombs, Natalia? How is that tricky? You said executions. I agree with you, ISIL carry out horrible beheadings. I'm now asking you, do you also agree that Assad drops barrel bombs on towns, with Russian support?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Is ISIL lesser a danger than him?

Mehdi Hasan: Even if I were to agree with you that they were equal dangers, the point is, no one here is defending ISIL, but you're defending Assad.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: They're not equal. I do not defend Assad because I have never been fan of Assad but in politics .... 

Mehdi Hasan:  Apart  from when you said he ran a wonderful secular state.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: In politics when you see. When you have, in Libya, of course, who can be a fan of Colonel Gaddafi? But still, girls were attending schools there, etc. What is happening now? The country's totally destroyed.

Mehdi Hasan: No one's defending that. We're talking about Syria.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: But you want Syria to have the same plight as -

Mehdi Hasan: Syria's already in a much worse position than Libya.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No. it will be in a worse position -

Mehdi Hasan: Millions of people have left the country. There are hundreds of thousands of dead. It's the worst humanitarian disaster in the world right now, and Russia is on one side of it.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: So you are going to accuse Russia of what is happening in Syria?

Mehdi Hasan: I think I have been doing that for the past five minutes.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Russians started it?

Mehdi Hasan: Russia is partly responsible for it going on, yes. You are arming and funding a dictator -

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Who has started all this?

Mehdi Hasan: Bashar al-Assad did by killing his people.

Mehdi Hasan: Let's bring in our panel who've been waiting patiently to come in. Masha Karp is a Russian, a journalist, a trustee of the Rights in Russia NGO.

Masha, is Putin acting in Russia's interest in intervening in Syria? Are Russians safer now because he's intervened in Syria?

Masha Karp: No, of course not, because what he's doing is detrimental for Russia. It's dangerous for the world, and the only beneficiary of it is the current Russian regime.

It doesn't realise complexities of the region. It wants to stop the chaos but obviously it only increases it. Putin actually even mentions somewhere that he doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shia and he doesn't realise that in Russia there are 19 million muslims, nearly all of whom are Sunnis. So that just shows that he went in there just to show the West that he, or the Russian regime, can be a partner of the world. And why did he do that? Because he wanted the world to forget about Ukraine

Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Martin McCauley, who is a British historian, a former lecturer at University College London. He has written several books about the Soviet Union and about Russia. Martin, why do you think he's doing it?

Martin McCauley: He's doing it because he sees ISIL as an existential threat to Russia.

If ISIL wins in Syria, it moves into the Caucasus. As you've said, there are 19 million Muslims in Russia. Moscow has the largest Muslim population in Europe. It will move into Central Asia and so on, and therefore it will destabilise Russia. So therefore it's an existential threat to Russia.

Mehdi Hasan: You don't think that actually intervening in Syria or Russians, Russia's Muslims seeing that he's on the side of Assad who has been killing a fair few Muslims will actually radicalise Russian Muslims?

Martin McCauley: That may do so. That's a danger, but the other thing is that you have a conflict now in the Middle East in which you have a secular Assad regime and you have an Islamist ISIL regime and so on. And everyone is taking sides. Iran, Hezbollah, Russia on one side. Russia sees Assad as a temporary leader. He's not really very important.

Mehdi Hasan: You say temporary. They've had four years to get rid of him and they didn't.

Martin McCauley: Yes, but, but he in fact is only a figurehead and he will move away.

Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Vasyl Myroshnychenko who's the cofounder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, director of the Ukrainian British City Club.

Vasyl, ISIL are an existential threat to Russia and the region and therefore Russia is entitled to go into Syria. What is your response to that argument?

Vasyl Myroshnychenko: Well, look, firstly I don't believe that Putin can really contribute to peace in Syria because as all the speakers have pointed out, it was Bashar al-Assad who is actually to blame for ISIS, for Daesh to be recruiting people, because as Sunnis were trapped there, they had no other option but to actually go to them to fight Bashar al-Assad.

This is hybrid warfare 2.0. All he wants, he wants to distract attention from Ukraine. He doesn't care about Syria. He doesn't care about Syria. He cares about Ukraine.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, let's talk about Ukraine.

Former NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Natalia, he sat here on this show. Earlier this year he sat in that very chair and he said to me: "We are pretty close to a new Cold War because of Russia's illegal actions in Ukraine."

Do you agree that we're in the middle of a new Cold War? On the verge of a new Cold War because of Ukraine?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No. I believe that we are similar to the period just before World War II when there is already obvious and major danger to Europe and to the world, and the Soviet Union then proposed a hundred times to have a collective treaty, guaranteeing the borders of countries surrounding Germany and the West refused. That pertains to the ISIL and to the Middle East question.

What about Ukraine? Well, of course we do care about Ukraine. My ancestors - my ancestors are from Ukraine, but there was a coup d'etat in Kiev. The constitution was dismissed. Even the mandate of the president went to the speaker of parliament when under the constitution it should go to the prime minister. The constitutional court was dismissed.

Mehdi Hasan: Let's assume there was a coup d'etat. There's a division of opinion on that, of course. Whether it was a coup or not. Crimea was taken by the Russians, annexed in violation of international law, most lawyers would argue.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Crimea, Crimea had a referendum.

Mehdi Hasan: The UN General Assembly. Why do you think 100 countries of the UN condemned the annexation of Crimea? A hundred. Only 11 countries voted with Russia. Why do you think that is?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Because it's politics, politics in the 21st century.

Mehdi Hasan: Politics. Ten to one?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: The politics in the 21st century.

Mehdi Hasan: It's not because the United Nations recognises national borders and sovereignty and says you can't just change the borders of a country? You talked about common borders.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well, the international law. Let me just finish. The international law teaches now that the self-determination right is observed but the principle of territorial integrity prevails. That's true, but only in a case when self-determination rights are combined with so-called, in the textbooks of international law, when the people maintain historical, linguistic, cultural and other types of connexion with the maternal state.

Mehdi Hasan: So on that basis, Crimea can be independent?

So you support the idea that Crimea on this, your reading of international law, Crimea had the right to leave Ukraine, and be part of Russia, on the basis of self-determination? 

Natalia Narochnitskaya:  I think so.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. So when will Russia be holding a referendum in Chechnya and in Dagestan for those places to go independent?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Let them do it.

Mehdi Hasan: You're in support of that? You're happy for Chechnya to leave the Russian Federation and become independent, or join another country? Seriously?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: They don't want it.

Mehdi Hasan: They don't want to, but if they did, you're totally - you support Chechen independence under a referendum in which the Chechens voted yes?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: It depends always on how the people's will is expressed. If it's expressed by the bandits and gangsters, and criminal squads ...

Mehdi Hasan: Because there were no bandits or gangsters in Crimea, were there? There were no men in masks.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No.

Mehdi Hasan: We just imagined those people on our screens. Wow.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: But if there are teachers, students, engineers, doctors, voting calmly on their, expressing their free will, it's different. So don't make - Chechnya doesn't want to leave Russia. They now are flourishing more than any others.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, after you bombed them for several years and killed hundreds of thousands of people, I guess not. When Crimea was annexed by Russia, you said that, "For the first time in 20 years of political life, you felt happy. The West had pushed Russia into a corner," you said. "And finally Russia has shown its red line." I'm just wondering, is the red line now fixed in place, or is it going to move geographically into other areas? Perhaps in the region.

Natalia Narochnitskaya:  No.

Mehdi Hasan: That's it? Or are we gonna see some more redrawing of borders in that area?

Natalia Narochnitskaya:  Russia has proven through 25 years that it is ready and absolutely tolerating Ukraine's you know, floating this and that ... Under only one condition, that has shown and, obvious...

Mehdi Hasan: What was the condition?

Natalia Narochnitskaya:  That Ukraine doesn't enter NATO.

Mehdi Hasan: Ukraine didn't enter NATO.

Natalia Narochnitskaya:  Even in September, before the Maidan started, Russia has no idea what then happened etc ... and had no plans...

Mehdi Hasan: Ukraine did not enter - Ukraine did not enter NATO.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: It's the West who refused, who wanted to create from Ukraine a battlefield between East and West, and it's Americans.

Mehdi Hasan: You don't want Ukraine to join NATO.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Russia in cooperation with Ukraine is still a, a superpower but without Ukraine, with Ukraine as enemy, is no more a superpower.

Mehdi Hasan: Can I give some friendly advice, to the Russian government via you? If you don't want your neighbour to join a military alliance, best not to invade and occupy part of that country, because the first thing they'll want to do is join a military alliance.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Very good. Very good.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Why are you so on the side of NATO and the Americans?

Mehdi Hasan: I'm on the side of NATO?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Yes, of course you are.

Mehdi Hasan: Maybe you should watch the show I did with the former head of NATO where I put all these arguments.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I know. I know.

Mehdi Hasan: In eastern Ukraine, are there Russian forces in eastern Ukraine?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Not Russian forces. Separate Russians, yes. But not Russian forces. It's a different legally at all.

Mehdi Hasan: So when - so when a Russian-

Natalia Narochnitskaya: So do you mean there are you know, squads or parts of the army with guns?

Mehdi Hasan: Yes, that's exactly what I'm asking.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No.

Mehdi Hasan: OK, so when a Russian Special Forces soldier, Dmitry Sapozhnikov, tells the BBC that he and his fellow troops were in Ukraine, when captured soldier in Ukraine, Alexander Anatolievich, identifies himself as a "Russian serviceman in the Russian armed forces'" what were they doing there? Sightseeing? Taking a tour?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: It is denied.

Mehdi Hasan: It is denied by?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: By officials.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you agree with them?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I quite agree but I believe that there are some Russian soldiers, of course, and officers. I don't deny that. But legally, every country, when it's helping the situation, according to the interest and according to the appeal, they do it legally, correct.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, it's not legal for Russian soldiers to be in Ukraine. Under any reading of international law.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Was it legal for American specialists in all places where they have been?

Mehdi Hasan: Was it legal for Americans to be in Iraq? No. OK, back to the question. Was it legal - is it legal for Russian forces to be in Ukraine?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: There are no forces. Don't use the term "forces".

Mehdi Hasan: OK, let's bring the panel in. Vasyl, respond to some of what you've heard from Natalia tonight.

Vasyl Myroshnychenko: Well, I think this is a very clear example of the Russian hypocrisy because there were so many references to international public law which Russia has blatantly violated.

The Budapest Memorandum, most importantly. So Russia has actually undermined the entire security system in Europe, and actually Europe and NATO is, are under threat. The whole system was undermined. And I think this is actually what Russia is good at doing. You know, this is aggression abroad, oppression at home.

Vasyl Myroshnychenko: The land-grabbing operation in Crimea was one of those cynical operations. Look, Ukraine, Crimea has many deposits of oil and gas in the Black Sea shelf. For Russia, it was actually an existential threat if Ukraine developed its own oil and gas resources. So they just grabbed Crimea. You see what's going on, in the Budapest memorandum ...

Mehdi Hasan: This is the 1994 agreement?

Vasyl Myroshnychenko: 1994 agreement. There is no brackets, no asterisk, no footnote that Russia does not like Ukraine government, they can attack Ukraine.

Mehdi Hasan: Martin, is Russia in defiance of international law in what it's doing in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine?

Martin McCauley: It depends how you define international law because international law is based in English law and American law.

In other words, it's a Western concept which has dominated the world since 1945 and Russia does not accept certain tenets of that law, nor does China. Russia didn't plan the take over the Crimea. It was opportunistic. The Maidan, the EU demand to Yanukovych, "choose between us and Russia", started the Maidan when he chose Russia. Started the Maidan events and then the opportunity was there for Russia to intervene in Crimea.

Mehdi Hasan: Masha Karp, do you want to respond to that?

Masha Karp: I just didn't quite understand who started the Maidan, because I think that's a very typical thing of the Russian government and its supporters, that they do not realise that ordinary people can protest, can do revolutions, can try and, and fight the governments they don't like.

The Russians always think that there is Washington somewhere behind it. They think that during the protests in 2011 in Russia, when people were protesting against the rigged elections, that there was also Washington behind it. Just recently, somebody said that the protests of Russian long-distance drivers were organised from Washington. So no, Washington has nothing else to do but to organise protests, there.

Mehdi Hasan: Vasyl, very briefly now, and I want to bring Natalia back in.

Vasyl Myroshnychenko: Very briefly, look, the key difference between Ukraine and Russia is that we have contestability in Ukraine. We can vote, we have NGOs. We have free media and if nothing else works, we protest. There is nothing like that in Russia.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Of course, you depict Russia as such a black hole in the universe, incarnation of evil and no democracy..

Mehdi Hasan: But deal with the specific one about Ukrainians.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Of course, poor Russians - Ukrainians.

Mehdi Hasan: - Want to change, and they've proved that in elections. They've proved that in Maidan.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: The Maidan started as a protest against oligarchy ...

Mehdi Hasan: Ordinary Ukrainians.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: ... Mafia, corruption, and there is no doubt that Yanukovych regime was not perfect but was a symbol of all that. But the extremist fascist forces were made an instrument...

Mehdi Hasan: Fascists.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: - No, fascists did - made an instrument.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you know how many seats - do you know how many seats the neo-Nazi Party Svoboda has in the Ukrainian parliament right now?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Believe me, the first -

Mehdi Hasan: Do you know how many seats they have?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Svoboda lost. So it's -

Mehdi Hasan: How many seats do they have in the parliament?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Very few.

Mehdi Hasan: Six.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Six, yes.

Mehdi Hasan: That was a great fascist coup by them.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Yes just dial in the internet, for instance, torch processions in Kiev. You will see that every January 1, there are fascists with Bandera, with even Swastikas with burning torches, walking down the streets, and there are thousands of them.

Mehdi Hasan: Russian, the Russian authorities don't have problems with fascists when they're on their side. Come on.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No. Our fascists do not demonstrate on streets and they -

Mehdi Hasan: No, you just - Come on, Natalia. Fascists and Holocaust deniers are welcome in Russia when they're on the Russian government's side.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, they're not welcome at all. They're condemned-

Mehdi Hasan: So the Duma, the Russian Duma hasn't hosted Golden Dawn from Greece? Hasn't hosted Jobbik from Hungary? Have they not hosted these parties? Golden Dawn is an openly neo-Nazi party. It's been hosted in the Duma.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: They were, what do you mean by "hosted"?

Mehdi Hasan: I meant they walked through the door and Russian parliamentarians came and shook their hands.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Some, some deputies of course.

Mehdi Hasan: No, the speaker of the parliament was involved with both the Front National, the Golden Dawn, and Jobbik.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: But is Jobbik part of the Hungarian parliament?

Mehdi Hasan: Yes.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Yes. But then how can you call them …

Mehdi Hasan: Very easily. Fascist parties can be part of parliaments; Golden Dawn has neo-Nazi Swastikas on its flags and was hosted in the Duma. Marine Le Pen is a regular visitor to Moscow, from the French National Front.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Marine Le Pen is not a fascist party.

Mehdi Hasan: OK.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: But of course, I have no connection with Marine Le Pen

Mehdi Hasan: We're going to have to

Natalia Narochnitskaya: and I haven't spoken to any of them.

Mehdi Hasan: On that note, we're going to have to take a pause. Join me after the break in Head to Head. In part two we'll be discussing human rights, democracy, the media, in Vladimir Putin's Russia. That's after the break.  

Part two 

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Head to Head on Aljazeera English.

My guest tonight is Natalia Narochnitskaya, the former Russian politician, diplomat, historian. Natalia, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union, said that he used to like Putin in his early years and that he supported him in the West and got a lot of flak for it. Recently, Gorbachev said Putin has begun to, "lean towards autocracy. People are yet again being pushed out of politics," Gorbachev added. "Not being entrusted with the simplest of things. There are again slave drivers and herdsmen everywhere." That's from a man, Gorbachev, who publicly supported the annexation of Crimea, who used to be a Putin defender.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: So what?

Mehdi Hasan: Do you agree with him?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: His opinion is, well I couldn't care less about his opinion.

Mehdi Hasan: Fair enough. Deal with the underlying critique.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: So I have been in politics for 25 years, and the worst undemocratic rule was Yeltsin's rule. Because for instance, during the time of his coup d'etat when they dismissed and shot the legitimate parliament, he bent all the newspapers and TV programmes who might produce some opinion against this act before they even had time to publish anything. There was no discussions. So don't … You must in the West have at least no double standards.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. People who don't deal in double standards, human rights groups who criticise everyone. Amnesty International says, "Since Putin's victory in 2012, 5,100 protesters and activists have been arrested." Human Rights Watch says, "The human rights situation in Russia continues to deteriorate with a level of anti-Western hysteria unseen since the Soviet era and a crackdown intensifying on civil society, the media and the internet."

Natalia Narochnitskaya: But, you know … Russia is a normal country with its sins and its virtues. And there are always, something bad and something wrong. I don't like everything that is going on in our country.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. So deal with what I raised. I didn't raise anything about normal countries. I simply asked, 5,000 protesters rounded up since 2012, arrested, is that a good thing? Is that a normal thing?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, it's not a good thing. But we don't know whether some … I will not say for everybody. But some, human rights activists want to be arrested to attract attention. I'm not speaking for all. But we know such cases because they lost so much now on the basis that public opinion in Russia is very pro-Putin. That's the results of all public polls. So those critics, or even those who hate him, they lost influence and they want to attract people. It doesn't mean there are no breaches of human rights. Of course there are some.

Mehdi Hasan: Well let's talk about some of the breaches of human rights. In February, 2015 prominent opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin shortly before he was about to produce his report on Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.

His daughter called it an, "act of political retribution", and said that the state news channels were responsible for methodically fomenting hatred of her father and other opposition figures, who were presented as traitors to the nation. We may never uncover the truth behind his death, but isn't it fair to say that the Putin media machine contributed to it?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: If you mention Boris Nemtsov, whom I knew, to think that Boris Nemtsov posed any danger to government etc … that means not to understand anything in Russian political life. Who needed his death? Who needs it? The government, the Kremlin. Just near the Kremlin wall?

Mehdi Hasan: He was about to publish a report saying the opposite of what the government was saying about Ukraine.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: All the serious experts think that it was done against Putin, the killing of someone so prominent among the opposition people.

Mehdi Hasan: Isn't it weird Natalia? Isn't it weird that so many of Putin's critics and enemies whether opposition figures, investigative journalists, former spies, they just seem to have this bad habit of getting assassinated. It's kind of a weird coincidence is it not, that they all just die in weird circumstances?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Who always die? Who died?

Mehdi Hasan: We mentioned Boris Nemtsov. There's Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned here in the UK with polonium. The British police, the barrister representing police said the only credible explanation was that the Russian state was involved in Mr Litvinenko's murder.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: You really think Litvinenko was murdered by Russians? You're ignoring …

Mehdi Hasan: I'm telling you what the investigation says.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: The recent results of investigation that has nothing to do with Russia. Who needed his death? At least there should be cui bono [who profited] as a principle of any such investigation.

Mehdi Hasan: Well the British inquiry thinks it was the Russians. His family thinks it was the Russians. The leading physicists think it was the Russians. A fair few people think it was the Russians.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No.

Mehdi Hasan: So no Boris, no Boris Nemtsov, no Alexander Litvinenko. Let's keep going. Anna Politkovskaya.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Regardless of any of my political views, I'm sincerely thinking that Litvinenko's death was needed not by Russia but by those against Russia.

Mehdi Hasan: Fine. So Russia didn't need his death. They didn't need Boris Nemtsov's death. Anna Politkovskaya, the award-winning investigative journalist, was killed in 2006. The judge in her case said it was politically motivated. In March 2008, two TV journalists were killed the day after their names were put on an official media blacklist. The founder of the weekly magazine critical of the Kremlin, Chernovik, was killed in 2011. Being a journalist who is critical of the Putin government in Russia today doesn't seem to be too good for your life expectancy.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, it's absolutely safe.

Mehdi Hasan: So then what about these people who are dead? Just coincidence that you get killed the day after you're put on a media blacklist?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: The journalists might be killed in Russia because of their commercial things, engagements, like it was with the … I remember in the 90s with the killing of the producer Listyev for instance. It is proven there because …

Mehdi Hasan: The problem you have Natalia is you say on the one hand Russia is a normal country, and then on the other hand in most normal countries investigative journalists, critics of the government don't just drop dead from time to time in mysterious circumstances.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: They are not dropping dead because they are persecuted. Believe me.

Mehdi Hasan: Why did they …? Why are they all killed then? What's the common theme?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: There are some killings in Russia and that's bad. The criminal situation isn't good.

Mehdi Hasan: And when the Kremlin talks of fifth columnists, when Putin talks of national traitors, that doesn't contribute to an atmosphere in which critics of the government are killed?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well Russians' political vocabulary differs a little bit, from the Western. Is it more harsh? And for us, it doesn't mean as much as you. For instance.

Mehdi Hasan: In 2012, 1,000 Russians who were protesting about Putin were attacked by riot police and detained. Human Rights Watch called it the worst political crackdown in Russia's post-Soviet history.

Are those people on the streets? Are they not your fellow Russians? Do you not worry about them?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: There are many opposition leaders now and they are …

Mehdi Hasan: These were ordinary people, 1,000 people. They were not politicians. They were people protesting against what they thought were fraudulent elections. They were attacked. They were detained.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I remember the case you are talking about.

Mehdi Hasan: 2012.

Natalia Narochnitskaya:  Yes, yes, yes, yes. But, it is proven perfectly well that they were provoking the police.

Mehdi Hasan: A thousand people.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: You see, you see, you see the videos and it's not fake.

Mehdi Hasan: Let me go back to our panel who have been waiting to come in. Masha Karp is a Russian, a journalist, a trustee of Rights in Russia NGO.

Masha, when the President of Russia says that people are national traitors and fifth columnists, that's just how you and your people talk?

Masha Karp: Well I was wondering about these terms, because one of the terms with which they now label Russian NGOs, particularly the ones that the government doesn't like, is foreign agent.

In the Russian language "foreign agent" is a spy, is somebody who a foreign state has sent to do something to do harm Russia. And so obviously anybody who thinks differently from the government is immediately labelled.

There are over 100 NGOs in Russia today labelled like this. One of them is Memorial Society that is, that has been all these years investigating Stalin's crimes. The Ministry of Justice said that Memorial Society was undermining the constitutional order in Russia. So are we getting back to Stalin's times?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I am among those who criticise this term, "agents" has some flavour of being…

Mehdi Hasan: So you're not in favour of that thing that's going on.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Not of that term. But at least the purpose of that law, which I can defend, was to show the public, that the public knows who is financing. So foreign financial institutions or domestic ones. And, I think the Russian public has right to know

Mehdi Hasan: OK, Martin McCauley. Vladimir Putin, is it fair to call him an authoritarian leader?

Martin McCauley: He's a strong leader because I don't think Russia is a strong state. I don't think it's really a stable state. It's a fragile state. And you have to look at Russia, Russia and the Soviet Union collapsed twice in the 20th century. You can't really judge Russia against England or America. When was the last time there was a revolution in America? In the 18th century. England, the 17th century. Very stable political and legal institutions.

Mehdi Hasan: How does that reflect on things like journalists being killed, dissidents being killed? You can have a strong government without having a strong government that kills its opponents, allegedly.

Martin McCauley: That would reveal that the legal institutions are not strong enough to prevent it, whereas, the legal institutions, in England, Britain or the United States would be. They are not in that situation. So therefore, blame the weak legal institutions.

Mehdi Hasan: So you think Russia needs a leader like Putin at this stage in its history?

Martin McCauley: Yes, because the intelligentsia has gone over. They now support him. You go back to 2012, they opposed him. Many of them, now they support him because if he goes there's chaos. They fear chaos, therefore they need a strong leader.

Mehdi Hasan: Masha, you would have to accept you're Russian, but your fellow Russians do like Putin. He's massively popular in Russia. He wins elections. Polls show that they support his foreign policy and domestic policy.

Masha Karp: Well, Stalin had not 86, but 99.9 percent. What does it tell you? It tells you that people, even today, are still afraid to tell you exactly, an interviewer, exactly what they …

Mehdi Hasan: So you believe there is a silent majority in Russia who are not fans of Putin really?

Masha Karp: Well I'm sure there is. But also, I'm sure that there are people who are brainwashed by Russian propaganda. Because when Russian television shows you every day how Ukrainians are crucifying little boys or things like that, you would love Putin, just like Orwell's hero loved Big Brother. You know, propaganda works.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Vasyl Myroshnychenko, the co-founder of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre. Ukrainians, as you've said earlier, they've revolted against a president they didn't like. They had elections after that. Do you think that's ever going to happen in Russia?

Vasyl Myroshnychenko: Never. It's never going to happen in Russia. But you see, this is the problem because the biggest tragedy for Putin is actually the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to revive the Soviet Union, and, of course, he doesn't recognise Ukraine as a nation. He's stated it many times. He said it was a temporary thing on the map of Europe, and I'm Ukrainian. I speak Ukrainian and I want Ukraine to be part of the EU. Now that we were invaded by Russians, the only protection for us is actually NATO.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you worry that no matter how popular Putin is at home, today Russia is more isolated than it has been for a long time on the international stage. He has subjected your country to sanctions. There's been a currency crisis. There's been all sorts of economic problems. He hasn't been so good for your country in terms of its image, its reputation, its standing in the world.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well I, I'm very sad that Ukrainian people hate Putin. I'm really very sad about that. But there is no isolation of Russia. Russia can't be isolated because it's a great power.

Mehdi Hasan: Let's go to our audience who have been very patient waiting to come in. raise your hands and I'll try and come to as many of you as I can. The gentleman in the front row.

Audience member 1: I would like to ask you about this disaster with airplane which happened in Sinai. The question is the following: After nearly two weeks of silence, Putin finally stepped up and said this is a terror attack. We will kill and punish these people where they can be found. It's a disaster and so on. And we will do all possible means to punish these people. But, on the other hand, when it happens with MH17, he applied all possible means to prevent punishment of the terrorists who destroyed this airplane.

Mehdi Hasan: The Malaysian airline flight that went down over Ukraine.

Audience member 1: Yes, the Malaysian one, including a veto in the Security Council, to prevent punishment of these terrorists. So does it mean Mr Putin has good terrorists and bad terrorists?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, I understand. I understand.  From the very beginning, the Russian side was proposing to have a full commission to explore all the details of this Malaysian Airlines crash etc ... because nobody believed it was Russia, from Russian weapons shot down.

Mehdi Hasan: Apart from the Dutch Safety Board. The Dutch Safety Board said it was a Russian missile, a Russian-made missile.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: In all investigations of such kind, all real and material evidence should be collected together. But what we know …

Mehdi Hasan: Russian-backed separatists wouldn't allow investigators to approach the crash site. The separatists backed by Russia wouldn't allow investigators to access the crash site.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Not at all. It's the other way round.

Mehdi Hasan: That's not what the investigators say.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: They were neglected and they were rejected. And all these, the parts of the remnants of the plane were ignored and left there.

Mehdi Hasan: So why did Russia use the UN Security Council veto to block an investigation of the kind you say you want?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Not the investigation, because it proposed to be multifaceted with all participants, but that was without Russia. They prevented Russia from that. Accusing Russia and preventing that. So we were all for this investigation. Such a tragedy.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Let's go back to our audience. The gentleman here in the second row. 

Audience member 2: Hello. My name is Alexander. I'm also from Russia and I know that people support government in Russia and that Putin is a very popular figure there. So I'm wondering what do you think the source of all this criticism is coming from? Isn't it just a Western-centred world trying to impose their own opinion to Russia, which is a very different country?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No, for instance, if every newspaper in England or in Europe, every radio station, every radio programme produces only facts of how many journalists were killed etc ... When your news programmes do not give a single positive element of Russian life, then of course people abroad think that Russia starts thinking because thinking now is not popular. You're just absorbing.

Mehdi Hasan: That's a very, that's a very fair point. Let me put that to Masha. Masha, you would accept, you're a critic of the Putin government, you would accept, that the Western media doesn't exactly cover Russia in the fairest of ways?

Masha Karp: Well I wouldn't say so. I mean I think Western media probably doesn't go into all the detail. Western media is very superficial. But I would not say it is unfair. And I think that lots of things that are concealed from people in Russia are brought out in the West. That's what Western journalism has to do.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: How can one conceal now? We live all in information societies.

Mehdi Hasan: Well actually there are massive crackdowns on the internet in Russia, Natalia, as you know.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: If everything were banned, which it's not, the internet …

Mehdi Hasan: Natalia, as you know there's well documented massive crackdowns on the internet in Russia.

Masha Karp: Not everybody has internet in Russia.

Mehdi Hasan: I'm guessing you don't agree. Let's go back to the audience here. Gentleman in the third row.

Audience member 3: Do you think Russia and Putin's criminal regime has the right to break international law, shoot down civilian airplanes, occupy territory of sovereign neighbour states? Actually, for actions like that they should be facing, trial in the international court of law. And don't you think that actually Russia is much more resembling Nazi Germany right now than Ukraine? Because it's not Ukraine that has an authoritarian state that occupies territory of its neighbours and is a real threat to the whole world.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I detest anyone speaking such language against my country. And I never, I never, I would never, allow myself to use such language against official government. I was in a position through Yeltsin but I never…

Mehdi Hasan: Hold on. Earlier you were suggesting that extremists were behind everything that happened in Ukraine. You don't mind chucking the Nazi label, extremist label at Ukrainians but Ukrainians shouldn't throw it back at the Russians.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I said about torch processions, about fascism in Ukraine, but I never called Ukrainian government criminal regime.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Let's go back to the audience.

Audience member 4: My feeling is that most of the reproaches we are doing to Russia today, we could do them to China, to Israel, to many other countries. Do you think the reason why people are so focused about Russia is because they are basically contesting publicly the politics of the West and they are having a geopolitical role a bit like Iran or some other countries? Do you think that if they were just focusing on their inner politics and were not really annoying the Western powers, people wouldn't really talk about Russia?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well not only that but, of course, it's very easy now. Human rights issues now, democracies, the state, it has become long ago an instrument of external pressure on different countries.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Any more questions? 

Mehdi Hasan: I'm Abdullah, I'm a Syrian activist. I just want to ask, after ignoring the Free Syrian Army for more than three years, is Russia going to recognise them in order to give the future ceasefire talk after Geneva a chance to success?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: What I have heard recently from the news and what I know is that Russia is ready, is not only ready but already is in contact with some parts of Syrian army and opposition. Because our official position on the Geneva talks is to have as many participants and actors in domestic future process as possible.

Mehdi Hasan: Lady here in the front row

Audience Member 5: Hi, you mentioned demonisation before of citizens, of Russia's own citizens. And I as a Russian, one of my greatest sources of shame about my country is the way that it treats its sexual minorities. The rights of these minorities are curtailed and the atmosphere that the government cultivates is one that supports and endorses the violence and aggression that they face every day. Do you believe that the Russian people deserve a right to express their love publicly, regardless of their sexual orientation?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I understand. Well, that's certainly the issue, where you can't speak without being labelled immediately someone. You misinterpret. You probably refer to the law against gay propaganda, yes? But it only added gay propaganda to general sexual propaganda which was forbidden among the minors. You can't sell books about it, you know, cartoons and pornography, next to schools etc. You can't have films with …

Mehdi Hasan: OK, but it's not just about laws and guidelines. Human Rights Watch says anti-LGBT vigilante groups attacked LGBT people across Russia over the past year with little response from the police. The police turns a blind eye when people are being attacked in Russia. Your fellow Russians.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No. I know that, I remember the case when this law was adopted. All parliament was surrounded by supporters of the law. And when the LGBT representatives came, so they were throwing eggs, foul eggs etc.

Mehdi Hasan: Human Rights Watch documented more than just…

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Believe me. Russian gays etc have, they publish their magazines. They have their hairdresser salons. Once, I dropped into one and, incidentally I had a manicure there and even helped one American gay who couldn't explain to the hairdressers how his hair should be.

Mehdi Hasan: With respect to your experience in a hairdresser's, the point is that human rights groups have documented violence against LGBT.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No violence. There's no more violence. No more violence.

Mehdi Hasan: That's what you say. Human Rights Watch says otherwise.

Natalia Narochnitskaya: But the majority, still in Russia thinks it's a sin. Like your probably grandmothers did.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Let's go to this lady here in the front row.

Audience Member 6: Given that Russia is, as you've said before, such a large supporter of self-determination for the historical and ethnic minorities of Ukraine, would Russia be extending that same support of self-determination to the historic and ethnic minorities of Syria?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: I think it's a very complex issue. I have no opinion on that, because that's why the Turkish is so dubious and double standard because they fear Kurd movements more than ISIL etc … So that is why in Geneva talks everybody agreed that Syrian state should remain

Mehdi Hasan: Gentleman there, can I ask try to keep your points as brief as possible. We're almost out of time.

Audience Member 7: I wanted to ask you, a question about imperialism. Russian political elites and academic elites, including yourself, like to deride the West for its alleged imperialism. On the other hand, then you turn around and hypocritically, use the same rhetoric that is reminiscent of sort of the worst times of Western colonialism. You know, you talk about the continuity and the restoration of the Russian empire borders. You question the historical right of the Baltic states to independence etc ... How do you square the circle of this intellectual schizophrenia where there is this sort of love/hate relationship to imperialism?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: Well, I'm not schizophrenic of course. So, we are not. Who declared the goal of restoring Russian, Russian empires borders? This is the first time I hear such a way.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. So you don't believe that Russia should be stronger or more powerful than the Soviet Union?

Natalia Narochnitskaya: No. No. Russia should be strong exactly as much as it needs to be to stay Russia and nobody attacks it.

Mehdi Hasan: OK, we've run out of time. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for coming on Head to Head here in the Oxford Union. Thanks to our panel for joining and contributing. Thanks to our audience here in the Oxford Union. Head to Head will be back next week here in the Oxford Union. Goodnight.

Source: Al Jazeera