Are All Russians Guilty for Russia's War in Ukraine?
Russians who are against the war do something – anything!
While serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, I never cleared cables that contained phrases like “Russia believes,” or “Russia wants,” or “Russia thinks.” Instead, I would send them back to drafters asking whether they have met this very “Ms. Russia” or Mr. Russia”? I also pushed my foreign service officers to use phrases like “Putin believes,” “Lavrov wants”, or at least “Kremlin thinks.” As a diplomat and a scholar, I have always distinguished between the regime and society, not just in the case of Russia but in all of my scholarship and public policy advocacy about other countries, including the United States. Unlike some other theorists of international relations, I do not assume that states are unitary actors. (You can read more about this academic debate in this article: “Putin, Putinism, and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy,” International Security, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 95-139, https://www.doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00390. ) I think leaders, bureaucracies, different regime types, and interest groups also matter, and they all don’t think alike. And in dictatorships, it is especially dangerous to assume that the preferences of the ruling regime and society align.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, however, has caused me to reassess my hypothesis. It has been hard. I am still not sure what I think. I welcome your thoughts, as I continue to struggle with this issue.
Of course, at the extreme, I do not believe that all Russians support Putin’s war, and therefore, not all Russians should be blamed for it. Putin started this war and did so in consultation with a small circle of advisors, if not alone. There was no public pressure or demand to do so. And when the invasion started, some Russians expressed their opposition. Tens of thousands of Russians protested Putin’s war in the beginning. They did so at the risk of being arrested. Many were arrested (around 20,000 based on data from an independent Russian human rights NGO, OVD-Info). Some prominent Russian opposition leaders, including Vladimir Kara-Murza , Alexei Gorinov, and Ilya Yashin, have been imprisoned for telling the truth about atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. From his prison cell, Alexei Navalny, who voiced some anti-Ukrainian views years ago following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, has changed his position and publicly denounced this war many times. Russian opposition leaders in exile criticize the war and Russian independent media based outside of Russia provides the facts about Putin’s barbaric invasion (see below Meduza’s reporting on Russia’s abduction of Ukranian children). And a few weeks ago, roughly sixty thousand Russians living in exile took to the streets to protest the war in 46 countries and 123 cities.
At the same time, millions more have not done so. Accurate polling in dictatorships is impossible; non-respondent rates in public opinion surveys are very high. But it is clear that many Russians – probably tens of millions –do support the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, believing that the Russian army is fighting Nazis and NATO to liberate ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Moreover, Russian soldiers – not Putin – are raping women and girls inside Ukraine. Russian officials – not just Putin alone – are helping kidnap Ukrainian children. And again, although opinion polls in autocracies are highly flawed, Russia’s most independent and professional polling organization, the Levada Center, has revealed consistently that most Russians feel pride in what their army is doing in Ukraine. Only a very small percentage of people are embarrassed by the army’s actions. And while an increasing number of Russians want the war to end, they are not ready to roll back Russian occupation of Ukrainian lands. So this is not just Putin’s war. It’s Russia’s war. This is not just Putin’s occupation. It’s Russia’s occupation.
And those Russians who do not support the war are doing very little to express their opposition today. Repression works. They are scared. They don’t want to go to jail. I get it. I wonder whether I would have had the courage to express my opposition to this barbaric war, were I Russian and lived in Russia. I hope so, but I’m not sure.
Many of my Ukrainian friends and colleagues insist that all Russians must be held accountable. In their view, Russians who do nothing against the war and occupation are aiding the war. In Russian, there is a phrase for this: молчание - это согласие (silence is complicity).
They are especially appalled by Russians living abroad doing nothing to try to stop this war and occupation, including tourists who are allowed to vacation in the “enemy” NATO countries. I understand this sentiment. When I was in Barcelona last summer, it really grated on my nerves to be seated next to Russians on vacation, eating, drinking, and having a good time, as their army attacked civilians in Ukraine on daily basis.
So, blaming all Russians for the war in Ukraine is wrong. But giving all Russians a pass for their support of the war, or their passivity in denouncing it, is also wrong. Between these two extremes, there are actions the democratic world can take and actions that individual Russians can take.
Democracies – specifically the four dozen countries in the sanction coalition – should dramatically expand individual sanctions on all Russians in official positions. They should impose sanctions on all members of the Russian government, all members of Putin’s United Russia party and other Russian parties supporting the war, all of Russia’s billionaires, all CEOs and members of boards of state-owned enterprises, and all Putin’s propagandists, including artists who support the war. By sanctioning positions, rather than individuals, Russians have a choice. They can resign from their government and government-affiliated positions and avoid sanctions. Or stay in these positions and get sanctioned. This seems fair to me.
Regarding the billionaires, they all should be sanctioned. Right now, it’s hard to understand why some are sanctioned and others are not. But once sanctioned, they also should be given a way to get off the sanctions list by (1) denouncing the war and Putin personally, (2) donating 50% of their wealth to a Ukrainian Reconstruction Fund, and (3) divesting from Russia and (4) obtaining Ukrainian approval. This formulation also gives them a choice. This also seems fair to me.
Regarding all Russian citizens, some European countries, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, have already imposed travel bans on tourist visas. Other countries should consider doing the same. Another less extreme option would be to add a “Ukrainian reconstruction fee” to all visas issued to Russian citizens traveling to Europe and other democracies. Then, Russians can choose to either pay the additional fee and travel to Rome or avoid the fee and vacation in Minsk.
Finally, Russians who oppose the war should do something – anything – to express their position. Not everyone has to be as brave as Ilya Yashin. But there is a large menu of small acts of peaceful civic resistance that other protest movements have used in the past that Russians could begin to use now. Here is what Professor Mikhail Filippov, a Russian citizen, wrote on my Facebook page:
If Russians truly wanted to protest against the occupation of Crimea and other territories of Ukraine, they would have found opportunities. They could have "called in sick" on the anniversary of the war and not gone to work. They could have boycotted certain products or stores, for example, Auchan. They could have taken their dogs for "a walk" at 9 pm every day. They could have turned their lights on and off at 10 pm. They could have watched opposition YouTube channels. There are many ways to peacefully protest without risking harm to the participants. Instead, millions of Russians took part in Victory Day parades on May 9, 2022, and will gather again this year. Instead of protests, Russians listen to the songs of Shaman "Vstanem." The main thing is that Russians pretend that everything is "normal" and nothing terrible has happened. Because most of them support the occupation, although they may want the war to end. After all, Crimea and Novorossiya have already been taken. Now they want a normal peaceful life and the ability to travel to Europe.
So, Russians, who are against the war, I do not have the moral authority to tell you what to do, sitting safely in my home in California. But do something, however tiny and symbolic, to help speed up the end of this brutal war. Something! Doing nothing is not a moral option.