Pro-Western Russians are Europeans. Europe shouldn’t turn its back on them
August 12, 2022
  • Andrey Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

After Zelensky proposed to ban Russians to travel to Europe, Andrei Kolesnikov explains why this flawed policy would penalize the most pro-European Russians and encourage those who are already not pro-Western to support Putin more.
Kaja Kallas met with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin in Helsinki, 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
In recent days, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the West to ban all Russian travelers, many European leaders, including the prime ministers of Finland and Estonia, Sanna Marin and Kaja Kallas, raised banning visas for Russian citizens. Estonia has begun to take practical steps: Russian citizens who were issued Schengen visas by Estonia will not be allowed to enter Estonia.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter: “Russians overwhelmingly support the war on Ukraine. They must be deprived of the right to cross international borders until they learn to respect them.”

What is happening again raises the question of whether Russians bear collective responsibility and collective guilt for the continuation of the Putin regime and consequently the terrible war in Ukraine.
"Blaming Russians (all of them) for tolerating the Putin regime looks strange when you consider that all these years Western countries have not just put up with the regime but indeed cooperated with it,"
buying oil and gas from it, conducting all sorts of business with it and inviting it into world communities and organizations. And this despite the fact that it became more and more evident over the years that Putin’s regime was growing increasingly authoritarian. I don't hold the West to blame for its behavior – I'm simply pointing out the faultiness of the logic of such accusations.

The problem is that the victims of the Putin regime – like the victims of the Stalin regime – are also (yet, not only) the people of Russia itself. According to OVD-info, an independent resource, from February 24 to August 10, 16,427 people were arrested for their anti-war stance. Politicians Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza are in jail, and a municipal deputy, Alexey Gorinov, received seven years in prison for anti-war rhetoric. This was all done to show others, to sow fear. Indeed, many politicians, civic activists, journalists and ordinary citizens have been subjected to various kinds of administrative and criminal persecution.

All independent and opposition media outlets, as well as nonprofit organizations independent of the government, have been blocked or liquidated. Those who disagree with Putin are recognized as foreign agents and effectively forced to wear yellow stars – a practice that didn’t exist even in the late Soviet era.

In terms of the severity and scale of political persecution, Russia has probably already begun to surpass the late USSR. In fact, it is a full-fledged authoritarian regime, and if we consider Putin's encouragement of the “self-purging of society” and struggle against “national traitors” and “fifth column,” we even see traces of totalitarianism. At the end of the day, more and more loyalty is being demanded from citizens, especially within state organizations and in the sphere of education. In this sense, the Putin regime has already come to what was called Gleichschaltung in 1930s Germany.
Municipal deputy Alexey Gorinov, 2022. Source: Twitter
All of these circumstances must be taken into account when considering the claim that Russian citizens aren’t resisting. Some do resist, risking their freedom. The return of journalists broadcasting to Russia – and doing so quite effectively, especially on YouTube – from exile would mean an end to their activities (and even imprisonment), leaving their vast audiences with just Putin's official media. Without these journalists, scholars and politicians (some of them are still in Russia, and they aren’t silent), the West would have long ago lost even more sympathizers inside Russia.

The notion that all Russians support the regime is false. According to the Levada Center, only about half of respondents unequivocally support the so-called special military operation. Approximately 30% waver. They are people who are frightened and/or disoriented, who don’t have their own opinion and therefore look to the authorities for one, who block out bad information because they would like to be on the side of good, not evil.

The notion that it is possible to turn Russians against Putin by “punishing” them with a visa ban is unfounded. It would only encourage those who are already not pro-Western or pro-liberal to support Putin more, while those who have a democratic orientation and oppose the regime would find themselves corned: on one side they are persecuted by Putin's siloviki while on the other they are abandoned to their fate by the West.

It is worth mentioning that only one in 10 Russians has ever been abroad. Meanwhile, sanctions, including various financial restrictions on Russian citizens, have primarily hit the “usual suspects” – like the active, pro-Western middle class – and not the mass of the population who consider sanctions “useful” for the country's economy. (You can read more on this in a special report on public sentiment prepared by Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, and me.)

Given that there are some 110 mln adults in Russia, around 30 mln people more or less openly oppose the war (and there looks to be upside to this number). Why should they bear the double burden of responsibility for Putin and his deeds?
"Finally, young people are the most likely to speak out against the war. If Europe closes itself even more to young people, many of them will have no chance of seeing anything but Putin’s Russia"
(Putin has been in power – if you count since he was appointed acting prime minister in August 1999 – for 23 years). And this too would be a gift to Putin, who could indoctrinate and offer career trajectories to many more young people than now. Who will Europe be dealing with 10, 15, 20 years from now? What will the quality of this human capital be when it is shaped by a state that considers the best career path that of a policeman or a bureaucrat, and that hates the West with all its soul?

Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right, Kaja Kallas noted. However, according to the fundamental international documents, which no one has yet overturned, it is a universal human right, not a privilege. A right that, as a Soviet-born woman, Kallas herself was once deprived of – until Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the imperial reins and the Soviet republics had the chance to fight openly for their independence and European choice.

Should we blame the residents of the Soviet republics for not throwing off the yoke of the imperial regime over all those years? This is as absurd as today's accusations that those who did not elect Putin and fought against him should bear equal responsibility with the dictator’s supporters. Pro-Western Russians are Europeans. They don’t deserve to have Europe turn its back on them.
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