Argument

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Sanctions Should Punish Putin, Not His Opponents

Russian emigres are being stripped of their ability to survive.

By , a Russian commentator and politician.
Russian police officers detain a woman.
Russian police officers detain a woman.
Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russian military action in Ukraine in Moscow on April 2. AFP via Getty Images

I am one of those Russians who has actively and publicly opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war he has unleashed on the whole world. I publicly called Putin a war criminal long before the U.S. Senate did. After Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I demanded the Russian Federal Assembly begin impeachment proceedings and went to the protest line carrying the slogan: “No to war. Putin, resign.” I have been arrested and tried many times, including having my arm broken during arrest. Therefore, I have the right to say what I want to say now: Russian dissidents and emigres need protection from the West and should not be the target of sanctions.

It is understandable that global sympathy is currently reserved for Ukraine and Ukrainians. My wife and I have also participated in helping Ukrainian refugees. But there is no pity left over for the Russians—they, like Germans back in the Nazi era, are associated only with their state.

This is understandable but wrong. Russians protesting against the war are not only fighting for the freedom of their country but for all of humanity, just as Ukrainian soldiers are. Like Soviet dissidents in their time, they fight a hopeless battle. Every person in Russia understands that Putin’s war cannot be stopped by protests. They come out because their conscience and their principles demand it. They are not accomplices in aggression but heroes of resistance. The fight against Putin’s regime should not turn into a fight against its opponents.

I am one of those Russians who has actively and publicly opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war he has unleashed on the whole world. I publicly called Putin a war criminal long before the U.S. Senate did. After Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I demanded the Russian Federal Assembly begin impeachment proceedings and went to the protest line carrying the slogan: “No to war. Putin, resign.” I have been arrested and tried many times, including having my arm broken during arrest. Therefore, I have the right to say what I want to say now: Russian dissidents and emigres need protection from the West and should not be the target of sanctions.

It is understandable that global sympathy is currently reserved for Ukraine and Ukrainians. My wife and I have also participated in helping Ukrainian refugees. But there is no pity left over for the Russians—they, like Germans back in the Nazi era, are associated only with their state.

This is understandable but wrong. Russians protesting against the war are not only fighting for the freedom of their country but for all of humanity, just as Ukrainian soldiers are. Like Soviet dissidents in their time, they fight a hopeless battle. Every person in Russia understands that Putin’s war cannot be stopped by protests. They come out because their conscience and their principles demand it. They are not accomplices in aggression but heroes of resistance. The fight against Putin’s regime should not turn into a fight against its opponents.

Many of Putin’s opponents have now been forced to leave their homeland. In the West, they have met the moral support of ordinary citizens but face many discriminatory measures from the authorities of European states. And these measures concern not so much those Russians who bear personal responsibility for the tragedy that happened but those who, risking their lives and freedom, tried to prevent this tragedy.

In all European countries, there are banking restrictions for Russian citizens. Their Russian bank cards don’t work, since Visa and Mastercard have dropped services for Russian banks under sanctions. Some of them have accounts in European banks, but in Europe, they are not issued cards. Putin’s regime does not just squeeze citizens who disagree with him out of the country—it does not allow them to transfer honestly earned money to the West or sell legally owned housing. Unfortunately, European banking restrictions intended to protect Europe from dirty money are helping Putin crack down on his opponents, leaving them without any way to survive.

Many Russian expatriates apply for a residence permit abroad—they want to stay in Europe legally. But I have already been told many examples of refusals to grant such a status or even extend existing protections to people who meet all the legal criteria simply because they are Russian citizens. (I am not giving details here because these cases are still ongoing and I do not wish to put people at risk.)

Among the new wave of Russian emigrants, there are wealthy people who are ready to help their compatriots get back on their feet rather than have them become dependent on welfare in European countries. However, there is constant talk of canceling their accounts or limiting them to relatively small amounts—though we are talking about people who are not involved in the crimes of the regime and have proved the legality of the origin of their funds. Wealthier emigres would like to create structures of mutual aid and charitable support for compatriots who find themselves in exile because of their opposition to the Putin regime, but legal practices in Europe are now such that it is almost impossible for them. Russian emigrants do not ask for help—just for the ability to use their money to help others.

Because of Putin’s policies and declarations of support for his actions from the heads of official Russian universities, cooperation programs with Russian scientists and students are being curtailed. Supporting crimes, of course, is a crime in itself, but most Russian scientists are innocent of this crime. Refusing to cooperate with them helps Putin isolate the Russian intelligentsia from the world and destroy the layer of intellectuals that is trying to preserve Russia as part of Europe and save its remaining islands of freedom. Without them, who can shape the early days of a better nation in Russia?

There have also been cases of Russian educational or cultural cooperation being cut off. Cooperation with Russian intellectuals should continue, and Russian students need teaching now more than ever. While the global internet is still available in Russia, not only should online courses be made available to Russian students but they should be made free, since many currently do not have the means to pay.

And in the West, Russian academic and scientific emigres should be involved in teaching and educating the young people forced to leave the country. This is an investment in the future of a Russia that will not be a threat to peace and in Europe, where today’s tragedies will not be repeated.

Leonid Gozman is a Russian commentator and politician.

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