Free Russia Foundation Launches #NoToWar Campaign

Explosions and Confusion: What Is Happening Right Now on the Border Between Russia and Ukraine

Feb 22 2022

By Yury Krylov, Contributing Author, FRF

The situation around Russian threat against Ukraine keeps tensions high globally. The atmosphere in Donbass escalated dramatically on February 18, when the Kremlin-controlled leaders of the self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognized DNR and LNR republics publicly asserted that Kyiv was preparing an assault (the Ukrainian authorities categorically deny such intentions) and announced the evacuation of some residents of these regions to Russia. Shooting resumed on the front line. U.S. President Joe Biden forecasted that “Russia may launch an invasion in the next few days,” and the Kremlin reiterated its demands for security guarantees.

The State Duma’s Appeal to the Russian President

On February 15, 2022, the Russian State Duma appealed to President Putin to officially recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The resolution was introduced by deputies from the Communist party, but representatives of other parties also voted for it.

United Russia party prepared an alternative draft of the resolution. It was more cautious and stipulated that parliament should first consult with the Foreign Ministry and then apply to the President. In the end, United Russia’s proposal received only 310 votes, while the Communists’ resolution received 351.

“The deputies of the State Duma appeal to you, Mr. Vladimir Vladimirovich, to consider the issue of recognition by the Russian Federation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as autonomous, sovereign and independent states, as well as the issue of holding negotiations with the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as soon as possible to create a legal basis for interstate relations, ensuring regulation of all aspects of cooperation, including security issues,” — it says, among other things, in this document.

After summarizing the results of the vote, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that the parliament’s appeal to the president to recognize the DNR and LNR would be signed immediately, after which it would be sent to Vladimir Putin.

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014 after a majority of participants in referendums held in the regions supported the adoption of acts of self-determination for the DNR and LNR. Diplomatically, the two Donbass republics are recognized only by South Ossetia, a partially recognized state in the Caucasus.

Vladimir Putin himself commented on the Duma address during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Moscow for talks on the escalating situation around Ukraine. According to Putin, when voting on the issue of recognition of the DNR and LNR, deputies were guided by “the opinion of their voters,” which they “subtly feel.”

The Evacuation of DNR and LNR Citizens to Russia

On the evening of February 16 and morning of February 17, OSCE observers reported about 500 explosions near the line of contact in the east of Ukraine, which is several times higher than on previous days.

On the morning of February 18, 2022, the leaders of the LNR and DNR republics announced the evacuation of their residents to Russia. Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR, said that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated first. According to him, the evacuees will be accommodated and provided with everything they need in the Rostov region. After Pushilin’s appeal, sirens went off in Donetsk, and city residents lined up at ATMs. Soon the evacuation was announced in the Luhansk People’s Republic. Its head Leonid Pasechnik urged residents who had not been mobilized and were not involved in the provision of social and civil infrastructure to leave for Russia as soon as possible.

A few hours after the announcement of the evacuation, Pushilin said in a new speech that “it is going to full-scale war” and expressed the opinion that the number of refugees to Russia could reach hundreds of thousands. The DNR Emergencies Ministry said that it was planning to evacuate about 700,000 people. First buses with refugees left the republic around 8 p.m.

Both leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass explained the need for evacuation by rising tensions in the region. Pasechnik, citing “intelligence data,” said that the “Ukrainian aggressor” was planning provocations on the line of contact and a “deep breakthrough” into LNR territory.

Putin ordered to provide each person arriving from the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR in Rostov Region with 10,000 rubles. And in the Rostov Region, which borders on Ukraine, an operational headquarters was set up to coordinate the evacuation from the DNR and LNR.

Remarkably, the heads of the DNR and LNR recorded their video messages announcing the evacuation as early as February 16. The timestamp contained in the metadata of the videos was publicized by Bellingcat investigator Arik Toller. The head of DNR Denis Pushilin, in particular, draws attention in his speech that he said it “today, on February 18”. The folder, in which Passechnik’s address was filed, was entitled “Mongoose throw”.

By Monday evening, February 21, 2022, more than 60 thousand people had already crossed the border with Russia. A state of emergency was introduced in the Voronezh region and a state of heightened readiness in the Ryazan region.

Ukraine’s Response

Ukraine rejected accusations of preparing sabotage and invasion operations in Donbass. “We categorically refute Russian propaganda reports about allegedly offensive operations by Ukraine <…> Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in Donbass. We are fully committed exclusively to a diplomatic settlement,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. The commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny, said that the statements of the “occupation administrations” of Donbass about the attack of the Ukrainian military are not true.

On February 19, 2022, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky spoke at the Munich Security Conference, emotionally expressing his grievances against both Russia and the West. Western countries, according to Zelensky, are not doing enough to restrain Vladimir Putin.

Zelensky said he was initiating consultations within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum, which provides guarantees of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity in exchange for its renunciation of nuclear weapons. The Budapest memorandum was signed on December 5, 1994 by Great Britain, Russia, the United States and Ukraine. The document came into force in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Other states pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and refrain from using force against it in connection with the removal of nuclear weapons from its territory.

The Ukrainian president also offered Russian leader Vladimir Putin a meeting. “I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I suggest a meeting,” he said.

International Reaction

On February 18, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered an address on the situation around Ukraine in which he said that, according to his sources, Vladimir Putin had already made a decision about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The speech was broadcast live by the White House.

The American leader believes that Kyiv is being tried to be provoked in the Donbass. He is confident that Russian troops remain close to the borders with Ukraine: according to him, they are planning an invasion within days. Biden noted that the U.S. is not going to send its military to Ukraine but assured that Washington will continue to support Kyiv.

“There is no point in Ukraine attacking. Russia continues to fabricate claims that Ukraine is preparing to attack Russia. This is a classic that Russia has already used,” Biden said.

Before his speech, Biden had time to discuss the situation with the leaders of NATO countries —Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Canada, the alliance itself and the EU.

The White House also reminded that in case of Russia’s military aggression, the US would impose sanctions on the biggest Russian financial institutions and state-owned companies, as well as on a number of industrial sectors.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an invasion inevitable and warned of “the biggest war in Europe since 1945.”

On February 20, French and Russian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin held telephone talks to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Macron and Putin agreed to intensify diplomatic work— the ultimate goal should be a summit to define a new peace and security architecture in Europe. The presidents also agreed to resume work in the “Normandy format.”

Against this backdrop, the airline Lufthansa announced that it would suspend flights to Kyiv from February 21 to 28, 2022. The carrier will also suspend flights to Odessa. At the same time, Austrian Airlines said it would stop flights to Kyiv and Odessa from February 20 until the end of the month. Suspension of commercial flights gravely harm the Ukrainian economy.

On February 19, the German and Austrian authorities urged their citizens to leave Ukraine due to a possible Russian invasion.

What’s Happening Right Now

Early Monday morning, February 21, 2022, the heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize their independence.

“On behalf of the entire people of the Donetsk People’s Republic, we ask you to recognize the DNR as an independent, democratic, legal and social state,” said DNR head Denis Pushilin.

The heads of the DNR and LNR also asked Putin to conclude treaties of friendship and partnership with the republics after the recognition of independence.

Shortly thereafter, Putin commenced an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council. The Russian leader said that he convened the meeting to discuss the situation in Donbass. All of its participants supported the recognition of the independence of the DNR and LNR.

Head of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov spoke about “two sabotage groups” on the border between Russia and Ukraine and “a captured Ukrainian military man,” as well as about the 68,500 refugees arriving in Russia from Donbass.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke about more than 40 bombings in Donbass “overnight alone,” damaged infrastructure, and Donetsk residents left without water.

At the end of the meeting, Putin said that he had heard his colleagues’ opinions and promised that “a decision will be made today.”

On the same day, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russians. He explained why Russia recognized the DNR and LNR. The president spoke for about an hour, during which he shared his own very bizarre history of Ukraine, denying grounds for its statehood. In the first part of the address, Putin spoke in detail about the collapse of the USSR, which resulted in an independent Ukraine; lamented the corruption and high utility bills in modern Ukraine; said that aggressive actions in Ukraine are supported by foreign special services; and added that Ukrainian authorities can build nuclear weapons and that NATO bases are “actually deployed on Ukrainian territory.”

Ukraine’s accession to NATO, Putin said, poses a direct threat to Russia’s security. “That is why I have decided to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the DNR and LNR. I am sure the citizens of Russia and all patriotic forces of the country will support me,” Putin concluded. Immediately afterward, television broadcasted the footage of the signing of treaties with the LNR and DNR in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin also issued an order for the Russian Armed Forces to “perform peacekeeping functions” in the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass.

On February 22, the United States threatened new sanctions against Russia over its recognition of the LNR and DNR. “Putin wants the world to go back in time, when there was no United Nations and the world was ruled by empires. But the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not 1919, it’s 2022,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. permanent representative to the organization, told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. According to her, with his latest actions, Vladimir Putin “ripped the Minsk agreements to shreds.”

The United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union also announced their intention to impose new sanctions against Russia. The United Kingdom said that it might increase military aid to Ukraine. According to DPA and Der Spiegel, the sanctions could include 350 Duma deputies who voted for the recognition of the DNR and LNR, as well as Russian banks with ties to Donbass. The EU sanctions provide for the freezing of assets on the territory of the association and a ban on entry into the EU.

President Joe Biden signed a resolution prohibiting investments in the DNR and LNR, as well as the import of goods, services or technologies from there. The document implies blocking the US property of people associated with the DNR and LNR, and also allows imposing sanctions against those who decide to operate in the self-proclaimed republics. The document said that Russia’s decision threatens the national security and foreign policy of the US.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation that Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders would remain the same. He stressed that the country was pursuing a peaceful path but was ready to defend itself. Ukraine demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the OSCE and the “Normandy quartet.” The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry condemned Russia’s decision, saying that it violated the basics of international law and the UN Charter, as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also asked Volodymyr Zelenskyy to consider severing diplomatic relations with Russia.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said that “the recognition of two separatist regions in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the Minsk agreements. Polish President Andrzej Duda called on NATO and the EU to act tough on Russia to “stop the aggressor.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Shimonite said that Putin’s actions “put Kafka and Orwell to shame.”

On Tuesday, February 22, Great Britain imposed sanctions against Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg and Igor Rotenberg — Russian oligarchs and close personal associates of Vladimir Putin. Five Russian banks also fall under British sanctions.  The assets of these individuals and companies in Britain will be frozen, Boris Johnson said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be halted indefinitely due to the recognition of the DNR and LNR.

And the final news: the Federation Council allowed Putin to deploy Russian troops to the DNR and LNR. At the same time, the documents signed by Putin and the heads of the LNR and DNR do not specify the boundaries within which the republics are recognized. Representatives of the LNR and DNR stated that it could be the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, some of which are controlled by Ukraine.

The Plight of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners

Oct 23 2023

Please join us for an in-person discussion on The Plight of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners on Monday, October 30 from 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm at the Victims of Communism Museum located at 900 15th St NW in Washington, DC. The event will give a voice for those who can no longer speak for themselves and will include an interactive exhibit featuring photos and quotes of prominent political prisoners held by the Kremlin.

Space is limited, RSVP is required. The conversation is public and on-the record, members of the press are welcome.

The event will mark the International Day of Political Prisoners and feature substantive updates by:

  • Sergei Davidis, Head of Political Prisoners Program, Memorial Human Rights Center;
  • Evgenia Kara-Murza, Advocacy Director at Free Russia Foundation;
  • Mariana Katzarova, the UN Special Rapporteur on Russia;
  • MEP Andrius Kubilius, the Standing Rapporteur on Russia at the EU Parliament;
  • Karinna Moskalenko, Russia’s leading human rights lawyer, Founder of the Center de la Protection Internationale; and
  • Vadim Prokhorov, lawyer for political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Expert presentations will be followed by an extensive Q&A session with the audience. The discussion will be moderated by Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation. To reserve your spot, please register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/743473939567?aff=oddtdtcreator

Speakers’ Bios:

Andrius Kubilius is a Lithuanian politician and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). He served as Prime Minister of Lithuania from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. He was the leader of the conservative political party Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats. Kubilius became a member of the pro-independence Sąjūdis movement, which favored separation from the Soviet Union. He later became the Executive Secretary of the Sąjūdis Council. Soon after the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence, Kubilius was elected to the Seimas (parliament). Since then, Kubilius has been an active figure in Lithuanian politics. Kubillius is the current Standing Rapporteur on Russia at the EU Parliament.

Mariana Katzarova (Bulgaria) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Russian Federation by the UN Human Rights Council on April 4, 2023. Ms. Katzarova led the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated examination of the human rights situation in Belarus in 2021-22. During the first 2 years of the armed conflict in Ukraine (2014-16), she led the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission team in Donbas as head of the regional office in Eastern Ukraine. For a decade she headed the Amnesty International investigations of human rights in Russia and the two conflicts in Chechnya. Ms. Katzarova founded RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War) in 2006 after working as a journalist and human rights investigator in the war zones of Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya. At RAW, she established the annual Anna Politkovskaya Award for women human rights defenders working in war and conflict zones. She was Advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on combating human trafficking, and a senior advisor at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).

Evgenia Kara-Murza is a Russian human rights activist and wife of political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza, the twice-poisoned Russian opposition leader, imprisoned since April 11, 2022 for speaking out about the war on Ukraine. She worked as a translator and interpreter in Russian, English, and French for pro-democracy NGOs including the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the Institute of Modern Russia, and Pen America. She subsequently joined her husband Vladimir at Free Russia Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international organization supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. Advocating for human rights accountability and promoting civil society and democratic change in Russia, she serves as FRF Advocacy Director.

Sergei Davidis is Head of Political Prisoners Support Program and Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, Russia. He was educated in Sociology at Moscow State University and on Law at Moscow State Law Academy. For many years, he was a participant and one of the organizers of the democratic opposition movement. His research interests are closely related to activities to support political prisoners in Russia, and he studies the sociological and legal aspects of politically motivated deprivation of liberty, in particular, in the context of world practice and international norms.

Karinna Moskalenko is Russia’s leading human rights lawyer. She was the first Russian lawyer to take a case to the European Court for Human Rights and won the first ever case against the Russian government at the court in Strasbourg. She founded the Center for International Protection in Russia in 1994. She is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. While some of her clients are household names: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Igor Sutyagin, Alexander Litvinenko to name a few, she has also represented countless victims of human rights abuses. She won more than 100 cases including AH & others v. Russian Federation where she was representing the rights of American families who were in the process of adopting children when Russia banned US adoptions with their so-called Dima Yakovlev law. Karinna moved her family to Strasbourg in 2006 where she founded the “Center de la Protection Internationale,” a human rights litigation NGO focused on litigating cases in international courts, which has filed and won more than 500 cases on behalf of its clients. For nine year, Karinna was a Commissioner for the International Commission for Jurists for which she is an Honorary member. Currently she is a head of the experts’ group, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council for the UN High Commissioner working on the UN mandated examination of human rights situation in Belarus. Vadim Prokhorov is a Russian human-rights lawyer who has defended critics of the Kremlin, including prominent opposition politicians and anti-corruption campaigners. He has defended many human rights activists, such as Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Vladimir Bukovsky. Prokhorov’s work as a lawyer has made him an important figure in the human rights field, as the Russian government has increasingly suppressed public dissent and oppositional work. This increase in governmental repression gravely impacted Prokhorov’s work, who has been representing human rights defender and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza for the last ten years. Currently, Vadim Prokhorov continues his advocacy to protect the Russian opposition, political prisoners in Russian courts – online from abroad.

Free Russia Foundation Denounces the Verdict Delivered to the Participants of the “Ingush Case” as a Clear Mockery of Justice

Jul 28 2023

Free Russia Foundation, along with our staff, expresses our deep concern and indignation at the final verdict delivered today, July 28, 2023, by the Stavropol Court in the Russian city of Pyatigorsk, regarding the participants of the “Ingush Case.”

The verdict remains unchanged since December 2021 when Akhmed Barakhoev, Musa Malsagov, and Malsag Uzhakhov were each sentenced to 9 years in a general regime colony. Ismail Nalgiev, Bagaudin Khautiev, and Barakh Chemurziev received 8-year sentences each, while Zarifa Sautieva was sentenced to 7.5 years. They were all found guilty of using violence against representatives of the authorities, establishing an extremist group, and participating in its activities. 

The appeal trial lasted for over half a year, with the defense lawyers presenting their arguments for 12 days during the debates. In contrast, the prosecutor’s speech was remarkably brief, lasting only five minutes, where he simply read out the arguments from the objections, which were concise and fit on just a few sheets of paper.

This stands as one of the most significant political cases in Russian history. It all started on March 27, 2019, when a rally against the alteration of Ingushetia’s administrative border with the Chechen Republic in Magas led to a crackdown on the Ingush opposition. Consequently, administrative cases were initiated against hundreds of participants in the people’s protest, and dozens of them faced criminal charges.

The Memorial Center, an organization that monitors politically motivated cases, has officially designated all those convicted in the “Ingush Case” as political prisoners. According to Sergei Davidis, who serves as the co-chairman of the Memorial Center, this case stands out as one of the most unprecedented political cases in Russian history. He states, “Civil society leaders are being accused merely for being civil society leaders. There is no fabrication involved; instead, they are trying to twist perfectly legitimate actions into criminal acts.”

Free Russia Foundation shares the same perspective as Memorial and urges the international community to take notice of this blatant violation of human rights.

The verdict handed down to the participants in the “Ingush Case” is a true mockery of justice, primarily because the prosecution was unable to demonstrate that the oppositionists had actually formed an extremist group. Additionally, there was a failure to provide evidence of any criminal conspiracy to incite violence against law enforcement personnel. Throughout the indictment, words such as “probably,” “presumably,” and “maybe” were frequently employed, undermining the strength of the case. Notably, the word “approximately” was used more than ten thousand times

A few years back, Ingushetia demonstrated to the entire nation that it was possible to conduct multi-day protests with thousands of people in a peaceful manner, without jeopardizing law and order. However, the Kremlin viewed this as a display of free thinking that clashed with the current regime’s control, leading them to take punitive action against the organizers of the peaceful protest. This move was intended to send a warning to residents of other regions in Russia, showcasing the potential consequences they might face for seeking justice.

The criminal case brought against the organizers is undeniably politically motivated, with the aim of maintaining power and suppressing public activism from critics of Putin’s regime. The verdict delivered today represents yet another step in the direction of quashing constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of not only the people of Ingushetia but also citizens across Russia as a whole. It highlights the authorities’ attempt to curb any form of public activism and dissent.

Free Russia Foundation calls for the immediate release of all individuals unjustly convicted in the “Ingush Case.” Furthermore, we demand that the officials responsible for their unwarranted persecution be held accountable and brought to justice.

We urge the international community, human rights organizations, and all those who stand for freedom and justice to demonstrate their solidarity with the participants in the “Ingush Case.” It is crucial to support their fight for justice and the protection of human rights. Freedom and justice are fundamental and non-negotiable values, and any violation of these principles demands a resolute response and unified support.

We cannot afford to remain indifferent to the ongoing situation, and by coming together in solidarity, we can work towards fostering a truly democratic society.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on the Situation in Russia

Jun 24 2023

Free Russia Foundation is closely following the news surrounding the activities of the Wagner Group inside Russia with grave concern.

The events themselves, the diverging agendas advanced by various Russian power groups, and how they may unfold in the coming days are highly dynamic and uncertain. What is clear is that the political situation in Russia is extremely unstable and volatile, with the potential to escalate quickly and posing risks far beyond Russian borders.

This development, however, is a logical evolution of the lawlessness, violence, and corruption purposefully harnessed by Putin in order to remain in power and brutally wielded against Russian civil society in the form of repressions, and against the people of Ukraine in the form of military aggression.

Free Russia Foundation calls on the democratic world to provide Ukraine with all it requires for a decisive victory on the battlefield against Russian forces and to strengthen its commitment to pro-democracy Russians, both in-country and those forced into exile—as the two prerequisites for peace and stability in the region.

“We are agents of change.” The speech by FRF’s President Natalia Arno at the European Parliament

Jun 05 2023

On June 5-6, 2023, the European Parliament in Brussels at the initiative of Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius and others, hosts a two-day conference “The Day After”, with the participation of over 200 representatives from Russia’s anti-war and opposition groups, journalists, prominent cultural figures, as well as European politicians.

On June 5, 2023, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation spoke at the European Parliament in Brussels. In her opening remarks to the inaugural session of the Brussels Dialogue— Roundtable of EU and Democratic Russia Representatives, Ms. Arno described the heroic efforts by Russian civil society to stop the war and stand up to Putin’s regime; and called for a closer cooperation between Russian and European democratic forces to support Ukraine’s victory and ensure a lasting peace in Europe.

Below is the transcript of her full remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the European Parliament and EU institutions, esteemed representatives from across the transatlantic community, and my dear friends and colleagues who are selflessly fighting for a free and democratic Russia, 

Thank you all for being here today. My special thanks to the MEP from Lithuania, Standing Rapporteur on Russia, Andrius KUBILIUS and to Shadow Rapporteurs – Messrs. CIMOSZEWICZ, GUETTA and LAGODINSKY – and their amazing teams who worked tirelessly to gather us all for this historic event. We are thankful for a very timely realization at the EU level that we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are an important actor in efforts to stop the war and the key force in transforming Russia into democracy. 

The Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February shook the world with its brutality and aggression, wretchedly echoing World War II. This war has been the first war watched on social media, brought to our living rooms– with every brutal death, every destroyed hospital, every orphaned child—staring into our face, breaking our heart, hundreds of times per day. But it’s not something that only exists on a computer screen. The reality on the ground is both unspeakable destruction and human cruelty that defies who we crave to be as humans. This war is black and white. The fight between the evil and the good, between the dictatorship and the democratic world with Ukraine on the front lines. There are no half tones, no moral ambivalence. Just like Hitler, Putin is perpetrating a criminal atrocity not only against Ukraine, but against freedom, democracy and our civilized way of life. 

This war is a huge tragedy for Ukraine, but it is also a catastrophic disaster for Russia. It’s a tragedy for so many Russians who understand what this war is, and it’s a tragedy that there are so many Russians who don’t understand it at all. 

This war has forced the world to take a new look at Russia. What is this country and who are these people engaged in unspeakable acts of brutality? Who are these people who passively watch as their army kills and destroys without any reason? They must be pure evil reincarnated! 

As the world, in pain and anger, looked for ways to respond, some of your governments shut your borders to all Russian passport holders, cancelled air traffic from Russia, pulled out businesses, denied services to all Russians, equated all Russians to Putin. We understood the reason for this. 

But let me remind you something. The Russian civil society and independent media were the first victim of Putin’s regime. We were the first ones to warn about the dangerous, corrupt, criminal, murderous nature of Putin’s regime. We were those telling you that his internal repressions will lead to external aggression. We were those who exposed the Kremlin’s export of corruption, influence campaigns in Europe and elsewhere. We were those who discovered Prigozhin’s factory of trolls and other disinformation tricks. We were the ones pleading the West not to enable Putin, not to operate with “realpolitik” and “business as usual”. In Putin’s war against freedom and democracy, Russian civil society has always been one of his priority targets. Many of us have paid a terrible price ourselves – losing our homeland, in many cases losing our freedom to imprisonment and to some of us, losing lives or family members. 

While we often hear there are no good Russians, I know many. All of us who are here today were invited by the European Parliament for our merits. We and our colleagues have moved mountains. Hundreds of us here represent civil society organizations, media outlets, grassroots initiatives with dozens of thousands activists and journalists in our networks. We communicate to millions through our YouTube and Telegram channels, newspapers, programs, and events. All of us are in exile now.

Inside Russia, many keep resisting, too. According to OVD-info, a portal tracking activism inside Russia, since the full-scale invasion there have been only 25 days without arrests for anti-war protests. There is the story of a Siberian grandmother— anti-war activist Natalia Filonova from my native Republic of Buryatia, whose special needs son was taken away from her in retribution for her protests and sent to a remote orphanage, while she herself is in jail awaiting trial. Another political prisoner Ilya Yashin, has just published a story about Natalia Filonova. Yashin himself is in jail for 8.5 years for telling the truth about Bucha.

Another real Russian patriot is a dear friend and man whom most of you know personally— Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has survived two assassination attempts by Putin’s regime, two comas, and still went back to Russia to testify to what is right and what is true. He is now in prison on a Stalin-era 25year sentence. 

Yesterday it was the birthday of Alexey Navalny who also survived Novichok poisoning and is slowly being killed in prison. 

All these names and many others will be mentioned at this conference and shouldn’t be forgotten. There are tens of thousands of documented stories like these. Tens of thousands of “good” humans arrested and prosecuted for their anti-war and pro-democracy stance. 

Why am I telling you all of this? In hopes that you see that Russian civil society was the first front in Putins war on democracy and peace.  As Western leaders dined and shook hands with Putin for 20 years, as Europeans accommodated Putin’s regime in exchange for cheap energy, as they offered citizenships to his associates, Putin was busy eradicating the Russian political opposition, independent media and civil society. 

Today, we address a pressing issue that lies at the heart of our shared destiny and demands our immediate attention and decisive action. Through all this shock from the devastating tragedy that we are all experiencing, I want to bring to you a message of resilience, hope and an urgent plea for solidarity. We, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are not only first victims of Putin’s regime, and not only targets for friendly fire and problems for your governments because we need visas and bank accounts, but most importantly, we are agents of change. Not foreign agents or undesirables as the Kremlin labels us, but agents of change, agents of the Russian people and Russia’s future. We are the part of the solution. We are the ones who are willing to transform Russia, to make it normal and civilized.

No doubt that Ukraine will win, but after the war it won’t be easy. We understand doubts about Russia’s democratization prospects, but we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, can’t afford to believe that freedom and democracy is not possible in our home country. Democracy in Russia is the only guarantee of sustainability of Ukraines victory and a key factor of stability and security in Europe and globally.

Those of us invited to this event have been working tirelessly as supporters of change for years. Our collective resume includes rallies against media capture and Khodorkovsky’s arrest in Putin’s early days, election observation missions proving massive fraud in all levels of elections throughout the country, “Dissenters Marches”, rallies on Bolotnaya and Sakharova and many other squares throughout the country and throughout the years, against the annexation of Crimea and invasion to Eastern Ukraine then and the full-scale invasion now. Our collective resume includes advocating for sanctions, both personal and sectoral, advocating for enforcement of sanctions and for making it harder for the Kremlin to circumvent them. Our collective resume includes assistance to Ukraine – evacuations from the war zone, search for Ukrainian POWs, litigation and advocacy on behalf of Ukrainian hostages of Putin’s regime held in Russian jails, cooperation on international justice mechanisms including the Tribunal and on documenting war crimes, humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians including shelters, clothing, medication. Our collective resume includes huge efforts by Russian independent media, bloggers, influencers, grassroots initiatives to tell the truth about this brutal war, to disseminate the factful information, to counter Kremlin’s narratives, to influence public opinion inside Russia. Our collective resume also includes discussions on how to achieve political transition, how to conduct sustainable reforms, how to make deputinization and even desovietization of Russia. 

We are not Europe’s headache, we are your asset. We ask our European partners to use our expertise, because nobody knows Russia better than us. Nobody knows Putin regime and his methods better than us. Nobody knows the Russian people better than us. Individually we do a lot. Collectively as a Russian pro-democracy anti-war movement we can do even more. With your solidarity, with the support of the democratic world, we can win. Working together is a force multiplier.

When I looked on your website yesterday, the main stated aims of the European Union within its borders are: to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens. 

How do we promote peace now? We do everything we possibly can to make sure Ukraine wins this war. But it is clear, that until there is a real political change in Russia, until democracy and civil rights are reestablished for the Russian people, until Putin’s regime is brought to justice, no lasting peace is possible. It’s very practical for the Western democracies to support, strengthen and grow us— inside and outside of Russia. 

I am here to call on the EU as a community— to give voice to pro-democracy anti-war Russians at European institutions. Regular sessions of this conference, new report on Russia by the EU Parliament, EU Special Representative for Russia and other working mechanisms are important to discuss plans on reconstructing Ukraine after the war, prosecuting war criminals, and reforming Russia after Putin. So that Russians inside Russia see that Putin is wrong— the West does not seek to destroy Russia, and that Russians who are for democracy are not outcasts but are embraced by the international democratic community. 

We need a coherent Europe-wide strategy on how to stabilize the Russian civil society— save us from peril, prevent us from quitting the fight, help us mobilize and engage Russian society. This means clear legalization policies; some standard approach to our ability to work and travel. That means the end of the punitive measures such as denial of services that are not only counterproductive but also are illegal under the EU law. That means judging us on the basis of our values and our actions, not on the basis of our citizenship and nationality. That means support of our programs and initiatives.

In this room there are Russians from different regions and organizations, of different backgrounds, with different opinions and you might see some debates and disagreement throughout the program, but we have one unified position: Ukraine must win the war, and Russia must change from the inside to be a reliable and stable partner for the democratic world. Russia must return to its fundamental values of producing great poets, composers, physicists, and philosophers instead of being hackers, invaders, and war criminals. We in this room are here to join hands with our European partners and work with you to make this happen.

From the Board of Free Russia Foundation

May 18 2023

While traveling abroad recently, Free Russia Foundation’s president fell ill under circumstances that cause great concern. The matter is under investigation.

The health and safety of our staff and beneficiaries are our paramount concern.

Free Russia Foundation continues its work for a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Russia, reintegrated into the international community as a constructive and positive actor.