Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, the issue of responsibility for this atrocity remains prominently in the public spotlight:
Was it just the will of Putin alone? Or is his elite also complicit?
Are the Russian people to blame for their inaction and maybe even enthusiasm for the war? A ballerina at the Mariinsky theater who is dating a Kremlin official, a pensioner dreaming of reinstatement of the Soviet Union, and a soldier’s mother in Buryatia?
What about the Western elites who personally and handsomely benefited from shady deals with the Kremlin in the face of its crimes and repressions— lifting sanctions off the Nord Stream 2, flattering Putin by engaging his government as a legitimate stakeholder on nonproliferation deals, buying his oil and gas— financing Putin’s war machine?
What about all the states that refuse to impose full economic blockade on Russia now and deliver fighter jets and air defenses to Ukraine? Are they responsible for the continued bloodshed and loss of life?
What about international companies, who decided to not stop their operations inside Russia? Are they the reason why the blitzkrieg has stretched out to now over a month?
These are not mere philosophical ruminations but have very profound practical ramifications. How we frame and answer these questions would shape and drive our policies, our efforts at stopping the war, righting the wrong and preventing this atrocity from repeating.
These are also extremely painful questions. They evoke anger, mourning, shame, helplessness, utter loss.
They move some of us to feel violence and aggression— find the responsible ones and make them pay!
Someone who could get close to Putin and somehow “neutralize” him— would undoubtedly become a global hero and proclaimed a saint by a few churches. But this is not lost on the “bunker grandpa” who spent the first two weeks of the war in a nuclear underground shelter beyond the Urals, has fired and replaced over 1,000 of his closest personnel and is ridiculed by the exceptionally long tables that separate him from his closest advisors at meetings. So, we can’t get to Putin.
A situation of extreme frustration like this, oftentimes gives rise to instances of displaced aggression: when you can’t punish the source of your anger, find someone else in your proximity and punish them.
Free Russia Foundation is extremely concerned with one particular area of such displaced aggression— the Russian civil society.
We hear numerous calls to kick out all Russian citizens from international universities, to cancel their visas, to ban them from traveling, to not offer them scholarships or jobs based on the origin of their passports and their national identity. These come even from prominent statesmen which we see as friends. These calls ARE displaced aggression because they hit the most progressive, pro-Western, pro-Ukrainian Russians; they are the thousands of courageous Russians who have for two decades opposed and fought Putin’s regime. Who have sacrificed their economic and social status, their family ties, their freedom to actively advance the vision of democracy for their country. Who have even been ridiculed by some of their foreign acquaintances for being too intense or paranoid and advised to find common ground with Putin’s regime.
Today, their life is in extreme danger— they are hunted down methodically by the State, increasingly with the reporting by pro-war neighbors and colleagues, they are fined, imprisoned, physically and sexually assaulted. Since the start of the war, half a million of Russians have been pushed out of the country into exile, threatened by repressions.
In exile, these Russians are looking for ways to help stop the war— by breaking through to Russian audiences, by helping counter the disinformation and propaganda, by helping the West to better understand weak spots and vulnerabilities of the Kremlin and its global influence networks which have entangled Western elites.
In exile, these Russians are also cut off from access to their bank accounts— due to various western and Russian sanctions and private sector initiatives designed to stop the war. They are facing humiliating circumstances where they can’t pay for their food or motels. They also face grim uncertainty with their immigration status— once their visa-free stay expires in a few weeks.
For them going back to Russia means prison or worse. But they are not welcome where they are either.
Rightfully, ending the war, ensuring that Ukraine is victorious, that it is rebuilt and the ones responsible are punished— are the main and immediate priorities.
However, it is also abundantly clear that Russian political development cannot once again be neglected and left on an auto-pilot— or we risk seeing new cataclysms rising from the depths of the nuclear-armed dictatorship. The prospect that even after the defeat in Ukraine, Putin can hold on to power and continue as a menacing force globally, remains far too real.
Free Russia Foundation asserts that pro-democracy Russians — now predominantly in exile— hold the keys to this political development and are the main agents of change for Russia. As such, they must be supported and empowered. Supporting these Russians is not an act of charity or irrational largesse. Supporting and empowering them is a matter of shrewd strategic self-interest for the West.
In the immediate term, these Russians are the source of invaluable expertise and insight into how to defeat Putin in Ukraine and bring about the fall of his regime in Russia.
In the longer term, these are precisely the people we want to be at the helm of reforming and restructuring Russia, conducting lustrations and de-Putinification, putting it on solid ground to becoming a democratic, peaceful and prosperous state.
In practical terms, what do we mean by support for pro-democracy anti-Putin Russians?
First of all, lets acknowledge their importance and abstain from attacking them. Each of them now, I assure you, are soul-searching and wondering what more they could have done to prevent the tragedy in Ukraine.
Let’s stop the displaced aggression initiatives aimed to strip them of visas, scholarships, fire them from western institutions and kick them out from international universities.
VISA AND PROTECTED STATUS FOR PRO-DEMOCRACY RUSSIANS. Let’s help them stay in the fight— which, hopefully, everyone now understands is also our fight— to end Putin’s chock-hold on Russia. Let’s think about providing temporary visas or protected statuses and reinstating access to their own hard-earned resources.
EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES. Let’s connect them to western agencies and institutions fighting the Kremlin where their input can make a real difference while also allowing them to feed themselves in ways other than driving Uber. Let’s provide specialized training to help them adjust to new circumstances and fill critical gaps in capacity.
FACILITATE NEW ECOSYSTEM. Let’s help connect the global community of pro-democracy Russians into an innovative and robust ecosystem working to take down Putin in Russia and curb its influence in the West. Let’s help them rise as a force powerful to bring about real change for Russia and the world.