There can be no doubt that Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine needs to be stopped. Sanctions may be a tool to make the war too costly, but they will take time to work. We all know that.
In recent days, we have seen that in addition to the official sanctions and denunciations of Putin and his war, Russian people and institutions which are not directly involved in the war effort have been urged to speak up against Putin’s war. There have also been cases of outright anti-Russian discrimination. Some have gone so far as to suggest cutting all connections with Russia in the future.
This is not helpful for many reasons. First, it feeds into Putin’s narrative that the West is at war not just with him (which in itself is a lie) but also with Russia herself. Second, it underestimates how difficult it is to resist authoritarian government. Every Russian demonstrator risks not just their own life and safety, but also the life and safety for their family members. Do not underestimate the regime. Putin has poisoned and killed opposition leaders both domestically and abroad. Even for Russians living in the United States, speaking out can be dangerous as it may affect their family members and friends still in Russia. Third, such discrimination is a betrayal of our own values. We have already seen discrimination of Asians because of the Chinese government’s handling of the Covid crisis. We need to distinguish between criticism of policy and policymakers and discrimination of people. Fourth, it will hurt the eventual recovery. Russia is not going anywhere. We will have to rebuild our connections, our economies, our trust.
It is of crucial importance how we in the West treat those who are told that we are the enemy. I grew up in Communist East Germany, which was basically a Soviet colony. Like all of us behind the Iron Curtain, we were encouraged by those who still understood that we did not agree with the system, and that we wanted peace, cooperation and democracy. Western kindness is our biggest asset. Our soft power, the attractiveness of our values and ideals, this is what will eventually win the day. But we must live up to those values. Whenever the West behaves hypocritically, whenever it breaks its own rules, we are demonstrating that we are not serious about our values, that we are not serious about justice and democracy. This is not trivial.
We can only demonstrate the strength of our democracy if we live up to its promises consistently. Putin is to blame here. He has taken his country and the world hostage and is waging a destructive war on Ukraine. We need to focus our criticism on him, his government and his enablers, and keep our hearts and minds open to all those in Russia and the world that do not agree with him but are helpless to change his mind. Let us show Russia who we really are, not what Putin wants us to become.