Updated: Mar 31, 2022
March 29, 2022
By Aryeh Neier*
Is it appropriate for the United States and other countries to impose hardships on Russian citizens because of war crimes committed by their country’s forces in Ukraine?
Most Russians do not bear criminal guilt for what has occurred in Ukraine since February 24. Only those who directly participate in attacks on civilians and civilian property and infrastructure, or command those engaged in such attacks, deserve to face criminal punishment. But the great majority of Russians have made this war possible by allowing President Vladimir Putin to consolidate absolute power over the past 22 years. For that reason, they share political responsibility for the horrors now taking place in Ukraine.
Sanctions against Russia are merited, even though many ordinary Russians who are most affected by them probably would prefer that the war never happened. Putin and his inner circle are unlikely to suffer from any losses to their material well-being.
Economic sanctions have a mixed record of success. While sanctions did help to end apartheid in South Africa and bring down communism in Poland, they have failed to compel change in Cuba or deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human-rights abuses. But the West’s measures against Russia are unprecedented in size and scope, and it will be hard for Putin to discount them as he considers his options.
To the extent that Russians know what is taking place in Ukraine, many may deplore their country’s actions there. They may not wish to force millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes, communities, and country. They may not wish to contribute to the maiming and killing of those who have remained behind. They may regret the destruction of Ukrainian villages, towns, and cities. Yet they made these crimes possible.
Of course, Putin is doing everything he can to prevent Russians from knowing what is being done in their name, even barring the media from calling the war a war. Those who call it a war, rather than “a special military operation,” may be prosecuted under a new law that punishes dissemination of information the government deems false with up to 15 years in prison. Russians cannot turn on their television sets and see ruined homes and apartment buildings in Ukraine, the dead bodies of Ukrainian families lying in the streets, or the trains packed with Ukrainian mothers and children fleeing for their lives. Even so, most Russians know that the war is taking place, if only because sanctions are causing them to suffer the economic consequences.
Ordinary Russians may feel helpless now to do anything about the crimes in Ukraine. But they had their chance during the 22 years that Putin has consolidated absolute power. Some who tried to prevent Putin from doing so – such as the human-rights researcher Natalia Estemirova, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov – were murdered. Putin’s current main political opponent, Alexei Navalny, barely survived an assassination attempt, only to be sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.
But they are the exception that proves the rule. Putin has launched other military conflicts in his effort to extend Russian control over former Soviet territories, including the 2008 war in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. An overwhelming majority of Russians cheered him on then, and his popularity soared once again in the runup to the invasion of Ukraine.
So, Russians knew what they were doing when they enabled Putin to remain in power for such a long time, and most demonstrated strong support for his rule. Russians collectively made it possible for Putin to carry out his political agenda by criminal means. Accordingly, Russians collectively share political responsibility for these crimes.
Thousands of Russian antiwar protesters have been arrested. They knew they risked being detained and losing their jobs, so their participation in demonstrations took courage. If there had been many more like them, the sanctions-induced hardships ordinary Russians now face would not be justifiable.
But there were not many more of them. A larger outpouring of dissent might have shortened Putin’s reign or at least prevented him from becoming an absolute ruler, making it harder for him to launch a war unilaterally. Ordinary Russians suffering from the sanctions have only themselves to blame.
*Aryeh Neier is President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. www.project-syndicate.org