The west cannot turn its back on ordinary Russians

The writer is chair of the Center for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at IWM Vienna

It was only a matter of hours after Vladimir attacked Ukraine that Marina Davidova, the esteemed Russian theater, wrote an open letter against the war critic. The Russian Duma responded with prison alacrity, fast-tracking legislation that included sentences of up to 15 years for criticizing the invasion.

Davidova soon became subject to vicious harassment, receiving hate mail and finding the notorious white “Z” borne by Russian military vehicles in Ukraine painted on her door the next day. Fearful for her life, she fled Russia.

Once she got out, however, Davidova was surprised to discover a twisted new reality.

When in Moscow, she had been treated by the secret service as a traitor. But in western Europe, she was now perceived as a Russian occupier, possibly an agent — a person complicit with Putin. Her Russian bank cards no longer worked and her Austrian bank account was blocked. It was her passport, not her story, that mattered. Sotto voceher friends told her that the idea of ​​a “good Russian” was now a thing of the past.

Europeans who criticize ordinary Russians for not denouncing the war en masse have a point, but they miss an important nuance: Russia today is a brutal police state and in Putin’s worldview to be a traitor (and for the president any citizen who opposes the war is a traitor) is far worse than to be an enemy. Putin once put it with terrifying clarity: “Enemies are right in front of you, you are at war with them, then you make an armistice with them, and all is clear. A traitor must be destroyed, crushed.”

With their heroic resistance to the Russian war machine, the Ukrainian people have earned their status as Putin’s enemies. But when it comes to Russia’s internal opposition, the only option he will consider is to crush them.

Of course it is not hard to understand why people outside Russia have turned against the country. Putin has not only destroyed Ukraine’s military and energy infrastructure, he also smashed the moral and intellectual infrastructure of postwar Europe. By justifying his invasion in Ukraine as a “special operation” aimed at “denazifying” the country, Putin took a deliberate aim at the foundations on which the European order has been based. And by putting Russian nuclear forces on “high alert”, he crossed a line not crossed since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago.

The west is at war with Putin’s regime, and this conflict will last far longer than the fighting in Ukraine. It is clear that western sanctions are not designed to change Putin’s mind but to destroy his capabilities. They will also hurt ordinary Russians. Since Russia is a significant nuclear power, the west has no other option.

Some outside Russia are seduced by the possibility of a palace coup in Moscow, but the prospects for such an outcome are slim. History teaches us that in a crisis like this majority of the people, as well as political elites, initially stand with their leader rather than turn against him. It is only with the passing of time that they change their mind.

While in the short term the west’s priority should be to provide support to Ukraine, in the medium and long term it needs a strategy on Russia that goes beyond military containment.

We have shifted easily (and lazily) from complacency to moral outrage. We are shocked that Russians have allowed themselves to be taken in by Putin’s propaganda, forgetting that they are not the only ones capable of living a lie. A poll conducted in 2015, more than a decade after the American invasion of Iraq, found that 52 per cent of Fox News viewers believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. Let us also recall that enthusiasm for Putin as a defender of “European values” was stronger in some western quarters than in Russia itself.

In his unsettlingly prophetic 2006 novel, Day of the Oprichnik, the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin imagines a future for his country as a medieval-style theocracy where the monarchy has been restored, flogging is back, and the official ideology is a kind of corruption-friendly mysticism. A Great Wall divides Russia from the west, all goods come from China, and all ideas emerge from an imagined past.

It is easy to imagine tomorrow’s Russia resembling Sorokin’s nightmares. Europe will never feel secure sharing a border with a Russia like this. Turning our backs on those Russians courageous enough to oppose Putin’s war, even to those who do not have the will to oppose it but at least the decency not to support it, will be a strategic mistake.

After the end of the cold war, the west assumed Russia would follow the road taken by postwar Germany. But Russia’s behavior over the past decade resembles Germany during the period after the first world war, not the second.

Three decades ago many in the west naively believed that a democratic future was the only possible path for post-Soviet Russia. Now we are making a similar mistake in assuming that a post-Putin Russia could not be anything but his Russia with another strongman ruler.

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