The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We are not at war with the Russian people

Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Moscow on March 3. (AFP/Getty Images) (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Yascha Mounk is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, a contributing editor at the Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Vladimir Putin’s cruel war in Ukraine must be forcefully resisted, including with tough sanctions. But it is important to remember a simple truth: Although we are waging a righteous battle against Vladimir Putin, we are not at war with the Russian people. Acting as if we are is as immoral as it is counterproductive.

The Russian people have, in many ways, been Putin’s first victims. It is they who cannot replace their president at the ballot box or speak out against him without fear of terrifying consequences. It is they who are paying the price for two decades of corruption and repression. And it is they who will see their living standards plummet over the next months.

Putin undoubtedly enjoys widespread support. But over the past week, many Russians have found the courage to criticize his assault on Ukraine, often incurring tremendous risk in the process.

Thousands have already been arrested for protesting the war. About 7,000 Russian scientists and academics have signed an open letter demanding “an immediate halt to all military operations directed against Ukraine.” Similar petitions are circulating among teachers, doctors and many other groups. What appears to be the biggest one, on, has attracted over a million signatories.

Even more Russians share these sentiments but lack the bravery or the opportunity to speak out. That probably includes some of the conscripted soldiers who have been ordered to commit deeply immoral acts — and risk their own lives — by a dictator who has been in power since before they were born.

All of this drives home the importance of continuing to draw the vital distinction between the Russian government and the Russian people — something that many pundits, politicians and institutional leaders are, sadly, failing to do.

Over the past few days, a U.S. congressman has called on American universities to expel all Russian students. The Canadian Hockey League made an announcement indicating that it is considering declaring Russian and Belarusian teenagers ineligible in the upcoming draft. The editors of an academic journal “decided not to pursue” an upcoming special issue on Russian religious philosophy. An Italian university even canceled a course on the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (before reinstating it after a public backlash).

This is wrong.

Heavy sanctions will unavoidably impose significant costs on ordinary Russians. But since they are necessary to assist Ukraine and weaken Putin, they are morally defensible. It is right to stop doing business with Russian companies, to seize the property of oligarchs who got rich thanks to their connections to the Kremlin, and to ban sports teams from competing in international competitions under the Russian flag.

But none of this is a reason to punish individuals for the accident of their birth or to cast Russia’s rich culture under a general pall of suspicion. Dictators do not speak for everybody who shares their nationality. And so we must avoid punishing ordinary Russians who neither have close links to the Kremlin nor represent their country in an official capacity. It would be a serious injustice to stop Russian academics from giving talks in the West, to subject every Russian living outside the country to an ideological litmus test or to cancel performances by Russian artists based purely on their nationality.

Putin is doing all he can to portray this conflict as being rooted in Western hatred of the Russian nation. This is patently false. The reason for this conflict is, quite simply, his own decision to stage an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation.

That makes it all the more important for democracies to avoid playing into Putin’s propaganda. We must stand up to any incipient forms of Russophobia in our midst before they have a chance to flourish. Totalitarian regimes of the 20th century demonstrated the terrible consequences of subjecting individual citizens to forms of collective punishment; liberal democracies that pride themselves in maintaining the rule of law should not be following their pernicious example — especially at a moment when we are fighting to preserve our most fundamental values.

Democracies should do all they can to punish those who are responsible for the war in Ukraine. Go after Putin’s massive wealth. Seize the yachts and the mansions of the oligarchs who are propping him up. Bankrupt Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft.

But at the same time, democracies must find ways to demonstrate goodwill toward the Russian people. Throughout history, dictators have come and gone, but those they oppressed endured to live another day. And so we should never cease to hope that we may once again be able to celebrate our friendship with Russia — perhaps sooner than now seems likely.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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