The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to undermine Putin? Help Russians who are opposed to the war.

A passenger looks at a departures board at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on Feb. 28. (Stringer/REUTERS)

The United States, the European Union, Britain, and other supporters of democratic Ukraine have responded to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine with a remarkably broad set of sanctions against Russian companies and individuals. The E.U. has even moved forward with a ban of Russian oil imports, a major achievement.

And there is still much more the West can and should do on the sanctions front. Every day that Putin’s army remains in Ukraine is a day that the free world should ratchet up new sanctions.

At the same time, one aspect of the sanctions regime urgently needs fixing: the wrongful punishment of Russian opposition leaders, human rights activists and independent journalists who fled their homeland rather than support Putin’s war of aggression. Now, many of them are stuck in places such as Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus with only short-term tourist visas and limited access to their credit cards or European bank accounts. Some don’t even have passports or travel documents.

The fate of Dmitry Gudkov is illustrative. A decade ago, Gudkov was a young, charismatic rising star in the Russian parliament. Gudkov opposed many of the Kremlin’s favorite moves, such as the annexation of Crimea and the Anti-Magnitsky law (which sanctioned a number of U.S. officials and prohibited U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children). Back then, Gudkov was an elected member of parliament who sought to move his country toward democracy through peaceful cooperation, not confrontation, with other politicians. Today, however, Putin has demonstrated zero tolerance for any opposition.

So far, the democratic world has not done enough to help Gudkov and his family living in exile in Europe. He has been unable to open a bank account because he is considered a public official from Russia. He and his family entered Cyprus on tourist visas but can only obtain temporary resident status there if they open a bank account. Yet, his U.S. bank account has blocked his funds, pursuant to Executive Order 14024, and now requires a special license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control for their release.

Gudkov is a famous opposition leader and member of the Russian Anti-War Committee, a group of exiled Russian figures actively working against the war. Thousands of less well-known Russians who also fled after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 face similar challenges, but with little hope of convincing authorities that they deserve to access their credit cards and bank accounts or to receive visas, travel documents or temporary residency.

These are hard issues to fix. We should not give refugee status to Russians who support or were indifferent to the war — but we should certainly not punish those who actively resist Putin. It is in the long-term national interests of the United States, the E.U. and Ukraine to help those who have chosen exile over acquiescence with Putin’s policies. We should help them to foster opposition to the Kremlin — and especially those independent journalists who provide reporting that can filter back into Russia, offering urgently needed alternatives to government propaganda. Such Russians might someday return to their country and help to push it in a more democratic direction. The free world has every incentive to prepare for that day.

To help solve this problem, governments sanctioning Russian citizens should establish a “Russia freedom commission” of independent experts who could make recommendations about exiled Russian activists who need bank accounts, credit cards, travel documents, visas and work permits. Members of this commission could be drawn from the Russian Anti-War Committee, True Russia (another Russian group in exile dedicated to ending Putin’s war), human rights activists from both Russia and Ukraine, and nongovernment democracy promotion organizations that previously operated in Russia and therefore know the opposition movement well. A stamp of approval from this committee could help banks, landlords, credit card companies and governments when making decisions about these Russians living in exile.

The United States, the European Union, Britain, Canada and other democracies must also create special visa programs to actively encourage Russia’s best and brightest to emigrate. Even if such people don’t want to return to Russia any time soon, we should help them regardless. Encouraging brain drain also undermines the Putin regime over the long term by depriving the country of vitally needed talent. Those Russians with special skills already living abroad should be given accelerated opportunities to renounce their Russian citizenship and become citizens of their countries of residence. Israel and the Silicon Valley are just two places that have benefited tremendously from earlier waves of Russian emigration. We should be thinking creatively to facilitate this new wave now.

Sanctions against Russians in response to Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine are both just and effective. But we need them to work more fairly to bring an end to this war. We should not be inadvertently punishing those Russians willing to risk everything to oppose Putin.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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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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