People think that all Russians are complicit in the current invasion of Ukraine. What they don’t realize is the extent to which Russian citizens are being silenced by their own government in this matter. Starting February 24th the Russian government made it a criminal offense punishable by over a decade in prison to spread information regarding the invasion of Ukraine that is not consistent with official propaganda. Furthermore, it became a criminal offense to conduct any action which is deemed as “discrediting” towards the Russian army’s activities in Ukraine. Putin has ruthlessly enforced this to all of his citizens ranging from the rich to the poor.
Putin’s Russia has been critiqued as authoritarian however these new regulations, limiting the ability to openly express one’s position on an international issue, is a new level of authoritarianism. Disturbingly, these regulations extend not only to individuals inside the Russian Federation but also those outside who can be convicted In Absentia. These laws are anything but hypothetical according to fieldwork conducted by international NGO Human Rights Watch. Almost 100 people including minors have already been charged with a criminal offense due to such activities. One convicted individual even received 7 years in prison. Naturally, protesters have been arrested and more than 5000 websites considered to be propagating fake news because they don’t support Russian aggression have been taken down.
The West must consider these limitations when critiquing and penalizing Russian citizens. It must be remembered that even those who live abroad may have family, friends or business interests within Russia that could be at immediate risk should political opinions that are deemed “controversial” inside Russia be expressed. Entire sectors of the global economy, including food, energy and fertilizer, have been paralyzed as a result of sanctions being levied against people who the international community deems to be beneficiaries of the Russian government.
While we cannot argue that none who have been accused and sanctioned are guilty, there are some innocent Russian citizens who have been severely harmed as a result of this blanket approach to sanctions which sees all Russians as complicit. Countries like Switzerland for example, although traditionally more neutral in their policy, blindly jumped on the EU bandwagon when it came to sanctions. This is without giving those on the receiving end the right to a fair trial, or even considering how this negatively impacts Switzerland’s own national interest.
This is extremely problematic not only because of the way it has been negatively impacting the food, energy and fertilizer markets globally but from, as noted, a rule of law and human rights perspective. If we take a historical example, sure there were Germans who were supportive of the Nazi party during the Second World War, but there were also those who fought tooth and nail quietly to overcome the tyranny and authoritarianism that had befallen their country. The intention is not to draw a comparison between Putin and Hitler, but rather to underscore the danger of making assumptions regarding affiliations without considering what can and cannot be publicly expressed by Russians. Not everybody can afford to be a political refugee and until this horrendous war in Eastern Europe is over, European authorities must look beyond the pale and understand that more often than not, there is more to consider than meets the eye.
Philippe Rossi is a native of Switzerland, born, raised and educated in Zurich. He is passionate about history and political philosophy. Phillippe has been a strong advocate for an autonomous, strong and independent Switzerland and operates the Twitter channel Schweizer Autonomie