Over the War in Ukraine, Do Not Conflate Russians with Putin

March 04, 2022
4 min read
Photo credit: Kutsenko Volodymyr / Shutterstock.com
The mass protests across Europe against President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine have been impressive, but unfortunately the reaction to the invasion has also had unpleasant sides.

Russians and Belarusians who live in the Baltic states, in Poland, Germany, or other European countries see themselves increasingly exposed to blind hatred. Although many of them had to flee Russia themselves, they are insulted, marginalized, and discriminated against. Landlords refuse to rent them an apartment; taxi drivers slam the door in their face; cars with Russian license plates are smeared and vandalized; and Russian restaurants and shops are boycotted, regardless of their owners’ political opinions.

I am writing these lines as a former journalist who firmly believes in the principle “write what is.” And because I have Russian neighbors in Berlin who have no sympathy for Putin and like their relatives in Russia are horrified by the war and afraid of being pigeonholed with the ruler in the Kremlin.

I fear that in the understandable wave of anger against Putin and his Belarus vassal President Alexander Lukashenka, the power to distinguish and differentiate will be lost. All too often, Russians and Belarusians are tarred with the same brush, equated with their regimes, and subjected to collective punishment.

This anger threatens to obscure other images that also exist, in a variety of ways: Russians and Belarusians protesting arm in arm with demonstrators in Berlin, London, Warsaw, and Paris against Putin’s war; thousands of courageous people taking to the streets in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Minsk, not afraid of being arrested and beaten up; an old Russian woman sitting quietly on the subway wearing a blue headscarf and a yellow coat, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, as her sign of resistance.

Putin’s and Lukashenka’s war against a neighboring country could make one forget that these two dictators have also long been waging a brutal war against their own people. Russians and Belarusians are their victims, too. In light of the increasing oppression in Russia and Belarus, it almost borders on a miracle that so many people are still publicly protesting against Putin’s and Lukashenka’s madness.

Putin’s and Lukashenka’s war against a neighboring country could make one forget that these two dictators have also long been waging a brutal war against their own people.

There is hardly any independent information circulating in either country. The media have been either brought into line or switched off. The award-winning documentary “[email protected] this Job” about Dozhd TV, the last independent Russian television station that has just been banned, is as enlightening as it is terrifying.

Where there is almost only news from one source, state or state-friendly media, it is not surprising that so many citizens fall for lies and deceptions. According to credible polls, around two-thirds of Russians believe Putin’s narrative. Despite this, there is no jubilation anywhere in Russia, unlike when Crimea was annexed. Rather, there is great malaise.

Whoever is brave enough to counter the Kremlin’s false messages must expect harsh consequences. The parliament has just passed a law that severely punishes “fake news” about the war. Whoever says or writes that Putin’s campaign is a war, an attack, or an invasion of Ukraine can now be sentenced up to 15 years in prison. Such repression is not new—critics and opposition members have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, banished to camps, exiled, or murdered for a long time.

The sanctions and boycott measures that the United States, the EU, and European countries have deployed against Russia in recent days are important and necessary. However, they affect almost every Russian and Belarusian, whether it is a Russian conductor or an opera singer who belongs to Putin’s circle of friends or a Paralympic athlete whose only “fault” is to have Russian citizenship.

Despite Putin’s war on Ukraine, we should not lose or give up the power to differentiate—it is not the average Russian or Belarusian attacking Ukraine, and many of them feel anger and shame about it. It is their governments that are waging a war of aggression. This must not be lost in reporting.

Russia’s War on Ukraine

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