Russians denounce ‘collective punishment’ for Ukraine invasion

Many Russians believe they are being unfairly punished for Putin’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine.

A Russian man exits from an exchange office in St Petersburg
A Russian man leaves an exchange office in St Petersburg [File: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA]

St Petersburg, Russia – The United States, the European Union and their allies have responded to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine with weapons shipments to the besieged country and imposing a harsh set of sanctions on the aggressor.

The anti-Russia measures include a plan to block selected Russian banks from the global financial system, as well as personal sanctions against President Vladimir Putin and his close associates.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared it was time to “squeeze Russia from the global economy, piece by piece”.

But many Russians believe they are being unfairly punished for their leader’s actions, feeling it amounts to collective punishment.

Putin’s United Russia party holds a strong majority among lawmakers, and opponents have often complained that elections are not free and fair, with protests breaking out over last year’s parliamentary plebiscite.

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks about authorising a special military operation in Ukraine's Donbass region during a special televised address on Russian state TV, in Moscow, Russia, February 24, 2022, in this still image taken from video. Russian Pool/via REUTERS TV/File Photo
Putin speaks about authorising a military operation in Ukraine [File: Screenshot/Russian Pool via Reuters]

While it is not yet clear how many Russians support their president’s decision, a poll by independent pollster Levada just days before the invasion showed that only 14 percent of Russians blamed Ukraine for the military standoff in the months preceding.

“The sanctions were imposed on ordinary people for the last eight years, and now there are new ones, too,” complained 35-year-old St Petersburg resident Kirill Fedorov to Al Jazeera, referring to the previous sanctions imposed on Russia after it occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas regions in 2014.

“Sanctions were imposed on Putin and his oligarchs only a couple of days ago, after this whole time!”

“At the same time, Europe knows perfectly well that we did not elect Putin and our vote doesn’t count, which brings out even more hatred [of Europe]. By imposing sanctions that have affected ordinary people, they have shown even more that they are the enemy.”

Crippling effect

Among the measures against Russia is a plan to block selected Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, a Belgian company that processes transactions for more than 11,000 financial institutions across the globe.

The move could have a crippling effect on the Russian economy by severely restricting business dealings with the outside world.

On Monday, the Russian rouble plunged to a record low of less than one US cent, losing more than 30 percent in value since the anti-Moscow steps where taken.

“The war itself will have a dramatic effect on the Russian and world economy. First, it is the loss of human life, both of military personnel and civilians – a long-lasting psychological impact. Although Russia has accumulated huge gold reserves, which would have let it survive previous sanctions for quite some time, now it will be used for the war machine,” said Inna Pomorina from Bath Spa University, who has signed an open letter by Russian economists condemning the war.

“Banning Russia from SWIFT as part of sanctions will be a major blow to Russian banks, as completing financial transactions will no longer be as simple for Russian businesses and for the Russian government,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Of course, sanctions will hurt ordinary people as well – they won’t be able to travel, prices will rise due to high inflation, many will lose their jobs, and international companies will stop operating in Russia.”

People stand in line to withdraw money from an ATM of Alfa Bank in Moscow
Russians flocked to banks and ATMs shortly after Russia attacked Ukraine and the West announced crippling sanctions [File: Victor Berzkin/AP]

Another measure being taken against Russia is the denial of visas, as well as European airspace closing to any flights from Russia. Several countries, including the Czech Republic, Latvia and Japan, have announced they would stop issuing visas for Russian citizens.

“Russia’s reckless attack forces us to be careful with Russians wishing to come to Belgium,” Belgium’s Minister of Immigration Sammy Mahdi said in a statement. “At the moment, Russians are not welcome here, a general visa ban for Russians [to the EU] should not be a taboo.”

“Frankly, I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States … should … be on the table. … Vladimir Putin needs to know every day that he is in Ukraine, there are more severe options that could come,” American lawmaker Eric Swalwell said during an appearance on CNN.

Swalwell faced fierce criticism for his remarks, with progressive podcaster Kyle Kulinski calling him a “raging bigot”.

Nowhere to run

A flight ban and visa ban on all Russian citizens would have more serious consequences than ruining a rich oligarch’s summer vacation.

Gay men in Chechnya in southern Russia, in particular, face honour killings at the hands of their families. In 2017, hundreds of gay men were rounded up by security forces and tortured at secret detention sites during a purge. Several were never seen again. Although the widespread homophobia in the rest of the country is not as murderous, LGBTQ people experience regular harassment and discrimination.

“In recent years, the situation for LGBT+ people has worsened significantly,” a representative of Charitable Foundation Sphere, an LGBTQ human rights organisation in Russia, told Al Jazeera, asking that their name be withheld for security reasons.

“Since 2013, we have been living with a so-called law ‘against LGBT propaganda’ which is in fact used to muzzle activism and crack down on awareness campaigns.”

The Charitable Foundation Sphere, which is currently fighting a lawsuit from the Ministry of Justice for allegedly promoting non-traditional values, operates an emergency assistance programme for spiriting at-risk individuals out of the country, and is currently on standby to help refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Their work was documented in the documentary film, Welcome to Chechnya.

The organisation fears that with a potential visa ban, gay men in Chechnya and others will have nowhere to run.

“If issuing visas to all Russians is paused, then that would mean a dire scenario for many LGBT+ people in Russia who sometimes find themselves in life-or-death situations for just being who they are,” said the representative.

“It would mean additional hurdles when providing assistance to people who desperately need it in a political and social climate where there is already a lot of social injustice, and where LGBT+ people are not treated as Russian citizens, but rather as a threat to the government ideology of ‘traditional values’.”

Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Saint Petersburg on February 27, 2022 [Sergei Mikhailchenko/AFP]
Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in central St Petersburg [File: Sergei Mikhailchenko/AFP]

Additionally, many opposition members and whistleblowers have sought refuge abroad, such as former inmate Sergey Savelyev who leaked videos of systemic torture in Russian prisons before fleeing to France last year, or Elena Milashina, the reporter who broke the story of the gay purge in Chechnya.

Meanwhile, Inna Pomorina is worried that European universities may burn bridges with Russian institutions.

“Cutting Russia from the West in academia will be a huge blow not just to Russian science,” she said.

“Science doesn’t have borders, but scientists need to exchange practices and ideas. It will be the dark ages in Russia again. I know some British universities are now cancelling Russian partners, and I don’t support it. This is Putin’s war, not the Russian people’s war.”

Source: Al Jazeera