Europe must sanction Russia while still supporting its citizens
At the very least, the West must offer asylum to the brave Russians protesting the Ukraine invasion
The response in Europe to the Russian aggression in Ukraine primarily rests on sanctions. Some unprecedented decisions have been made to supply arms, possibly including fighter jets, to Ukraine. As other military assistance is apparently unlikely, public discourse abounds with demands of ever harder sanctions to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine and to deter Russia from further aggression. The hope is to make sanctions so painful that Vladimir Putin’s regime will lose its grip on power. The Western or even worldwide response may also set a highly important precedent, particularly with regard to China and its unresolved claims on Taiwan. If no decisive and genuinely painful action is taken now, then China may feel emboldened and soon follow Russia’s example.
On the other side of the fence are two arguments. One is about economic and political self-interest. Germany, Italy, Hungary and other European states are critically dependent on Russian fossil fuels. Even Poland finds itself in a position of dependence on Russian coal. Despite best efforts – which are currently underway – it is not possible to swiftly overturn these dependencies, which have built up over time. Under various scenarios and maximal investments in alternative suppliers, it appears that far from all of Europe’s demand for industrial production and heating cannot be replaceable over the coming year. In any case, the dramatic surge in energy prices and inflation across the West, even prior to the Russian invasion, is a severe political problem for many leaders.
However, aside from the interests of the rich countries, we must recognise the effect on states that depend on remittances from Russia or even basic supplies of food. Lebanon, for instance, where there is already a severe humanitarian crisis, is dependent on wheat from both Ukraine and Russia.
The second argument is of a moral kind, concerning whether sanctions are deserved. It is not clear how many Russians support the current course of the regime. There seems to be certainly less enthusiasm than in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Public discourse and opinion is clearly extremely skewed, censored and manipulated. Thousands of Russians have nonetheless faced heavy police repression and come out to protest against the war. Public letters and appeals by scientists, some remaining independent journalists – led by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper – add to the chorus. Nonetheless, one needs to assume that significant parts of Russian citizens still support Putin.
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There is a legitimate argument that sanctions should be broad and felt by Russia’s entire population, in order to change the regime’s course of action or at least to punish it and express firm solidarity with Ukraine. Yet given the Russian regime has been ever more effective in suppressing dissent and closing down alternatives, we must differentiate between the regime and the people. Even if a significant number of people have a change of heart – and, crucially, are not driven by sanctions into the regime’s arms – there will be extremely slim chances of regime change, at least under current conditions.
In this situation, the European approach to sanctions crossed a rubicon over the weekend. Global payment provider SWIFT was cut off for approximately 70% of the Russian banking sector and, even more drastically, the international reserves of the Russian Central Bank are due to be frozen. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, were also directly sanctioned, which was long overdue.
It remains to be seen whether the list of sanctioned decision-makers and close circle around Putin is extensive enough. In any case, these are welcome and overdue steps. More importantly, the scope and impact of restricting SWIFT transactions will need to be closely monitored. One of the reasons not to exclude all Russian banks was, according to the German foreign minister, to limit the impact on civil society. Yet many Russian professionals may not be able to receive salaries from their international employers and the impact may be greater still on Russia’s migrants and other economically disadvantaged groups trying to send or to receive remittances.
At the very least, there must be longer-term opportunities for those Russians who are already in Europe
When it comes to sanctioning human mobility, the West may already be close to overstepping the mark. So far, the EU has only changed or cancelled ‘privileged access’ for business purposes and diplomats. Regular visa policy (tourism or otherwise) has not been changed, at least not officially.
Yet several central and eastern EU member states have allegedly stopped processing any Russian visa applications. More importantly, this weekend the entire EU closed its airspace to Russia, which in turn retaliated.
The list of obstacles gets worse. It is not clear whether European consulates can and will continue to operate in Russia, at least at their usual capacity. Countless international academic and cultural exchange programmes, donors, companies and others are either calling for severing ties with Russia or already pulling out of the country, if they have not been pushed out and banned by Russian authorities already. This means that the supporting infrastructure for issuing visas is breaking down.
Ultimately, this may mean that Russians who oppose the current regime – openly or covertly – may need to resort to applying for asylum at EU land borders, if they can reach them. In 2020, roughly 10 000 Russians applied for asylum worldwide. But the chances of Russians’ applications being approved are low in some of the main European destination countries, including Germany. In the past, most approvals concerned Chechens and LGBTQ+ activists. It is possible that the EU will soon change its guidance on asylum applications from Russia and that various member states will change their assessment on the ground. Some political actors have called for any Russians who want to refuse to serve the army to be granted temporary humanitarian protection in the EU. This initiative deserves more support. Ukrainian authorities have allegedly offered amnesty and a substantial financial compensation to any Russian soldier who surrenders.
If one follows the argument made by German chancellor Olaf Scholz in a historic speech last weekend, Europe needs to maintain its connection to the Russian people and do everything it can to support the brave protesters there. At the very least, this means asylum for anyone involved, if they need it and apply for it.
Needless to say, Europe needs to first do whatever it can to support Ukraine. The plight of Ukrainians is the first priority, they need security and dignity. Ukrainians should be allowed to move in the Schengen zone, connect with family, and work if they want to. Yet Europe also needs to prepare for, and support, more Russian emigration in the near to medium future. The brain drain on Russia has already been substantial in the past decade. It should not, under other circumstances, be welcomed. But in these times, anyone who turns their back and leaves the country should be welcomed here.
It needs to be remembered that regular, legal migration beyond short-term stays or beyond asylum is hardly regulated at the EU level. So it is up to each member state to keep its doors open to Russian citizens. At the very least, there must be longer-term opportunities for those Russians who are already in Europe, such as students. We cannot ask them to return home if they do not want to.
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