27th Nov 2022


'Collective guilt' — the dilemma of penalising Russia's opposition

  • The Kremlin. 'We believe that, in the current situation, Vladimir Putin can only profit from an isolation of Russia's democrats — whether in exile or in Russia itself' (Photo: davidgordillo)
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With Vladimir Putin's escalation of the war against Ukraine through military mobilisation and the subsequent fear and unrest in Russia itself, the question of Putin's political future and possible regime change in Russia has reappeared as a topic in the world's democracies.

Meanwhile, in this context, the East-West split in the EU over Russian tourist visas in August (temporarily settled by a compromise) points to a larger dilemma: how should the EU, and indeed the entire West, view Russia's democratic opposition (even if it is currently mostly in exile or in prison)? Should the concept of collective guilt be applied to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine?

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Combined with the renewed unrest in Russia, both from the nationalist right, but also from a reawakened non-authoritarian centre, this dilemma can only gain in relevance as the war in Ukraine progresses, and relations between the EU and a future Russia become even more relevant.

There is now a growing disparity between those in the EU that believe Russian democrats should receive further support, and those who advocate cutting ties with all Russians, declaring the Russian people per se responsible for the war.

The first group believes in the possibility of a Russian democracy.

The second is extremely sceptical, to say the least, regarding the chances of a future Russian democracy that will agree to be held accountable for the current war.

This second group does not believe in a real possibility of democracy in Russia because they believe that the majority of the Russian people genuinely support Putin's aggression, as the Levada Center's recent opinion polls were showing.

For the time being, this second group of 'non-believers' has a majority among Europeans, it seems. This second group of Europeans is scared not only by Putin's aggression but also by the condition of the Russian nation.

That fear is especially prominent in the northern and eastern European countries, which are neighbouring Russia and have historical experience with Russian imperial aggressiveness, which explains their advocacy to prohibit tourist visas for all Russians. That fear is not so observable in the southern and western European countries, and this is what makes EU's East-West division visible.

Believers vs non-believers

However, the real division in Europe on this issue is not between southwest and northeast. The real division is between 'believers' and 'non-believers' in Russian democracy.

Some of those who do not believe in the democratic future of Russia also tend to declare that all Russians are guilty and responsible for Putin's aggression. Other 'non-believers' simply do not see the need to engage with Russian democrats and they are ready to arrange themselves with permanent neighbourhood to an authoritarian Russia, and some are even ready to maintain "a dialogue" with such a Russia.

In the fresh debate about Russians' reactions to Ukraine's successful counteroffensive, each side sees its view corroborated: while believers emphasise the renewed courage of democrats such as the growing number of city council members from Moscow and St Petersburg, non-believers tend to draw attention to Putin's critics from the Right, in TV talk shows and social media.

We believe that, in the current situation, Putin can only profit from an isolation of Russia's democrats — whether in exile or in Russia itself.

Ukrainians' rejection of any future relationship with the entirety of the Russian nation is understandable.

The distrust of non-believers in EU and Nato member states vis-à-vis all Russians has a logical basis in the developments of the last 22 years. West Europeans need to acknowledge this more clearly.

And yet, it would be folly to forego a strong anti-Putin alliance including democratically-minded Russians. Just as the allies of the World War II anti-Hitler alliance included German democrats, Putin's Russian democratic enemies are essential to bring Putin down, and at least open up the chance of a better Russia.

A possible military defeat for Russia in Ukraine may very likely result in a regime change in Russia itself, and while there is no certainty about its character and direction, by the time Putin leaves the Kremlin — probably against his will — Russia will be in such a terrible state that his successors will have very strong incentives to fundamentally change the direction of the country.

While an even further radicalisation of Russia's posture is possible in the short-run, such a development will prove unsustainable for Russia, and change is then very likely to take a radically different direction: a clear departure from the oppression at home and the aggression abroad of the Putin era.

For this moment, the West needs to be prepared. It is therefore essential to cultivate close ties to those Russians that will be indispensable to a radical change of course of the country.

The precedent of the Nazis

Those Russians who have suffered under Putin, been imprisoned by his regime and taken personal risks that most Westerners have never known in their lifetimes, deserve the clear support of the West.

Their networks in Russia should be supported by whatever means still possible. Their organisations and structures in exile should receive every imaginable political and material support — provided, of course, they have clear anti-Kremlin credentials.

In the first years after the defeat of Hitler's Germany in 1945, "collective guilt" — blaming all Germans for Nazi aggression — was the guideline for the Allies to deal with the German people.

This strategy was deliberately ended after it was understood that the building of a democratic Germany would be jeopardised in this manner. Collective guilt was replaced by a more selective approach in which Germans who had demonstrably resisted the Nazis, were fully integrated into the effort of remaking Germany.

Of course, history doesn't repeat itself. But it rhymes.

The West should heed the lessons of history. Russia's democrats are essential for building a better Russia, and a better future for all of Europe.

Author bio

Radek Sikorski MEP is a former foreign minister of Poland. Andrius Kubilius MEP is a former prime minister of Lithuania. Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz MEP is a former prime minister of Poland. Bernard Guetta is a French MEP with Renew Europe. Sergey Lagodinsky is a German MEP with the Greens. Anders Åslund is an economist and former senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think-tank. Roland Freudenstein is vice-president of GLOBSEC, a think tank in Bratislava.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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