Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have closed their doors to military reservists fleeing from Russia to avoid being forced to fight in Ukraine. Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets argued that Putin’s decision to send hundreds of thousands of reservists to the front “reinforces the sanctions we have imposed to date, because it will hopefully increase discontent among the population”—and that providing the reservists with asylum in Estonia would undermine that effect.
The country’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, spelled out her theory of ordinary Russians’ collective guilt for Putin’s war. “Every citizen is responsible for the actions of their state,” Kallas said, “and Russians are no exception. Therefore we do not give asylum to Russian men who flee their country. They should oppose the war.”
Lithuania will not be granting asylum to those who are simply running from responsibility. Russians should stay and fight. Against Putin.
— Gabrielius Landsbergis🇱🇹 (@GLandsbergis) September 23, 2022
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, echoed the sentiment—with an extra dose of contempt for the Russians fleeing from conscripted service, saying that his country wouldn’t be offering asylum to those who are “simply running from responsibility” instead of staying in the country and participating in a hypothetical revolution against Putin’s government.
That’s contemptible nonsense. As a matter of morality, people fleeing from being forced to serve in an unjust war—one in which they had no say—deserve asylum. And as a matter of practicality, refusing to give it to them is a massive gift to Vladimir Putin.
The Theory of Collective Guilt
The assumption about collective guilt explicitly articulated by Lauri Laanemets, Kaja Kallas, and Gabrielius Landsbergis is the same one implicit in the decisions of the EU and the United States to impose sweeping sanctions that immiserate ordinary Russians rather than sticking to targeted sanctions of individual oligarchs.
The first question to ask any American who nods along with making a powerless Russian citizen answerable for Putin’s war crimes is whether they would want such a standard applied to the actions of their government.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, offering justifications for the war that made about as much sense as Putin’s bluster about “demilitarizing and denazifying” Ukraine. The official theory was that (a) Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and (b) despite his record of brutally suppressing Islamists, there was an unacceptable risk that Saddam would decide for some reason to share these WMDs with his mortal enemies in al Qaeda. Of course (b) never made sense, and the Bush administration was simply lying about (a).
According to a peer-reviewed study published in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet, 654,965 “excess deaths” occurred in Iraq between 2003 and 2006—the year the study was published. That’s 654,965 human beings (who would otherwise have been alive) killed in the first three years of the war. And the escalating waves of chaos and bloodshed unleashed by the invasion displaced 9.2 million Iraqis from their homes.
How much responsibility for these horrors do you think falls to ordinary working-class Americans, who weren’t exactly consulted by the White House or the Pentagon before making foreign policy decisions? However much that is, even less should fall on ordinary Russians.
The rise of the military-industrial complex and the concentration of war-making power in the executive branch have made foreign policy far more insulated from public opinion than other policy areas. Even so, American wars, unlike Russian wars, are started by presidents who can actually be voted out of office in real multi-party elections. Many people believe George W. Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore, but no one really disputes the legitimacy of his victory against John Kerry in 2004—a year after Bush started the Iraq War.
Of course, America’s quasi-official “two-party system,” reinforced by the various quirks of our election system, mean that voters are in practice often presented with depressingly narrow choices. But Russian voters don’t even have as much choice as that. Putin is essentially a dictator. Even his admirers don’t generally bother to pretend that Russia has free and fair elections.
As a college student in 2002 and 2003, I spent a lot of time marching in anti-war protests and participating in planning meetings for such protests in church basements. Getting a permit generally wasn’t a big problem, and the rallies were well-attended. Ordinary Russians trying to do the same thing today are met with brutal repression.
Under these circumstances, blaming any random resident of Moscow or St. Petersburg just trying to go about their life for the actions of the Russian government is far more absurd than blaming random residents of New York or Chicago for the decisions of the Bush administration in 2003. But the statements made by Laanemets, Kallas, and Landsbergis are even worse than that. The Russians they’re blaming are ones who are taking the dramatic step of leaving the country to avoid having to serve in Putin’s war.
A Gift to Putin
If the EU or China or some other power had possessed the inclination and the ability to intervene in some significant way to stop Bush in 2003, what would I have wanted them to do?
If they could have prevented the war from happening at all (or quickly ended it) by sponsoring peace negotiations, I certainly would have supported that. If they’d engaged in targeted sanctions against people like President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and politically connected American “oligarchs” (like the CEO of Halliburton), I’m sure I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. But one thing I can’t imagine that I would have wanted as a passionate anti-war activist was for other countries to find ways to punish ordinary Americans who had nothing to do with Bush’s decision.
It's hard to overstate how thoroughly you have to dehumanize someone to say they should be forced to stay in a situation where they’re in grave danger of dying for a cause in which they don’t believe—just to make sure they’re on hand to participate if a revolution breaks out against their government. Or even just so that whatever they’re feeling about being used as cannon fodder in an imperial war can contribute to the general level of “discontent” in their society.
Morally, that’s an obscenity. As a matter of practical politics, it’s asinine—not just because refusing to extend asylum for reservists fleeing service helps ensure that Putin has all the bodies he needs to stuff into uniforms and send off to die in Ukraine, but because the message being sent is monumentally counterproductive for anyone who actually does want to undermine Putin’s domestic support.
That message is, essentially, “We see the entire Russian people as a sort of hive mind within which we’re locked in mortal combat. If you’re a Russian who doesn’t want to participate in the war, we’ll still blame you for it and find ways to punish you.”
This is, of course, exactly the way that Putinists want Russians to think—that the enemies of the government are the enemies of the Russian nation as a whole, that everyone in the country is in this together, and that the choices are victory over those enemies or a collective humiliation from which no one will be spared. That’s the message that reactionary warmongering nationalists always want to send to their populations: “You’re on our team whether you want to be or not. Our enemies make no distinctions between us and you.”
I can see why Vladimir Putin and his supporters would want to spread that message. But I cannot for the life of me see why anyone else would want to reinforce it.