August 9, 2022 - 4:36pm

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on Western leaders to prevent Russians from living, travelling and working in their countries, insisting that the brutal war being waged by the Kremlin should have repercussions for its citizens as well.

“The most important sanctions are to close the borders,” he told The Washington Post on Monday. “Because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land,” Zelenskyy argued, they must “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”.

The idea is already a popular one. Just last week, Latvia and Bulgaria reportedly stopped issuing most types of visa from their Moscow consulates, while Finland and Estonia have previously called on the EU to bar the country’s 150 million citizens from the bloc. Other states are said to have put Russians to the back of the queue, pledging to process any and all paperwork from Ukrainians first.

Though it may be tempting to make ordinary Russians pay the price for their politicians’ crimes, the strategy may well backfire.

When I left Moscow for Istanbul earlier this year, my plane was packed with those fleeing the repercussions of the war — fearing economic chaos and political repression back home. With their bank cards cut off by sanctions, the Russians I knew traded cash, offered each other sofas to sleep on and talked endlessly about the horrors of the conflict.

One, a twenty-something barista named Sasha, told me he had never been out of the country before — but had always dreamed of working in the West. Yet, having volunteered for jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s campaign, he knew he had to leave when he got his paperwork for military service. “I hate Putin as much as my Ukrainian friends do,” he said, “after all, he f*cked my country first”. He now hopes to relocate to Germany.

Others found it easier to leave because they have good jobs in technology, working remotely or for international companies where they can be re-assigned. The Kremlin has already been forced to admit it is facing severe problems in a number of sectors of the economy because highly skilled specialists are packing up and leaving.

Blocking dissidents from escaping and helping prevent Russia’s ongoing brain drain doesn’t help Ukraine — it helps Putin. And worse still, it won’t even hurt the right Russians. The well-heeled elites who have profited off his system of crony capitalism are far more likely to have foreign passports bought and paid for through investment schemes from countries like Cyprus and the UK. They will still be jetting off to Paris to shop for the luxury brands that have pulled out of Russia, while ordinary people like Sasha suffer. On top of that, every young man like him who dodges the draft and leaves the country rather than be conscripted to the front lines is another Russian soldier the Ukrainians don’t have to kill

However, not every Russian is a dissident or a refusenik. While polls are mixed and independent data is hard to come by, it is clear that the majority of the country’s citizens support the war. Even those who don’t aren’t making their voices heard on the streets given the potential cost of speaking out is so high. The complaints heard in the streets of Moscow are more about the lack of Western products on the shelves than they are about the killings being committed in their name.

While the state and its media outlets are doing everything to convince ordinary Russians that they are despised, suspected and persecuted abroad, that’s just a propaganda line. In reality, it benefits all of Europe, including Ukraine, to welcome those who reject Putin’s war with open arms.

Gabriel Gavin is a Moscow-based journalist who has covered Eastern Europe for many publications.