Perspectives September 29, 2022
To Support Ukraine, We Should Help Rights Activists from Russia and Belarus
Despite ferocious persecution, grassroots activists in Russia and Belarus are fighting for a democratic future. Helping them helps Ukraine, too.
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military recaptured considerable territory from invading Russian forces in the eastern part of the country. This progress is yet another indication of the overwhelming resilience, bravery, and moral conviction of the Ukrainian people as they defend their sovereign territory from Moscow’s full-scale, imperialistic invasion.
The only acceptable outcome of this war is a Ukrainian victory on Ukraine’s terms. Anything less presages further Russian aggression abroad and jeopardizes US national security interests by undermining the foundations of a rules-based international order on which vast security and economic interests are grounded. From Moldova to Georgia, and now Ukraine, Russia under Vladimir Putin has repeatedly violated the territorial integrity of its Eurasian neighbors. This is the Kremlin’s playbook, and other authoritarians are watching closely. An international order that prohibits violent campaigns to redraw borders by force is at stake in this war.
Alongside publicly vetted weapons shipments, defensive pacts such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), development assistance, and humanitarian aid for Ukrainians, international support for Ukrainian civil society remains an urgent need. But a strategy for victory in Ukraine also demands support for Russian and Belarusian activists, who are bravely confronting the authoritarian abuses in their countries that culminated in the Russian military’s brutal invasion.
Challenging local autocrats helps Ukraine
Thousands of Russian and Belarusian human rights defenders, democratic activists, opposition leaders, and independent journalists continue to fight for a democratic future for their countries, despite suffering decades of repression. In Russia, Putin’s violent imperial ambitions have grown in tandem with the brazen persecution of the Russian opposition and of Russian civil society. In Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka—who by all credible accounts lost the presidency to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the 2020 election, but managed to cling to power by cracking down on the months-long prodemocracy protests that ensued—dragged his country into the war by allowing Russian military assets to be staged from Belarusian territory. Now, despite the fact that only 30 percent of Belarusians support the war, Lukashenka and his domestic allies are complicit in the Kremlin’s war effort. One is hard-pressed to imagine that the unspeakable war being waged in Ukraine could be prosecuted by a free Russia and a free Belarus.
Supporting Russian and Belarusian democrats is both morally right and strategically sound. Since the outbreak of the war, we have witnessed remarkable grassroots resistance in both countries. Belarusian activists and “hacktivists” have repeatedly disrupted Belarusian railways, delaying or impeding the transport of Russian military assets within their territory. Outside its borders, the Belarusian diaspora has been vocally antiwar, supporting Ukrainian refugees and collecting and delivering humanitarian assistance.
In Russia, over 15,000 people were arrested when the war began for opposing their government’s unprovoked aggression, with thousands more incarcerated in the months since. On March 6 alone, around 5,000 people were arrested—the highest number of detentions in a single day since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian government rapidly passed new laws imposing multiyear jail sentences for speaking freely about the war, criticizing the government, or engaging in many forms of civic action. State media in both Belarus and Russia label democracy supporters as “terrorists” and “extremists,” and many activists in both countries have been forced to flee.
Many remain though, at great personal risk. There have been numerous instances where Russian citizens have removed the “Z” symbols in their communities, which had been placed by authorities to signal support for the war. Open letters and antiwar petitions to Russian authorities have been signed by thousands. And now, as crowds have turned out in cities across the country to protest Putin’s recent announcement of a wartime mobilization, the need to support those principally opposed to the regime is even greater. Aid to Russia’s right defenders may be the key in shifting the perspective of those opposed to the regime’s conscription to one of principled disavowal of the Kremlin's revanchist adventurism.
These brave individuals need our support. The next generation of political and civic leaders faces daunting challenges as they work to offer a new democratic vision for Russia and Belarus. Here are concrete steps that the United States and other democratic allies can take now:
- Establish a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia during the ongoing 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council.
- Urge corporations and other organizations to cease indiscriminate denials of service to Russian and Belarusian passport holders and their nonprofit organizations registered in third countries. Many have refused to provide services (e.g., opening bank accounts) or have suspended support to individuals from Russia and Belarus for fear the provision of services will run afoul of international sanctions laws (e.g., canceling automated newsletters from dissident-run groups, and even revoking university scholarships). Democratic governments should work with corporations to ensure their efforts to comply with sanctions and mitigate other risks are not unfairly penalizing human rights defenders and civil society organizations.
- Continue to support the relocation of at-risk Belarusian and Russian human rights defenders seeking temporary or permanent relocation by providing flexible and rapid visa processing. Provide financial and logistical assistance to exiled Belarusians and Russians to support their continued work.
- Continue to utilize the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights violations related to the war in Ukraine, as well as within Russia, and take action where feasible on recommended responses.
- Advocate for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus and Russia.
Russian and Belarusian activists are upending their lives and risking their safety to demand an end to authoritarian rule and to oppose the brutal invasion of their peaceful and democratic neighbor. Support for their fight is a critical part of a larger effort: to defeat tyranny, uphold the post–World War II prohibition against wars of conquest, and create conditions for the expansion of democracy and freedom.