Russian invasion: Why collective responsibility is not so “collective”?

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there has been an unprecedented number of sanctions imposed on Russia and Russian citizens. However, while 10,100 restrictions have been imposed, only a few of the 100 richest Russian individuals have been reached by them. While the UK only sanctioned 32 of these people, the EU sanctioned 26 and the US only 17. Now many of us wonder if there is a special reason why the most influential individuals are allowed to do business and travel freely around the world. 

Who is responsible for the invasion?

After February 24, 2022, the number of sanctioned companies reached 108, while the EU sanctioned over 1,200 individuals.

There’s a common understanding that all the Russian people are responsible for the crimes committed in Ukraine. After all, if they were not directly involved in actions against Ukraine, they have contributed to Putin being able to consolidate absolute power in a period of 22 years. Absolutism is one of the causes of Ukraine’s suffering, as it gave Putin the power and resources to make the decisions he made.

We can find a similar situation in Argentina, whose first football championship in 1978 is not a reason for pride in this country as it was held as a distraction while the police were murdering innocent people. With the support of the military board that was leading the country as a de facto regime, crimes against humanity were being committed.

Those who support the argument of collective responsibility say that culpability for a crime not only belongs to the perpetrator but also to accomplices and to those who don’t condemn it. Thus, roughly the 143 million people living in Russia follow into this category.

Apparently, supporters of such a theory have forgotten that many citizens fled Russia and others went to the streets to protest against the invasion and were thrown into jail. Besides, it’s not like the Kremlin shows on national TV the destroyed houses, the mass graves, the rape victims, and the Ukrainian mothers fleeing with their children. Russians most likely are not even aware of what’s being done in their names. Again, this was also the case in Argentina in the 70s.

The concept of collective responsibility for war is not new – the Germans are well aware of this. But this is the first time in the last 75 years that responsibility for military decisions of the government is being transferred to an entire nation, i.e., hundreds of millions of people. One can argue how justified this is, because over the past decades, military conflicts have flared up in different parts of the world, from Vietnam to El Salvador, but not a single powerful nation has ever received even a tenth of the blame that was placed on Russia. Perhaps this is because in the 20th century, after WWII, wars were a common instrument of politics, and in the 21st century this is perceived as a monstrous practice. Veterans of the war in Iraq will agree with this, but that cannot be an excuse in Ukraine, where the war has come too close to the borders of Europe.

Collective responsibility: shouldn’t it apply to everyone?

So, if the Russian people are held responsible for Putin’s actions, what about virtually 75% of Russia’s richest individuals? From the top 100 richest Russians (according to Forbes in 2021) only 32 have been sanctioned by the UK, and the EU and the US show even lower numbers.

Reports released by the Kyiv-based ICPS (International Center for Policy Studies) in 2019 and 2022 informed about certain people not being subject to sanctions. Yet, they have played a role in actions against Ukraine like the Donbas conflict or the annexation of Crimea. What’s even worse: these people still have an impact on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Being able to conduct business freely around the world, they continue to help the Kremlin thus counteracting the official sanctions. ICPS names those powerful Russians who are still not sanctioned, and this is a highly questionable international practice. If the collective West did not include 3/4 of the most influential Russians in the sanctions list, many of whom personally participated in inciting the conflict in eastern Ukraine, then why is the issue of Russian collective responsibility on the agenda at all? It is quite obvious that an ordinary Russian tourist in Europe cannot, for example, be compared with Igor Chayka, a prominent Russian businessman, son of ex-General Prosecutor of Russia Yuriy Chayka, and the brother of the corrupt businessman Artyom Chayka. Though both his relatives have been hit with heavy sanctions, Igor has managed to slip through the cracks. Although recently exposed by the US, he is still waiting for sanctions from the EU. Throughout his life, he’s used his father’s position to generate tons of capital and business opportunities. A few years ago, Igor started the company PKB, a real estate development firm that builds on occupied Crimean land, but as reported by ICPS he was not sanctioned for that. Alexei Navalny’s team exposed both Igor and Artyom for their corruption related to using their father’s connections to buy up huge amounts of foreign real estate.

Another clear example from the ICPS report is Ruslan Rostovtsev, known as the Coal King. Rostovtsev has been one of the most influential coal smugglers from Donbas for the past decade, supporting the Russian government and state-owned companies such as Russian Railways, according to data. His activities are directly related to the support of separatism, which led to the war in Ukraine. However, neither the name of Ruslan Rostovtsev, nor his company (for example, Swiss trader Kaproben Handels, as reported by ICPS) are found in any sanctions list.

This is surprising as Rostovtsev has been directly linked to the financing of the separatists in Ukraine for many years. Another hero of the study of the Ukrainian Institute, Igor Chayka, nevertheless came to the attention of Western legislators, then again, Rostovtsev, for whatever reason, seems to be off the hook. Also out of sight are dozens of Russian oligarchs, including those whose enterprises produce dual-use products.

How to make sanctions more effective

The goal of the sanctions must be to weaken Moscow’s destructive power over Ukraine. Moreover, they should create a gap between the Kremlin and the Russian oligarchy.

Some EU states are pleading for the removal of certain Russian influential people from the blacklists arguing that there are not enough legal foundations for such inclusions. However, this tepidity not only does not defend but directly harms Ukraine’s sovereignty. 

While some of Russia’s top millionaires continue to trade freely in fields like finances, metallurgy, and energy, they will be a source of funding and support for the Kremlin. The punishment must consist in actually limiting these people’s business possibilities thus leaving them no other choice than turn against Putin’s regime. All in all, if all the Russian people are being held responsible for the invasion, it’s only fair that those individuals whose activities have the highest impact on the economy and the political decisions have to answer too. After all, it seems that sanctions are hurting everyone except for those who are directly responsible or that can influence the decisions when it comes to the Kremlin’s foreign policies. In the meantime, hundreds of lives have been lost, money has been spent, and democracy is hanging by a thread.