Expelling the “Putin generation” from Western universities will not help
The criminal decision to attack Ukraine will cost everyone in Russia, but not as much as the Ukrainians. Among the Russians who will suffer the most are members of the country’s most globalized and open generation: the “Putin generation”, people born just before he became prime minister in 1999 or soon after. These people only knew Putin as the leader of Russia, and now they will see him take away their future and their aspirations.
This generation is suddenly stuck in the middle of the backlash of Putin’s invasion. The University of Tartu, Estonia is restricting applications from Russia and Belarus due to sanctions. Some US officials are pushing to do the same in the United States, with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) suggesting “kick all Russian students out of the United States” in response to the war.
That would be counterproductive – give Putin a propaganda victory and alienate precisely those people most likely to turn against him. The war has prompted some Westerners to argue that all Russians are responsible for Putin’s war, that we are all guilty. Even if that’s true, the younger generation is the least complicit. And cutting Russia’s future ties with the West in the name of punishing Putin will only make existing problems worse.
These are the people who are detained at anti-war rallies across Russia and then expelled from their universities for protesting the invasion. This is the generation that saw popular leader Alexei Navalny arrested a year ago, and who now has to live with a potential 15-year prison sentence for spreading “fake news” about Russia’s war. And ultimately, it is the generation that will have to rebuild the country once this regime is gone and Russia has a chance to start afresh. But for now, they face an increasingly repressive government that sees enemies in anyone who dares to question Putin’s war of aggression. This digital-born generation is the least prone to propaganda (they don’t usually watch TV for their news) and are therefore a major source of concern for Russian authorities in times of war and economic hardship.
Students who have been protesting in Saint Petersburg or have been detained in Novosibirsk for the past few days have not been given the opportunity to pack their bags and leave for Armenia or Turkey, as some other Russians have done – they will have to persevere through Russia’s worst years. since the fall of the Soviet Union. The regime will certainly try to break their spirit, arrest the most active and ambitious, and keep the rest in line with fear.
One way to complicate Putin’s task is to deny him the chance to convince young Russians that there is no hope and that they are alone. It is in the interest of the West to communicate the idea that a Russia without Putin – a democratic Russia – will be welcomed back into the world community after dealing with the crimes that Putin committed. Russians need a vision in which their nation is not a permanent pariah state.
There is no going back with Putin as president. They know that. We all know that. But can this generation of young Russians hope that once Putin is gone, the West will give them a chance at redemption and offer them a future whose vision can keep them alive today?
Putin’s Russia cannot be defeated by war: it is a nuclear power with the most warheads in the world. The regime can only be changed by a popular protest, a coup or an act of God. There will be no occupying forces like in Germany in 1945 for de-Putinization or external control. If the West wants to defeat Putin, sanctions are not enough: it needs allies within. Russian youth is the most natural ally of all. If they don’t come to terms with the new reality they face — if they keep their protests going and don’t lose heart — they might just be able to keep Putin’s remaining term short.
Ukraine, of course, is now the main priority. It is imperative to provide all available assistance to help Ukraine and Ukrainians survive this war. But Russia will not disappear when the bombing stops. The West should not make it easy for Putin in the name of punishing him.