Sanctions should target the Kremlin, not those fleeing from it

I am Russian and I left my country because I oppose its invasion of Ukraine. So why are Western companies denying me services?

A woman seen with a sign that reads 'Russians against war'
A woman is seen during a protest where Ukrainians and Russians living in Madrid gathered in front of the Russian embassy to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, March 12, 2022, Madrid, Spain [File: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images]

Having fled Moscow when the war started, I woke up in Yerevan, Armenia, the day after. I could finally exhale, it seemed like my fears were behind me. I would not be drafted into the military to fight my Ukrainian brothers and sisters. I could freely speak my mind against Putin’s regime, something I was prosecuted for in Russia. My taxes would no longer sponsor this war.

My sense of relief, to be safely out of the country, shattered after knowing all of my bank cards were about to become useless pieces of plastic. I could no longer pay for my hotel or even book a ride to our next destination. At the worst moment imaginable, being stranded abroad, Visa and MasterCard stopped servicing cards issued in Russia.

This did not mean that these cards would also be useless inside Russia. The country has its own banking system and can process transactions just fine without Visa or MasterCard. It only hit those who left, including thousands of people like me who spoke out against Putin’s regime, thus becoming criminals in their own country. We now either had to quickly find a way to open a local bank account in a country where we do not have residence or work, or go back to Moscow to avoid homelessness. (Staying in an Airbnb was not an option. The company announced that it would no longer serve customers from Russia and Belarus.)

I get where these companies are coming from. They want to be on the right side of history. They want to do their part. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the collective West was swept with an unprecedented wave of solidarity with Ukrainians and their plight. Washington, Brussels, London and beyond condemned President Vladimir Putin’s actions. Naturally, governments and private companies alike began to reconsider their relations with Russia.

The sanctions imposed on Russia and its citizens in retaliation against this war have no comparison in history. In just a couple of weeks, my country has become the most sanctioned nation in the world. With more than 6,000 restrictions, it has surpassed Iran and North Korea. To be sure, many of these restrictions are sensible. But others are devoid of logic.

In a pledge to stop doing business in Russia, Chanel is asking customers to confirm that they will not wear their luxury clothes in that country. What does this accomplish? Shoppers can lie. Or they can cut up their handbags in protest, as some Moscow influencers have done. This kind of virtue singling can do more harm than good when it targets the thousands of activists, journalists and people opposed to the war.

Instead of banning bank accounts of Russian officials and oligarchs, irrespective of the country where these cards are issued, Russians fleeing from the oppressive regime have to take the hit, as if they personally issued the order to bomb Ukrainian cities and to slaughter civilians. Indeed, we are not being bombed or tortured by the invaders. Military vehicles are not driving down our streets and our houses are not being shelled. But we are also affected by this war that was started against our will. We are fleeing our homes, leaving behind our jobs and loved ones, with the new Iron Curtain dropping on our heels. Many of us may never return.

In contrast, most of the restrictions imposed on Russia and Belarus barely hurt those in power. Unlike us common folk, regime enablers are not having panic attacks over being unable to book an apartment with Airbnb: they all own property in Europe anyway. They are not scared about not being able to buy milk for the kids because their ATM cards stopped working. Instead, these restrictions hurt those who never wished for this war in the first place, those brave enough to escape their home into the unknown. While Ukrainians are rightfully welcomed abroad, Russians and Belarusians cannot even dream of hospitality.

They are greeted with discrimination as if the world wants to reinforce Putin’s and Alexander Lukashenko’s ideology: the West is against you. You may not like your homeland but abroad is even worse. Consolidate behind us, stay home.

People fleeing Russia and Belarus are not the enemy. We are the harshest critics of those regimes, and, for many of us, the war on Ukraine was the last straw. While we knew that Putin and Lukashenko were monstrous, we hoped that one day we could build a better future for our countries. All these dreams vanished on February 24, the date no Russian will ever forget – the day we turned into de facto war criminals by no decision of our own.

A popular joke in Russia these days goes like this:

“This train is evil, you should stop it by any means.”

“How can I? The driver is mad, and it’s loaded with weapons.”

“Then you should jump in front of it, maybe it will slow down.”

“But I don’t want to die.”

“Well, clearly, you’re on the side of the train!”

Unfortunately, that sums up the exiles’ quandary. Those who fled are not cowards. We are not fleeing from minor discomforts, like the closure of McDonald’s or, well, Chanel boutiques. And as we try to escape, many Western corporations only complicate our rightful run to freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.