(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

Within hours of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, refugees reached the border with Poland. Since then, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 800,000 refugees have crossed Ukraine’s borders into neighboring States, where they have been received with support from the European Union (EU) and the United States. The swift action and efforts to open borders are encouraging; anything less would risk trapping civilians in an active conflict zone. But while general humanitarian aid is essential to accommodate the expected millions fleeing the conflict, Ukraine’s allies should also provide immediate, strategic support to individuals who may be targeted for reprisals by Russian authorities, specifically human rights defenders, journalists, as well as political exiles from authoritarian states. As intelligence reports have suggested, Ukrainian and foreign activists – democracy’s vocal defenders – may be singled out for attacks by Russia.

As of 2021, Freedom House documented over thirty physical acts of transnational repression – attempts to silence dissent beyond its borders through physical violence or other coercion – committed by Russia since 2014. Increasingly, Russian authorities have also helped other repressive States, including Belarus, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, reach political activists and dissidents who reside in Russia. Among other dangers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to extend the reach of these authoritarian practices and endanger civil society activists who had previously found safe haven in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Civil Society is at Risk

Ukraine’s civil society is exceptionally vibrant. Widespread civic mobilization was crucial during both the Orange Revolution in 2005 and the Maidan Revolution in 2014. A dozen activists who participated in protests in 2014 were elected to the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) and others joined regional and local councils around the country. Ukrainian civil society was instrumental in providing military supplies to the under-resourced Ukrainian army when Russian-backed forces began an armed conflict in the east of the county in 2014. Since then, non-governmental groups have worked hard to help internally displaced people including through programs that support young people and women. Though it has faced challenges, today Ukraine’s civic sector represents a wide range of causes and identities, including free expression, anti-corruption, and LGBT+ rights. Many of these same civic causes have been under attack in Russia for years.

Last week, reporting revealed that U.S. intelligence was aware of lists, drafted by the Russian government, of people in Ukraine who would be arrested or assassinated following the invasion. Russian and Belarusian dissidents, journalists, activists, religious and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQI+ individuals were identified as potential targets, and the U.S. government has reportedly warned individuals of the threats against them. Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to confirm these chilling reports when he declared the invasion on Feb. 24, saying, “We will hand over everyone who committed bloody crimes against civilians, including Russian citizens, to court,” in a thinly-veiled threat to people his government broadly defines as opposition.

In addition to Ukrainian activists, the country is also home to many foreign activists. Ease of entry facilitated by Ukraine’s visa-free entry regime for citizens of dozens of countries makes it a natural refuge for people escaping repressive regimes and a hub of diaspora activism. Now, Ukraine’s uniquely inclusive civil society landscape may provide the Kremlin with an abundance of individuals it views as politically threatening to target for repression.

Russia Targets – and Helps Other States Target – Activists

These are credible threats. Russia has a history of extraterritorial killings and renditions, including in Ukraine, and it routinely assists Central Asian States and Belarus in their campaigns against dissidents abroad. In April 2020, Ukrainian authorities arrested a major general in the Security Service of Ukraine on suspicion that he was working with the Russian intelligence services on an assassination plot against Adam Osmayev, a pro-Ukrainian Chechen fighter. Osmayev was injured and his wife was killed in October of 2017, just a few months after surviving another assassination attempt in Kyiv. In 2018, Ukrainian authorities warned exiled Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, of a Russian plan to murder him. Such plots will only be easier to execute in the midst of conflict and occupation.

Russia not only engages in transnational repression directly. It also helps other States to pursue their dissidents within its sphere of control.  Wherever the Russian government controls territory, activists, members of civil society, and political dissidents are at risk. Following a mass protest movement in response to fraudulent elections, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko undertook an aggressive campaign to pursue opponents within Belarus and abroad, relying especially on Russian assistance. The world was stunned when Minsk forced the landing of a RyanAir flight to arrest a dissident journalist on board, but Belarus has also extracted dozens of its citizens from Russian territory, with the full cooperation of Russian authorities. Many had been living in Russia for years and had done little except post messages of support for pro-democracy protests in their home country. Ukraine today is home to thousands of Belarusians who fled Minsk’s brutal repression. Their safety has been stripped from them by the invasion.

Activists in Ukraine and Elsewhere are Under Threat from Spreading Authoritarianism

Protecting civilians, and especially human rights defenders both Ukrainian and foreign, is one of the most urgent non-military actions Ukraine’s allies can take. They should coordinate to warn and, when desired by the individuals in question, extract and resettle vulnerable individuals. Family members of potential Russian targets should also be relocated, to prevent them becoming leverage points used against those who are evacuated. Given the Kremlin’s track record of transnational repression across Europe, at-risk individuals should be given the option of swift relocation to geographically distant countries, like the United States, rather than remaining in border States where they are more vulnerable. Civil society organizations in a position to offer digital security training and socio-psychological assistance to members of civil society should be given ample funding to do this work.

Transnational repression is predicated on the belief held by autocrats that any opposition, anywhere, is a threat to regime survival. Efforts to preserve the regime obliterate national borders and protections offered by sovereignty. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an extreme extension of the belief that underpins transnational repression, as the Kremlin seeks to destroy a country that it deems not to have the right to exist. Every effort must be made to preserve and protect Ukraine’s robust civil society – as well as those foreign dissidents who have found safety, until recently, in Ukraine – now that this global refuge for human rights defenders is under attack. Doing so will save lives and will ensure that, whatever the outcome of the current conflict, Ukrainian civil society will have the opportunity to continue their crucial work in support of democracy and human rights.

Image: ZAHONY, HUNGARY – MARCH 02: Refugees arrive at the Hungarian border town of Zahony on a train that has come from Ukraine on March 02, 2022 in Zahony, Hungary. Refugees from Ukraine have fled into neighbouring countries such as Hungary, after Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)