Xenophobia Is the Wrong Response to Russia

Eric Swalwell’s latest ploy for relevancy is a misfire. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

America is a predictable country. Confronted with a war, even one in which it is not directly involved, the nation pivots to comfortable territory: xenophobia. Fear is a wartime language, and after 20 years of the war on terror, our leaders have become fluent. In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, U.S. liquor-store owners have dramatically poured out cases of Russian vodka, and in the same hostile spirit, two members of Congress have floated a radical proposal. The U.S. should consider expelling Russian students from its universities, said Representatives Eric Swalwell and Ruben Gallego. “Frankly, I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States⁠ — those should all be on the table,” Swalwell said on CNN. On Twitter, Gallego said Russians studying abroad in the U.S. “are the sons and daughters of the richest Russians.”

American universities may attract the offspring of oligarchs, but Swalwell and Gallego would harm more than the children of privilege. As Osita Nwanevu noted at The New Republic, there are thousands of Russian students in the U.S., and they aren’t all wealthy. Swalwell and Gallego would punish them all, regardless of personal circumstance, and send them home to an authoritarian regime.

Their policy-making peers should ignore them. Rather than expel Russian students, the U.S. should extend the same privilege to Russians that its own students have enjoyed from countless other countries. The universities of other nations have welcomed our students for years in spite of our government’s warmongering and human-rights abuses. Institutions distinguish between an individual and their government — and rightly so: A citizen bears no responsibility for policies they did not create. While universities have cynical reasons to embrace foreign students (they do generate tuition dollars), there’s a principle at work too. A person’s ability to obtain an education shouldn’t depend on their nationality. In fact, for many, education is a way out from a government they may not support.

Defending Russian students requires a level of nuance now missing from the popular response to the invasion of Ukraine. Online, the war appears to have become a Marvel film unfolding in real time with frightened Ukrainians elevated to the role of superhero. A tweet from the New York Post claims that “fans” of some variety have “cast” Marvel actor Jeremy Renner as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in a “fantasy Ukraine invasion film.” In the span of a few days, Zelensky has become an almost mythic figure for his courageous decision to stay in Ukraine and coordinate the resistance from home. Yet rather than dream up films based on his life, liberals should learn something from his actions. In real life, resistance isn’t the stuff of internet fantasy; it means life-threatening danger and risk — and not just to Ukrainians. Russians, too, are suffering, and the fault lies with their leader, not the larger populace.

Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. He and his cronies bear responsibility for the bloodshed that follows. The Russian people have made it clear they do not all march in step behind him. Thousands have risked prison and police brutality to protest Putin’s policies, and the world should be prepared to welcome them if they choose to leave. If the U.S. responds to Putin by punishing his people, our leaders would commit both a strategic and a moral error. Putin’s authoritarianism harms more than the people of Ukraine; it by definition includes repression at home. There is only one legitimate answer to Putin, and that is openness, not xenophobia. The U.S. should welcome Russians who are curious about other places and ways of life, who embrace the world even as Putin would turn it against them. We cannot respond to nationalism with more of the same.

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Xenophobia Is the Wrong Response to Russia