The dignity of peace

Richard Branson looking pensive
Owen Billcliffe
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 4 March 2022

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its second week, the often gruesome images we see now are a stark reminder that we are not dealing with a “special military operation”, as President Putin calls it. This is an all-out war of aggression, an unprovoked attack started by one nation against its peaceful neighbour.  

I’ve left no doubt of my position on this. I firmly support Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent nation, its people’s right to choose their own destiny, free from outside interference. And so I’ve come out in favour of the strongest possible sanctions against Russia, its leaders and its economy. The free world must do what it can to force Putin and his cronies to change course and end this war. The bloodshed must stop now. The war crimes must stop. Russian troops must retreat. 

For that to happen, Russia must feel the full force of economic and social isolation. I am old enough to remember how international sanctions and consistent boycott finally brought the South African Apartheid regime to its knees. The challenge before us is one of much greater scale, but it can be done if we all, collectively and individually, make informed choices about products we consume and services we use.

Putin's war on Ukraine, explained

As I watch the global community respond to this call for consequences in every area of civic life, from sports to culture, from academia to business, I want to be clear that my support for effective, hard-hitting sanctions does not diminish my empathy for the Russian people, the many millions who have not asked for this confrontation, and who now see their day-to-day lives uprooted and changed, possibly for a very long time to come. 

Of course, Russians don’t live in fear of cluster bombs tearing them apart in the street. No missiles will be hitting their homes as they sit down for dinner with their loved ones. That’s the everyday terror Ukrainians have to live with at this very moment. It’s the kind of terror that will traumatise so many for years to come. 

But I look at the boyish faces of captured Russian soldiers tearfully calling their mothers, and I look at the thousands defying the oppressor and demonstrating for peace in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and what I don’t see anywhere is enthusiasm for Putin’s war. All I see is fear, anxiety and the frustration of a people taken on a self-destructive journey even some of Putin’s most consistent cheerleaders never signed up for.

Global Dignity Day 2011 Finland - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Ukrainian friends understandably ask me where those anxious Russians were in the years since 2014, when Putin’s true intentions became obvious to everyone. But his war has always also been a war against his own people, against the voices that warned of his ambitions and called for a more peaceful course. Over two decades, Putin has created a system of control, intimidation, oppression, and disinformation that has all but silenced, if not killed, his critics and put all of Russia in a chokehold that is now threatening to suffocate the last remnants of civil society and a free press. It’s plain to see: as Ukrainians are robbed of their dignity by the everyday horrors of war, ordinary Russians had theirs stripped away slowly but continuously as the country slipped into totalitarianism.

Global Dignity Day 2011 Finland - President Martti Ahtisaari

In moments like these, I am reminded of the words of two giant peacemakers who I admire greatly. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a dear friend who devoted his life to the causes of reconciliation and forgiveness, once said:

“If you want peace, make sure everyone’s dignity is intact.”

And Finland’s former President Martti Ahtisaari, himself no stranger to conflict with Russia, has always stressed that lasting peace and dignity for all are two sides of the same coin. Ukrainians deserve the dignity of sovereignty and peace. The people of Russia deserve the dignity of freedom and liberty. As the world looks for ways to end this conflict for good and keep the peace, we must find ways to achieve both.  

I'm proud we're supporting the people of Ukraine, including through Virgin Unite donations to The Red Cross and Tabletochki, and urge everyone to do what they can to support