“What should we do? What should we do with our Russian colleagues?” – asked the senior researcher in the audience. It’s early summer and 100 degrees in Chicago. I gave a talk at Fermilab, the premier particle physics research facility in the United States and my former workplace. My talk focused on the Asian American experience and the impact of deteriorating US-China relations on science, but for many in the audience, the Russian invasion of Ukraine created an even greater urgency.

A few days after the conflict began on February 24, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research — a longtime partner of Fermilab — stopped all new cooperation with institutions and individuals in Russia and Belarus. The organization announced in June that it intended to cut ties with both countries after their current cooperation agreements expire in 2024. Other international organizations have taken similar or stronger measures. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic nations, suspended work in March and is resuming limited research this summer without Russia, in what could be a devastating setback for climate science. The European Space Agency has ended cooperation with Russia, halting Europe’s first rover that was due to go aboard a Russian rocket to the Red Planet later this year. For a moment, it seemed that the International Space Station would withstand seismic events on Earth. That hope was dashed in late July when the head of Russia’s space agency said his country would leave the project in 2024.

From the ice caps of Earth to the edge of space, the sharp blade of war has split academic alliances already fraying under the strain of the pandemic and geopolitics, exposing a burning question that is not easy to answer. In conversations with friends and colleagues in the US and Europe, I sensed a collective frustration bordering on helplessness. Everyone regrets the invasion and agrees that it must be done something to help Ukraine, and that continuing business as usual in the face of such a calamity would be morally unjustifiable. But apart from statements and help, what specific actions can the academy and the scientific community take in relation to Russia?

Many tell me that the decision is not in their hands: “It’s politics.” Laboratories and their staff must obey government sanctions and funding agency regulations, some of which prohibit collaboration with colleagues in Russia or accreditation of Russian institutions in co-authored papers. Some express regret that Russian scientists who do not actively support the invasion are being unfairly ostracized. One scientist who grew up in the former Soviet Union before emigrating to the West made a compelling argument that people in democracies should not promote science in authoritarian regimes; it will only strengthen dictators who use technology for destructive purposes. The scientist has not visited his native country for years and urges all his Chinese students to never return to China either.

Thousands of scientists, science reporters and students in Russia, as well as many other representatives of the Russian diaspora, signed open letters condemning the conflict. Among those convicted for the opposition is the politician and journalist Uladzimir Kara-Murza, whose father, as you know, refused official employment in Soviet Russia as a sign of rejection of the totalitarian regime. These brave deeds ignite hope in the long nights of war and oppression; they also destroy the illusion that ordinary people are not to blame for the actions of the state. To take responsibility away means to deny freedom. In an unfair world, compromise is often a condition for survival.

The different views of Western scientists towards their Russian colleagues – to rely on official recommendations, to pretend that the Russian people are powerless or to cause complete isolation – all this stems from a common position: the innocence of the viewer. Bombs, prisons and purges are blamed on an abstract state and dumped on foreign land, despite the fact that German cities run on Russian gas, Swiss banks are havens for Putin’s cronies, and supposedly democratic governments are also using technology for harm, in including numerous armed conflicts initiated by the United States. The insistence on innocence prevents a clear understanding of the overlapping systems of violence and injustice that are never confined to one war, one country, or one model of governance. As the world is torn apart by political divisions and academia finds itself on fault lines, how we perceive and respond to the marked other is ultimately up to us: who we are, where we are, and what future we aspire to.

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