Russian Refugee Exodus Poses Dilemma for Its Neighbors
The wave of young men fleeing Russia to avoid forced service in the Ukraine war has created a conundrum for the nation’s neighbors, which are torn between a desire to encourage resisters to President Vladimir Putin’s war effort and a fear of admitting Russian agents bent on undermining their societies.
The result has been a mishmash of responses across Europe, with some countries such as Georgia, Germany and Armenia welcoming the draft evaders, and others – such as the Baltic countries, Poland and Finland – slamming shut their doors.
Estimates of the number of men who have fled Russia since Putin announced a partial mobilization September 21 range as high as 400,000, on top of the several hundred thousand Russians who had left since the beginning of the war in February because of increasingly harsh restrictions on basic freedoms.
The exodus has tested the patience and capacity of neighboring countries, several of which were already straining to accommodate more than 5 million Ukrainians who have fled to EU countries in the face of the Russian military assault.
Feelings toward the new arrivals are complicated by the fact that many are reluctant to admit they are avoiding conscription and say they are simply coming to enjoy a neighboring country’s hospitality. That has led to mixed feelings, particularly in Georgia, which considers its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to have been under Russian occupation since 2008.
A few are more forthright, such as one man who received his draft notice immediately after crossing the Larsi checkpoint into Georgia. He asked to be identified only as Igor for fear of Russian retaliation.
“I will try to hide, I will resist. Better to serve years in prison than go to war and die or kill others,” he told VOA. “If they send me to Ukraine, I will probably choose the way of sabotage.”
An August poll by the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit American NGO, found a majority of Georgians believe Russia is acting to tear their country apart and 76 percent said Russia is a major threat to its neighbors. Nevertheless, the Georgian government doesn’t consider the Russian draft evaders a threat to the nation’s security, although President Salome Zourabichvili has suggested a possible revision of the visa rules with Russia.
The analysis is very different in Latvia, whose foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, told VOA the fleeing Russians “are security risks, those are counterintelligence risks. Those are risks of penetration, not only of people who are fleeing but also people who could be used for further covert operations.”
Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, expressed similar concerns, telling VOA he would advise all countries “to be very cautious about whom they are letting in from Russia, and whom not.”
“Officials of Ukraine tell us that the saboteurs and operatives of the Russian security services entered Ukraine months, years before the war,” he said. “Also, many of the operatives of [the] Russian security services responsible for poisonings, explosions, et cetera, used tourist visas and false identities.”
Aside from security concerns, Baltic leaders base their judgment on what they call a “moral perspective.” They say Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism and is committing war crimes in a “genocidal” war in Ukraine.
“It would be immoral to accept business or even leisure activities of the aggressor state’s citizens as if nothing has happened,” Reinsalu said. “There is a genocide going on, sponsored literally by the tax money of these people who would like to go in any direction to leave Russia.”
Countries like his also say there is no proof that the majority of would-be refugees are legitimately fleeing political persecution rather than military obligations or the discomfort of economic sanctions.
Viola von Cramon, who represents Germany in the European Parliament, told VOA she believes protection and asylum from the Russian government should be granted to those who need it. But she also called for proper security checks and clearances.
“There are people who had to flee, but they are not all dissidents. There are also opportunists who were benefiting from the regime, and there will be a lot of FSB agents as well,” she said, referring to the Russian intelligence agency.
Fight for hearts and minds
Several European countries, including France, Hungary, Luxembourg and Austria, share the view of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has said the Ukraine conflict “is not the war of the Russian people. This is the war of Vladimir Putin.”
They believe far-reaching restrictions on admissions of Russians could not only endanger those who face real threats at home but also prompt a nationalistic backlash, estranging future generations of Russians and causing the West to lose their “hearts and minds.”
Leaders from Eastern European and Nordic countries acknowledge the risks of a hardline policy toward those fleeing Russia but have little faith that the Russian people can be persuaded to share their values.
Indeed, a recent survey by independent Moscow-based pollster Levada Center – which was labeled a “foreign agent” by Moscow in 2016 — found that support in Russia for the military campaign in Ukraine stood at 72 percent in September, down only slightly from earlier in the war.
“We can of course argue about the percentage, but the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Russian people – as opinion polls are showing – are with Vladimir Putin,” Rinkevics said. “The choice is not how to transform Russia. The only choice now is how to defeat Russia.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis is also skeptical about the “hearts and minds” argument.
“We got a 2008 war in Georgia, a 2014 occupation of Crimea and now we have a full-scale war in Ukraine,” he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an August 31 interview. “So that’s how many hearts and minds we’ve won in Russia. It’s time to wake up.”
While EU leaders struggle to agree on how to treat the Russian emigres, they moved in September to suspend a visa agreement that has facilitated entry to the EU’s Schengen zone for millions of Russians since 2007.
The Kremlin dismissed decisions like that as “hysteria.” Russia did not officially close its borders after September 21, as had been feared by many rushing out of the country.