The wave of young men fleeing Russia to avoid forced service in Ukraine’s war has created a conundrum for the nation’s neighbors, who are torn between a desire to cheer resisters to President Vladimir’s war effort Putin and the fear of admitting Russian agents determined to undermine their companies.
The result was a hodgepodge of responses across Europe, with some countries like Georgia, Germany and Armenia welcoming dissenters, and others – like the Baltics, Poland and Finland – slamming their doors.
Estimates of the number of men who have fled Russia since Putin announced a partial mobilization on September 21 stand at 400,000, in addition to the several hundred thousand Russians who had left since the war began in February. due to increasingly severe restrictions on freedoms.
The exodus has tested the patience and capacity of neighboring countries, several of which were already struggling to accommodate more than 5 million Ukrainians who fled to EU countries in the face of military onslaught. Russian.
Feelings towards 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 the hospitality of a neighboring country. This 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 blunt, like a man who received his conscription notice immediately after passing through the Larsi checkpoint in Georgia. He asked to be identified only as Igor for fear of Russian reprisals.
“I will try to hide, I will resist. Better to serve years in prison than to go to war and die or kill others,” he told VOA. “If they send me to Ukraine, I will probably choose the path of sabotage.”
A poll conducted in August by the National Democratic Institute, an American non-profit NGO, found that a majority of Georgians think Russia is acting to tear their country apart and 76% said Russia is a major threat to its people. neighbors. Nevertheless, the Georgian government does not consider Russian dodgers a threat to national security, although President Salome Zurabishvili has suggested a possible review of visa rules with Russia.
The analysis is very different in Latvia, where Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told VOA that fugitive Russians “are security risks, they are counterintelligence risks. These are penetration risks, not only for people fleeing, but also for people who could be used for other covert operations.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu expressed similar concerns, telling VOA he would advise all countries “to be very careful about who they let in from Russia and who don’t.”
“Ukrainian officials tell us that Russian saboteurs and security service agents entered Ukraine months, years before the war,” he said. “Furthermore, many agents of [the] Russian security services responsible for poisonings, explosions, etc., used tourist visas and false identities.
moral point of view
In addition to 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 the business activities or even the hobbies of citizens of the aggressor state as if nothing had happened,” Reinsalu said. “There is a genocide going on, literally sponsored by the tax money of these people who would go in any direction to get out of Russia.”
Countries like his also say there is no evidence that the majority of potential 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 Russian government protection and asylum should be given to those who need it. But she also called for proper security checks and permissions.
“There are people who had to flee, but they are not all dissidents. There are also opportunists who were taking advantage of the regime, and there will also be a lot of FSB agents,” 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 declared that the conflict in Ukraine “is not the war of the Russian people. This is Vladimir Putin’s war.
They believe sweeping restrictions on admissions of Russians could not only endanger those who face real threats at home, but also provoke a nationalist backlash, alienating future generations of Russians and causing the West to lose. “their hearts and minds”.
Leaders of Eastern European and Nordic countries recognize the risks of an intransigent 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 Moscow-based independent pollster Levada Center – which was branded a “foreign agent” by Moscow in 2016 – found that support in Russia for the military campaign in Ukraine stood at 72% in September, down slightly from the previous period. in the war.
“We can of course discuss the percentage, but ‘the heart and mind’ of the Russian people – as opinion polls show – 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 of the “heart and mind” argument.
“We had a war in Georgia in 2008, an occupation of Crimea in 2014 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.”
As EU leaders struggle to agree on how to deal with Russian emigrants, they decided in September to suspend a visa deal that eased entry into the EU’s Schengen area to millions of Russians since 2007.
The Kremlin has dismissed decisions like this as “hysteria”. Russia did not officially close its borders after September 21, as many people rushing out of the country had feared.