Russian men fleeing the draft are caught between suspected of being pro-Putin and Western closed-door policies

Russian men fleeing the draft are caught between suspected of being pro-Putin and Western closed-door policies
Support for Putin and his war is widespread in Russia, but what about the young men fleeing the country to avoid the draft? Many Western countries are turning these refuseniks away as they are suspicious of their motives. / bne IntelliNews
By Denis Cenusa in Germany September 29, 2022

The partial mobilisation announced on September 21 by Russian leader Vladimir Putin has caused an unprecedented exodus of the Russian male population eligible for the draft. The recent successes of the Ukrainian army and the preparation for the annexation of the occupied territories of Ukraine explain why Putin has resorted to partial mobilisation right now. The Russian propaganda war machine argues that if there is no mobilisation, then Russia will be ready to use a nuclear weapon.

However, the mobilisation has been chaotic and more than 200,000 Russian men have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. They had to choose between staying and enlisting, protesting and being arrested with a high probability of being sent to the front lines, or fleeing to the visa-free countries surrounding Russia.

The main characteristics of turbulent mobilisation

Since September 21, military enrolment centres have been searching for men between the ages of 18 and 60 throughout Russia. Putin's intention is to deploy 300,000 more Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Other numbers that have appeared in the media say the actual size of the expected recruit mobilisation is closer to one million men.

In total, Russia should have some 25mn reservists, constituting 17% of the population of 144mn for 2021. Mobilisation plans have not been going according to plan so far.

First, protests against the mobilisation broke out in Siberian cities, Moscow and St Petersburg. However, the protest message revolved around a desire to stay alive, not an attempt to stop the war against Ukraine. North Caucasus regions populated by outspoken and resistant ethnic communities, such as Dagestan or Kabardino-Balkaria, have been involved in direct altercations with police who refuse to allow recruitment. The leadership of Chechnya suggested to Putin that he obtain manpower from the Russian police force. There were several indications that the mobilisation would target ethnic minorities first and bypass the Russian majority, which conflicted even more with the attitudes in the regions.

Second, the mobilisation has triggered waves of reaction in Central Asian countries against the draft. Russian officials decided to simplify citizenship procedures for immigrants, on the one hand, and blackmail former immigrants with dual citizenship, who risk losing Russian citizenship if they refuse to join the mobilisation efforts. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan reminded their citizens that taking part in military hostilities abroad is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison and confiscation of property in some cases.

Third, Putin realised that some social and professional groups should be exempted. IT and media workers, as well as students at state universities, are supposed to be passed over.

According to some estimates, there is a body of 4.5mn law enforcement officers (police, special forces, intelligence operators) that have been given immunity to mobilisation. IT workers are essential to critical infrastructure severely affected by sanctions. Dozens of thousands of IT specialists have already left the country since March this year.

Without media workers, the regime will not be able to carry out war propaganda. Most of the opposition media left the country. The students are too young and belong to the middle class, with whom Putin tries to maintain a semblance of his famous "social contract" and so avoid a protest by the many.

The police and special forces are part of Putin’s repressive mechanism, whose mission is to defend the regime from mass protests and revolutionary sentiments.

Last but not least, the mobilisation seems to have hit the agricultural sector hard, which traditionally faced labour shortages. Putin has ordered support for Russian farmers’ families so that they do not refuse to enrol, generating a possible "snowball" effect for the agri-food sector with transboundary effects for the 2023 crops season.

Why mobilisation? Why now?

Russia wants to ensure that it replenishes the depleted and decimated workforce in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Putin understands that without a mobilisation, his military plans have little chance of resisting Ukraine's defensive efforts against Russian aggression.

Putin's strategic objective is to legitimise, by military force, the results of the illegal pseudo-referenda in the occupied parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk. Immediately after Russia recognises the results of the engineered plebiscites, it will proceed with its annexation and protection as part of Russian territory. This scenario was already applied in 2014 during the Russian kidnapping of the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, which at that time was absorbed by the defeat of the kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

The Russian military logic seems to be to use newly mobilised soldiers to protect their positions in the occupied territories against imminent new counter-offensive steps by the Ukrainian army. Any repetition of the Ukrainian victory to retake the Kharkiv region will severely damage the remaining morale of the Russian army. A defeat for Ukraine could mean the end of the Putin regime.

The “open door” policy

According to some rough estimates, at least 200,000 Russian men fled abroad by taking flights to Turkey and Armenia or crossing the borders into Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Russian men could use their passports and submit the additional information (financial means, the period of stay, etc.) to enter these countries. In the case of Turkey, there is the possibility of acquiring a visa directly at the airport. Before this mass exodus, other categories of Russian citizens representing the upper middle class left the country mainly due to the financial consequences of Western sanctions.

Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been applying restrictions to the entry of the Russian tourists, which also extended to the fleeing Russian men. The authorities of these countries have expressed their intention to examine the humanitarian cases, but it is not clear whether the Russian men fleeing under the threat of being sent to Ukraine and dying on the battleground fall under the humanitarian category. There is a huge scepticism about applying the “refugee status” to Russian men. The EU Commission is supposed to draft and present "guidelines" that would address the right of fleeing Russian men to enter the Schengen area, which will take into account member states' threat considerations.

According to the latest Frontex data, 65,951 Russian citizens entered EU countries between September 19 and 25, mainly through Finland. This represents a 30% increase compared to previous weeks. At the same time, 48,272 Russians have returned. This means that less than 18,000 (17,679) Russians have remained in the EU. This number could be attributed to a partial mobilisation. Respectively there are at least 18,000 Russian men who chose to flee the country via the western route and were accepted by EU states bordering Russia. Compared to that, at least 120,000 went to Georgia and around 100,000 to Kazakhstan. Figures for Armenia, Mongolia and Turkey are unknown at this time.

Are the suspicions of pro-Putinism plausible?

There has been speculation that the Russian men fleeing Russia may be supporters of Putin. Some accounts from Georgia speak of individual cases involving men using the letters Z or V, used largely by supporters of the war in Ukraine. However, there is no evidence that such incidents can be extrapolated to the entire corps of fleeing Russian men, who are already criticised by Russian officials, and state propagandists have labelled them as deserters.

The claim that the Russians now leaving the country out of fear for their physical safety if sent to Ukraine are largely or entirely Putin supporters is highly problematic and not supported by any statistical or empirical evidence. To explain the implausibility of the argument that Russian men who fled their country are loyal to the regime, demographic data will be juxtaposed and compared with details from recent surveys.

First of all, the Russian population was about 144mn, according to 2021 official data. This means that the 300,000 men who left Russia represent 0.1% of the population.

The most recent Levada poll in June 2022 indicates that 77% of the population supports Russian aggression, which would mean some 110mn Russians. The remaining 23% do not support the aggression, which is equivalent to about 33mn Russians, of which about half are women (although the ratio is 86.39 men for every 100 women for 2020).

For the sake of this argument, half of Russians who do not support the war (16mn) are assumed to be men. Therefore, approximately 200,000 men who left the country (in the first week of mobilisation) refusing to be recruited and fight in the aggression against Ukraine constitute 1.2% of the 16mn men who reject Putin's aggression as shown by the polls which tend to show results that favour the regime.

This means that the pool of the population in Russia that is against Putin is 80 times larger than the men who left the country during the first stage of mobilisation. Consequently, it is highly probable that the fleeing Russians are rather Putin’s opponents than his voters.

Do you support or not the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine?

(March, April, May,

Definitely yes, somewhat yes, somewhat no, definitely no, no answer)

Breaking down the survey results by age category will make the picture even clearer. Most of those fleeing are men between the ages of 25 and 40. The younger male population does not have the financial means to easily find around €10,000 needed to leave.

The same Levada polls show that the greatest disapproval of the war against Ukraine is recorded among those between 18-25 and 25-39 years old, 25% and 22% respectively. This aspect additionally substantiates the idea that there is a high probability that men aged 18-39 who are trying to escape from the Russian army are in opposition to Putin.

Do you support or not the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine?

(Ages: All, 18-24yrs, 25-39yrs, 40-54yrs, over 55yrs,

Definitely yes, somewhat yes, somewhat no, definitely no, no answer)

The lesson for both fleeing Russians and the rest of the population in Russia is that the Western community is sceptical about their moral right to seek refuge abroad. However, some might say that under humanitarian law, this category of Russians could apply for refugee status. Many disagree because it would be unfair and dangerous for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression.

It is a widespread belief amongst Western officials and experts that Russian men must fight Putin's regime, not run from it. This would also be conducive to the victory of Ukraine. By contrast, the Russians who protested alongside the imprisoned Alexei Navalny know the costs of standing up to the repressive regime built by Putin over two decades and protected by an army of 4.5mn police, special forces and intelligence officers.

For now, the survival instincts of the Russian ruling elites overpower the objective understanding that the ill-prepared and low-motivated recruits represent “cannon fodder” rather than anything near the Ukrainian devoted soldiers. To support a scenario in which the least capable Russians are deployed to Ukraine, the neighbouring countries that support Ukraine could adopt a more “open border” policy. Serious filtering should be applied to prevent the infiltration of Russian intelligence operators into these ex-patriot communities. Assisting the Russians who flee means indirectly helping Ukraine, but this also means that these Russian men have a moral duty to support the Ukrainian cause from the countries that host them.