Russians escaping Putin’s war face tough sanctuary in Mongolia

Russians escaping Putin’s war face tough sanctuary in Mongolia
Arriving is the easy part for many of the Russians fleeing mobilisation who don't have the option of transiting from Mongolia to a third country. / Brücke-Osteuropa, cc, public domain.
By Antonio Graceffo in Ulaanbaatar January 23, 2023

When Vladimir Putin on December 22 announced his plan to expand the size of the Russian Army by around a third, Mongolia braced for the next wave of Russians fleeing conscription and the prospect of fighting in Ukraine.  

Putin’s war has driven large numbers of Russians, particularly those of military age, to flee to the handful of countries where Russians do not need visas. Those countries include Mongolia. Once there, however, those who have sought sanctuary find that it is not only the predictable issues of language and culture that pose difficulties. For a start, they find that their Russian bank cards do not work. Then there’s the not so small matter of earning a living. Most of the Russians are unable to find jobs in Mongolia, a small, developing nation, with an average salary of around $400 per month.

Many of the arrivals, however, are simply intent on using Mongolia as a temporary stopover on their way to Vietnam or Thailand, where at least the weather is better. Currently, daily temperatures in Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital, are hovering around -23 Celsius.

Regardless of whether they remain in Mongolia or travel on to sunnier climes, the Russians’ futures are, of course, uncertain. They do not know when or if they will be able to return to their homes.

Some of the Russians in Ulaanbaatar are prepared to discuss the hurdles they have to overcome and the senselessness of the war that has forced them to give up all that they knew.

“I don’t know if we’ll have an opportunity to go back to Russia, because … my dad can just be taken away into the army,” said 15-year-old Valeria, from St Petersburg, one of tens of thousands of Russians who have fled to Mongolia since the beginning of the Ukraine war.

They have left everything behind, and are now living in Ulaanbaatar, facing an uncertain future. “To me, it feels like going back is still a big risk,” said Valeria.

Last September 21, Vladimir Putin issued his mobilisation order. Those whose names were called became legally obliged to serve in the Russian Army, ostensibly, to fight in Ukraine. The State Duma, the Russian Federation’s legislature, announced that it had amended the Criminal Code. Severe punishments were outlined for surrender, desertion, or refusing conscription. The penalty now stands at 15 years in prison.

Immediately after the mobilisation announcement, Russian citizens began to exit their country. Since the war began, an estimated 1.4mn have left, either because of the impact of economic sanctions, or to avoid being drafted into the war. Many of the Russians arriving in Mongolia are of Mongolic ethnicity, being Buryat, Kalmyk, or Tuvan.

Many of the Russian arrivals are of Mongolic ethnicity, being Buryat, Kalmyk or Tuvan. Pictured are Kalmyk people in Elista, capital of Russia's Republic of Kalmykia, during an event related to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (Credit: Rartat, cc-by-sa 3.0).

There have also been smaller numbers of Yakut and Slavic people turning up in Mongolia. So far, 22,540 Russian citizens have entered the country. Most transited through, travelling on to one of the few other countries that offer visa-free entry to Russians, such as the Central Asian republics, Vietnam, Thailand and Israel. Around 98% of those who have remained in Mongolia are in the capital city.

Fled Russians in Mongolia use social media to communicate and establish new lives. A Telegram group called “Mongolia/Adaptation 03” has 7,638 members, “Apartments for Rent in Mongolia” has 1,457, while “Jobs in Mongolia” has 2,562. In addition to these new arrivals, many of the Russians who were already in Mongolia have been extending their visas, and seeking legal advice on immigration.

Ivan Sergeevich, a 47-year-old businessman from Irkutsk who has been in Mongolia for five years, said that lots of Russians have arrived since the beginning of the war. “The situation in Russia isn’t the most optimal. The economic situation is worsening. Russia’s automotive industry used to be one of the best in the world. But it has suffered great losses … almost no one is still in business. After the war started, people started to get called up to go to Ukraine.”

He said that the number of Russians arriving increased significantly during September and October, because of the mobilisation. “Nobody wants to kill someone on the battleground, nobody wants someone’s life on their hands. They don’t want to lose their family members or their own lives at war. That’s why they started leaving their country,” he added.

Mongolia’s position on the map between Russia and China has always been problematic, with the two larger countries exerting political and economic pressure. In general, the majority of Mongolian politicians are more pro-Russia than they are pro-China. It therefore surprised many when the Mongolian Immigration Agency announced that it would issue residency permits to the Russians, rather than sending them back home. Across the former Soviet satellites, including Mongolia and the Central Asian ‘stans’, there seems to have been a pivot towards China in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.

The first influx of Russians, who arrived soon after the war started, came to exchange rubles for US dollars, eventually causing a shortage of dollars in the country. The banks have since imposed very strict limits on the amount of dollars that can be purchased. But this only affects the cash people carried with them. Unfortunately, Russians trying to survive in Mongolia, have no access to their money back home.

Valeria told how Russian bank cards do not work. “They have all been blocked. You can’t withdraw or deposit money, you can’t do anything.”

Speaking from Vietnam, where he travelled to from Mongolia, 28-year-old Vladislav said: “Russian cards are blocked worldwide, with a few exceptions. In Vietnam, we’re still able to withdraw money from ATMs at the Vietnam Russian Bank.” For that reason, he relocated to Vietnam, where at least he has access to his money.

Valeria’s family also want to leave, but it is not easy for Russians. “Actually, I want to go to another country, but I think it’s too late to go somewhere else now, because everywhere is closed. You can’t go to Europe, and you can’t go to the US, of course. There are still countries where Russian people can go, but that remains in question.”

Until they find a way to move on, Valeria’s family are facing a tough time. “My parents lost their jobs. Here in Mongolia, they haven’t found work yet. Currently, we’re surviving off our savings,” she added. “My parents have been saving their whole lives. Then we came to Mongolia and honestly I feel like we’ll soon end up homeless.”

Ivan Sergeevich explained the huge problems obtaining employment faced by Russians coming to Mongolia, such as the language barrier. Mongolians in their fifties or older generally speak some Russian, but most young people speak only Mongolian and English. Said Ivan: “Most Russians can’t find a stable income, and working as a part-timer for a minimum-wage job isn’t easy. I try to help them find somewhere to at least work and earn a living.”

Vladislav used to work in the Irkutsk Regional State Universal Scientific Library of Molchanov-Sibirskiy, until he fled Russia to avoid military conscription. “I arrived in Mongolia with friends and I’ve also met many other Russians forced to leave the country for the same reason.” He said that the Ukraine invasion changed his life completely. “I was planning my life in Russia and didn’t plan to go anywhere at this time. I had to change all my plans.”

Vladislav said he believed that the trend of Russians coming to Mongolia would continue, if the war did not end: “Most people left the country in the first week after September 21, because of the mobilisation. Right now, the flow of Russians into Mongolia has tailed off, but still there are people who are going to leave Russia soon.”

Asked if he had any final words about the situation, Vladislav said, “The whole situation about the war is nonsense and it’s the most dark and shameful part in Russian contemporary history. Free Ukraine. Putin is a criminal.”

In a similar vein, Ivan Sergeevich reflected: “I think it’s about time the war ends. In the long run, no matter what, Russia will suffer a big loss. It’s a pointless war that should never have happened. I feel like Ukraine will keep its land. But Russia, no matter what, is on the losing side. It’s a war that should never have started and it’s a war that’s destroying both sides.”

Article compiled with research and translation assistance from Tengis, Temuulen Khaliunbat and B. Khuslen.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA, is an economist and China analyst. He has spent over 20 years living in Asia, including seven years in China, two and a half in Taiwan and three in Mongolia. He conducted post-doctoral studies in international trade at the School of Economics, Shanghai University, holds a PhD. from Shanghai University of Sport, and a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio is the author of seven books about Asia, three of which are about the Chinese economy. For the past 10 years, he has been reporting on the Chinese economy, the US-China trade war, investment, geopolitics and defence. In recent years, he has written a diverse range of articles on Mongolian economics and society.