Russian Refugee Exodus Poses Dilemma for Its Neighbors

The wave of young people fleeing Russia to avoid forced service in the war in Ukraine has created an enigma for the nation’s neighbors, who are torn between a desire to encourage opponents of President Vladimir Putin’s war effort and fear of admitting Russian agents determined to undermine their companies.

The result has been a mixed bag of responses across Europe, with some countries like Georgia, Germany and Armenia welcoming dissidents and others, like the Baltic countries, 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 stands 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.

FILE – Two Russians greet a photographer after crossing the Georgia-Russian border at Verkhny Lars in Georgia on September 28, 2022.

The exodus tested the patience and capacity of neighboring countries, many of which were already struggling to accommodate more than 5 million Ukrainians who fled to EU countries in the face of military assault. Russian.

Feelings towards newcomers are complicated by the fact that many are reluctant to admit that 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 believes its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been under Russian occupation since 2008.

Some are more outspoken, like a man who got his enlistment notice right 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. It is better to spend 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 nonprofit NGO, found that a majority of Georgians think Russia is taking action to tear their country apart, and 76% said Russia is a serious threat to his people. neighborhood. However, the Georgian government does not consider Russian tax evaders a threat to national security, although President Salome Zurabishvili has suggested a possible revision of visa rules with Russia.

Security Risks

The analysis is very different in Latvia, where Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told VOA that the fugitive Russians “are security risks, they are counterintelligence risks. These are risks of penetration, not only of people on the run, but also of people who could be used for other covert operations.

FILE - Urmas Reinsalu, then Estonian Defense Minister, speaks during a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia on March 21, 2014.
FILE – Urmas Reinsalu, then Estonian Defense Minister, speaks during a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia on March 21, 2014.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu expressed similar concerns, telling VOA that he would advise all countries “to be very careful who they let in from Russia and who they don’t”. Not”.

“Ukrainian officials tell us that saboteurs and Russian security agents entered Ukraine months, years before the war,” he said. “In addition, many agents of [the] Russian security services responsible for poisoning, 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 that Russia is a sponsoring state of terrorism and is committing war crimes in a “genocidal” war in Ukraine.

“It would be immoral to accept the commercial activities or even the hobbies of the citizens of the attacking state as if nothing had happened,” Reinsalu said. “There is an ongoing genocide, literally sponsored by the tax money of these people who would go in any direction to get out of Russia.”

Countries like yours also say there is no evidence that most potential refugees are legitimately fleeing political persecution rather than military obligations or the hardship of economic sanctions.

Viola von Cramon, who represents Germany in the European Parliament, told VOA that she believes the Russian government’s protection and asylum should be given to those in need. But she also asked for proper security checks and authorizations.

“There are people who have had to flee, but they are not all dissidents. There are also opportunists who have taken advantage of the regime and there will also be many 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 Russian admission could not only endanger those facing real threats at home, but also provoke a nationalist backlash, alienating future generations of Russians and causing the West to lose. “Their hearts and their minds”.

The leaders of the countries of Eastern and Northern Europe recognize the risks of an uncompromising policy towards those fleeing Russia, but have little faith that the Russian people can be persuaded to share their values.

Indeed, a recent poll by Moscow-based independent pollster Levada Center – which in 2016 was branded a “foreign agent” by Moscow – found that Russian support for the military campaign in Ukraine stood at 72% in September. , slightly down on 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.

FILE - Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis speaks to the media during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, April 6, 2022.
FILE – Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis speaks to the media during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, April 6, 2022.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis is also skeptical of the “heart and mind” issue.

“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 here’s how many hearts and minds we have won in Russia. Time to wake up. “

As EU leaders struggle to find an agreement on how to deal with Russian emigrants, in September they decided to suspend a visa deal that has made it easier for millions of Russians to enter the EU’s Schengen area since 2007.

The Kremlin has dismissed decisions like this as “hysteria”. Russia did not officially close its borders after September 21, as many people who rushed out of the country feared.

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