Gimme Shelter

We begin with two scenes from Russia’s new mobilization, which was expected to be a bureaucratic shambles yet has still somehow underperformed expectations. The first plays like dark comedy.


The second is tragedy.

If you’re wondering whether the second clip is authentic or sly Ukrainian propaganda, note that Radio Free Europe tracked down the man in the video and traced him to a barracks outside Moscow.

His claim isn’t implausible. Activists insist that new conscripts are being sent to the front with a few weeks of training, if that. Cases of men being drafted who are clearly too old or otherwise unfit have so alarmed Russians that even Putinist mouthpieces took to calling them unacceptable, hoping to distance the regime from them. Recruitment centers have been attacked; protests, some led by the wives of drafted men, have spread. Allegations that Moscow is conscripting ethnic minorities disproportionately are swirling. It’s been such a fiasco that the Kremlin took the unusual step of admitting error

The most arresting detail from week one of the mobilization, however, has been the mass exodus by Russian men desperate to avoid combat in Ukraine. One estimate leaked to opposition media claimed more than 250,000 had fled between last Wednesday, when mobilization was announced, and Saturday evening. That’s a larger number than the original force that invaded Ukraine in February. As of Tuesday morning, Kazakhstan alone was reporting an influx of nearly 100,000 Russians in the past week. Traffic at Russia’s border with Georgia is backed up for miles, with some men abandoning their cars and urgently attempting to cross on foot before Moscow bars military-age men from leaving. The FSB, Russia’s federal security service, has already deployed to the Georgian border for “crowd control.”

Flights out are so hard to come by that the rich are reportedly paying upward of $25,000 for seats on private jets to take them to countries that admit Russians without visas. The head of one charter company told the Guardian that during normal times he gets 50 inquiries per day. Lately he’s gotten 5,000. 

All of this raises a thorny dilemma for Western nations. Should they accept men fleeing Russia to avoid military service?

Some have already considered the matter and said no. Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all cite “internal security” as a reason not to expand their asylum categories to include Russian draftees. Go figure that former Soviet states aren’t keen to absorb the sons and grandsons of their oppressors by the tens of thousands. Eastern Europeans have thrown open their doors to Ukrainian refugees, partly out of solidarity against the Russian menace but partly because they have every reason to believe the Ukrainians will eventually want to go home. Let a Russian who’s wanted for desertion into your country and you may be housing him forever. Especially when he figures out that he has more long-term economic opportunity in the EU than in Siberia.

Still, this is a closer question than it might seem. There are good arguments for admitting Russian draft dodgers.

The obvious one is moral. Putin’s war is unjust and some of the men who wish not to participate in it doubtless oppose it for that reason. They won’t be granted “conscientious objector” status if they stay in Russia and refuse to deploy. They’ll be sent to prison, or worse. Some Russians arrested for protesting the mobilization have been served draft notices after detention; presumably their anti-war beliefs will be made known to their new commanders, and they’ll be punished with particularly dangerous tasks. They may end up facing a choice between being killed by Ukrainian troops in the front line of combat or being shot by their own side for mutiny if they refuse to fight. Sparing their lives by letting them seek asylum in NATO countries would reward them for showing good moral sense.

Enabling mass emigration from Russia would also spoil Putin’s narrative about the war. Remember that this debacle began as a fantasy about imperial restoration in which Russia would once again attain greatness by heroically defeating a “Nazi” power before undertaking to expand its borders. The idea of tens of thousands of Russian men escaping to the West before they’re drafted is anathema to the Soviet ideal of a proud people unifying in patriotism amid immense hardship to repel the Western power that threatens it. It disproves the claim often repeated by nationalists that Russia could “do it again”—i.e. duplicate its victories in World War II—if called on to do so. Not only can’t it do it again, its own would-be soldiers don’t want to try. A sustained exodus would be a dagger to the heart of Russian morale, a vote of no-confidence in Putin’s belief that the war is worth fighting and still winnable.

Most of all, letting Russians seek asylum in Western countries is useful because it would further deplete Putin’s manpower reserves, sapping his ability to extend the war indefinitely. And not just military manpower: Some of the men seeking to leave may not be eligible for the draft (for instance, because they’re full-time students) but are eager to get out anyway before the borders are sealed and the economy enters a tailspin. Granting them passage to the West would accelerate Russia’s “brain drain.” But yes, of course the primary goal of asylum would be to take potential conscripts off the battlefield by getting men out of Russia before they’re drafted. The war won’t end until Putin runs out of what he needs to wage it—usable weapons, functioning supply lines, raw materials, men. NATO countries can’t do much about the first two apart from supplying Ukraine with the arms it needs to target them. But they’ve already done something about the third in the form of sanctions. And they can do something about the fourth.

Beneath all the rational arguments lies one more: compassion. Some of the men fleeing are husbands and fathers. Each one who’s admitted to a Western country means one less Russian woman widowed and one less Russian child orphaned. Normally we weigh a drafted man’s duty to his country more highly than his duty to his family, but in the case of Russia’s war of conquest, “duty” means having to carry out orders to shell Ukrainian schools or torture Ukrainian prisoners. We should reweigh in this case, enthusiastically.

Having said all that, there are also strong arguments to turn Russian draft dodgers seeking asylum away.

Here, too, the first is moral. Why should nations like Poland and Estonia reward fleeing Russians with sanctuary for opposing the war when their opposition didn’t manifest until the moment it came time for them to personally fight it? Western newspapers have written repeatedly about Russian citizens feeling checked out from what’s happening in Ukraine, having a grand old time at home as their troops laid waste to Mariupol and filled mass graves in Bucha and Izium. We might charitably chalk that up to Russian state censors having sanitized the war for domestic consumption—except, in that case, it’s strange that enough information about the brutality of the fight has somehow trickled in to send hundreds of thousands of Russian men scurrying for safety once the order to mobilize came down.

They’re not seeking asylum because they oppose the war, they’re seeking asylum because they oppose having to risk their lives to wage it. Convince me that Russian draft dodgers wouldn’t have been thrilled to see Putin and their military ruthlessly smash Ukraine in three days, as the Kremlin’s original fantasy envisioned, and then we’ll talk about asylum.

Another reason not to let Russian men leave is that the resulting shortfall in manpower may lead Putin to conscript more innocent parties to take their place. Reports circulated Tuesday that Russian forces had already barred Ukrainian men from leaving occupied areas of the Donbas, eyeing them as conscripts to fight on the Russian side against their own country. As the war drags on, Putin may begin to lean more heavily on client states like Belarus and Syria to dragoon young men among their own populations into doing a tour in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf. By what moral logic should a man born and raised in Moscow, who had no objection to the war before he was drafted, be allowed to watch from the safety of Warsaw while kids from Minsk are pushed into the fight?

There’s also a strategic logic to denying Russian draft dodgers asylum. To the extent our goal is to see the aggression against Ukraine end with a domestic uprising against Putin, evacuating a huge population of disaffected Russians to the West would seem to undermine it. If we want to bring the war home to the Kremlin, trapping unwilling conscripts and their families inside Russia to confront their leaders amid mass mobilization is an obvious way to do it. Let the mothers, wives, and children of unwilling soldiers take to the streets, enraged, as their men are tossed into battle unprepared with advice about plugging their bullet wounds with tampons. Only by maximizing the amount of skin that the Russian people have in this game will pressure build on their leaders to end it. That can’t happen if the least willing draftees have all absconded to the Baltics.

Finally, there’s an important political reason not to absorb huge numbers of Russian citizens. As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, the first “results” from Russia’s preposterous referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories are trickling in:

It was a bold touch by Moscow to manufacture honest-to-goodness Saddam Hussein margins of victory instead of something more superficially plausible, like 65/35. There was nothing subtle about how they achieved it either. Ukrainian residents report men armed with Kalashnikovs and a portable ballot box knocking on their doors and watching closely as they cast their vote on whether to join the Russian Federation.

Part of Putin’s imperial fantasy is the idea that the “Russian” population in countries like Ukraine is ultimately under the protection of Moscow, not their own national government. If the Kremlin concludes that “Russians” abroad are being mistreated then it believes it’s entitled to intervene in their defense. Who qualifies as “Russian” can be slippery, as broad as the regime needs it to be. Putin complained at the start of the war about alleged genocide being committed in the Donbas against ethnic Russians, for instance, but on other occasions he’s cited threats to those who merely speak Russian as a casus belli. (One Ukrainian who speaks Russian fluently, by the way, is Volodymyr Zelensky.) The referendums in the occupied territories are the logical endgame of that thinking: A land populated by “Russians” is Russian land, one sham referendum away from being swallowed by Moscow.

All of that being so, imagine if you were the president of Poland and were suddenly asked to accept, say, 100,000 Russian men seeking asylum to avoid conscription. Putin will be in no position for the foreseeable future to move against your country militarily, but eventually Russia will pick itself up off the mat and rebuild its capabilities. Whoever replaces him as leader in time is apt to be as ruthless as he is, having attained power by winning the Kremlin’s internal “game of thrones.” When, not if, Putin’s successor eventually decides that Poland is “mistreating” the Russian draft dodgers it graciously took in long ago, the U.S. and NATO might not be in a position to honor their treaty obligations by riding to the rescue.

Very simply, if your country is within Russia’s sphere of influence and you’re hosting a large “Russian” minority, you have a target on your back forever. So why volunteer to wear that target? Better to keep Russian asylum-seekers out than hand Moscow a pretext for its next war of “liberation.”

For me, the better policy between the two is the one that will help Ukraine win the war most quickly, with the fewest casualties to both sides. My gut says that granting asylum to Russian draft dodgers is the fastest route to victory because it will deny Putin tens of thousands of troops who might otherwise prolong the fight. If you were told this morning that hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers had just surrendered to Ukraine on the battlefield, you’d be ecstatic. Well, Western countries can facilitate that surrender by expanding their asylum policies. It’s just that it’ll happen in places like Finland and Estonia instead of on the front lines.

The trick is what to do with the Russians afterward. For obvious reasons, Zelensky is keen to encourage enemy soldiers to lay down their arms and has made them a promise if they do so: They’ll never have to go home if they don’t want to.

Appealing directly to Russians during an address, Zelensky said Ukraine could guarantee three terms to Russian soldiers in exchange for their surrender. He said such Russians will be treated in a civilized manner, the circumstances of their surrender will remain undisclosed and Ukraine will find a way to ensure those who do not want to return to Russia are not exchanged.

He said every Russian citizen knows that Russia is the one bringing “evil” even if they do not admit it. He told Russians that surrendering to Ukrainian captivity is better than being killed in the war. 

“So, the key moment has come for you: right now it is being decided whether your life will end or not,” Zelensky said.

If Russian troops take him up on his offer (some are, allegedly) and he’s true to his word, presumably many will opt not to return to Russia. They’re better off economically in the West, after all, and they might face vicious reprisals by the Russian government for having surrendered. In which case, there are only two options for what to do with the population of Russian POWs. Either Ukraine can absorb them as citizens, which would cause its population of ethnic Russians to balloon and make it that much more attractive a target for Moscow in the future, or it can ask its neighbors to accept some of the prisoners as refugees. If those neighbors are willing to do that, why not cut out the middleman and grant asylum to fleeing Russians now?

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