Russian draft-dodgers not to blame

No one should be forced to kill or die for Putin’s vanity



October 3, 2022 - 1:34 PM

The Verkhni Lars customs checkpoint between Georgia and Russia on Sept. 28, 2022, in Zemo Larsi, Georgia. (Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images/TNS)

Vladimir Putin’s war is, first and foremost, a war against the Ukrainian people, who are being bombed, robbed, raped and killed by his army. But it is also a war against millions of Russians, whose lives and futures their president is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of his imperial fantasies. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have already died in battle. Having suffered a series of humiliating defeats in Ukraine, Mr. Putin plans to throw yet more young men and women into the furnace.

His order for mass mobilization has caused shock and panic in Russia. Mr. Putin calls it “partial mobilization,” but there appears to be no legal limit to the number of people he can force to go and fight. This has shattered the illusion among Russians that they could ignore his war, or support it passively without disruption to their daily lives.

Until now, those who oppose Mr. Putin’s war — roughly estimated to be at least 30% of Russians, most of them young — have been afraid to speak out. But mobilization has changed their calculus. Faced with the prospect of dying in a frozen Ukrainian field, many have loudly protested against the mobilization. In the past few days nearly 2,500 people have been detained in protests that have erupted from Dagestan to Yakutia. Some have emerged from police cells with visible injuries; others with draft papers. Many face prosecution. At least 20 military recruitment centers have been attacked or torched, sometimes resulting in the destruction of paper records identifying those eligible for the draft.

Others have voted with their feet. Russian officials report that at least 260,000 people have fled the country since Mr. Putin issued his call. Most have crossed land borders into Georgia and Kazakhstan, neither of which require Russian citizens to hold visas. Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, the president of Kazakhstan, says his country will offer a safe haven to Russian draft-dodgers.

The much richer countries of Europe, by contrast, have been less welcoming. Among large European countries only Germany and France have so far indicated that they are willing to let Russians in. To get there, however, most would have to cross borders with the Baltic states and Finland. These countries are a lot less keen.

They — and others — have reasonable excuses. Poland has already accommodated millions of Ukrainian refugees. Russia’s neighbors, including the tiny Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have bitter experience of being ruled from Moscow and remain under constant threat from Mr. Putin, who claims a right to “protect” ethnic Russians in neighboring states. Estonia and Latvia have substantial Russian-speaking minorities, so adding a large influx of young Russian men understandably makes them nervous. You can see why they refuse to open their borders — though they might consider letting draft-dodgers pass through en route to the rest of the EU.

Other countries have less creditable reasons for dragging their feet. Privately, European officials and diplomats argue that if Russians are unable or unwilling to overthrow Mr. Putin’s regime, they bear some responsibility for it.

This argument is flawed. Forcing people to stay and accept the draft so that they get sent to the front to kill and die is cruel. It is also likely to be counterproductive. Closing an escape route could in theory increase the pressure on a dictatorship, feed dissent and hasten its collapse, but that is not how it has worked out in, say, North Korea. More probably, shutting the border would strengthen Mr. Putin’s regime by seeming to confirm the story he tells Russians — that their country is under siege by a hostile West.

Expelling Russian forces from Ukraine will be hard. Mr. Putin may be an incompetent commander, but he has nuclear weapons and dictatorial control of a vast country. The war cannot be won on the battlefield alone. It will also have to be won inside Russia, when enough Russians see it for the pointless waste of life it is and demand that it ends.

The struggle for Russian hearts and minds is one that must be waged primarily by Russians themselves. Mr. Putin is attempting to rally support with the argument that the entire West is fighting Russia, and that it holds Russians in contempt and wants to destroy their country. The West counters that its argument is with Mr Putin and his regime, not the Russian people. It does not want the destruction of Russia, but for Mr Putin to leave Ukraine to determine its own future as a sovereign nation.

If Europe shuts its borders to all Russians, it is handing Mr. Putin tangible evidence that he is right. It undermines Europe’s credibility as a defender of human rights and alienates those parts of Russian society whose interests and values are most strongly aligned with the European Union and Ukraine. It is also failing to shelter the people best suited to rebuild the Russian state once he is gone. Just as it did in the cold war, the West should offer safe haven to the Russians with whom it has no argument.

If the exodus of draftable Russians continues, Mr. Putin may decide to impose his own travel ban on them. In other words, the man who called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century may partly recreate the Iron Curtain. Now, as then, the West should let the tyrant in Moscow take the blame for restricting Russians’ freedom, and welcome the brave souls who escape.