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New Russian Exodus: Russians Protest With Their Feet Against Putin’s War in Ukraine

By Lisa J Walters, on 21 October 2022

Written by Svetlana Ruseishvili[1], Oswaldo Truzzi[2] and scholars of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair for Refugees at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. Svetlana Ruseishvili will be a Visiting Scholar at UCL SSEES for Term 2, 22-23. 

Putin’s attack on Ukraine resulted in casualties, destruction, and large-scale migration. In Ukraine, the main demographic consequences of the war were the massive loss of life and the vast number of refugees and internally displaced persons. Since the war began, thirteen million people have been displaced from Ukraine, both internally and abroad. According to UNHCR estimates, 7.4 million Ukrainian refugees have been registered in Europe. About 3 million people left or were taken to the Russian Federation.

The scale of emigration from Russia itself became unprecedented. Although emigration from Russia for political and economic reasons occurred before the war, it was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that triggered a massive flee to nearby visa-free countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Estonia, and Latvia. According to rough estimates, between 500,000 and 1 million people left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Exact statistics are unavailable, as emigrants have left and continue to flee in an emergency, without de-registering in Russia, arriving in visa-free countries. This is a massive new exodus from Russia.

A new wave of emigration of people who disagree with Putin’s policies intensified with the announcement of a partial mobilisation of the military conscript population on September 21, 2022. The young men of conscription age fleeing Russia are actively “protesting with their feet” against Putin’s policy, not wanting to go to a senseless war.

On the first day of the mobilisation, air tickets for all visa-free countries were sold out. Queues lined up for kilometres at the borders with Mongolia, Finland, Georgia, and Kazakhstan of working-age men wishing to leave the Russian Federation to avoid being drafted into the army.  For example, one day after September 21, according to the North Caucasus Customs Department, 1,511 cars entered Georgia from Russia. On September 24, the queue at the Upper Lars border checkpoint between Russia and Georgia was 15 kilometres, and the waiting time was 24 hours.  By September 25, the waiting time at the border checkpoint had reached up to 50 hours. Restrictions were imposed; only North Ossetia and Georgia vehicles were allowed through. People buy bicycles and scooters to cross the border. Reuters reports that during September 21-25, 17,000 Russian citizens crossed the Russian-Finnish border, 80% more than the previous week.

There is a certain resistance in western countries to recognise Russians as asylum seekers. The Russians themselves also find euphemisms to refer to their displacement: “relocation” (relokatsia) is the most common term in use that aims to emphasize the emergency and temporary nature of the fleeing. However, as a matter of fact, every forced displacement is usually thought of as temporary both by the individuals and the state’s authorities, although it always tends to endure. The term also refers to the fact that the first group to flee after February, 24, were flexible, self-employed workers and service providers, such as IT, liberal and creative professionals, who could quickly relocate their productive activities. But this is not the case anymore for most of the population.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees define a refugee as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him— or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution (Article 1A(2)). It seems that those who fled Russia to avoid taking part in Putin’s war in Ukraine indeed fear being persecuted and thus can’t be “punished” and disciplined by denying asylum.

Escape as a political action

Russians are exercising their “right to escape” which could be seen as a specific modality of political action. As Sandro Mezzadra puts it, escape and desertion as a political category have always been suspicious from the nation-state standpoint. In the national imaginary, they are strongly connected with betrayal, cowardice and antipatriotic behaviour. But escape, as an act of civil disobedience, also has been a collective protest action, like in the case of the Russian Revolution or the peace movements during the Vietnam war. It seems that in the context of generalized surveillance, police violence and human rights violation in Russia, the exodus could be seen as a way to oppose the authoritarian Putin regime.

Meanwhile, the official Russian authorities see emigration as a bloodless and easy way to eliminate opponents. Repeatedly in 2022, top Russian officials made negative statements charging emigrants with being “enemies of the state”.

For example, Putin said: “The natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen Russia… Against the background of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, traitors who are leaving the country appear”. The emigration issue is used ideologically to affirm the supposed unity of the people behind their leader.

On July 30, 2022, Duma Speaker Volodin called “traitors” the Russians who decided to “wait out” the “special military operation” abroad. Mukhitov, assistant secretary of the Security Council, called Russian cultural and business figures who had spoken out against Russia “traitors and renegades”. These statements indicate a government’s willingness to persecute and disqualify those who are fleeing the country.

In order to avoid people’s resistance to recruitment, the Russian government began with the poorest regions and ethnic minorities. Many residents of Russia’s national republics, including Buryatia, Chechnya, and Dagestan, were thrown into the war in the first place. While the Dagestan population rose up in collective action against the forced mobilization, Buryatia suffered the greatest losses. After the announcement of mobilization, many men born in Buryatia rushed across the state border into Mongolia. Former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj said: “Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvinians and other national minorities in Russia were “used as cannon fodder” in Ukraine”. He urged these and other nationalities to go to Mongolia, where they would be warmly welcomed.

Mobilization also affected migrants residing in Russia. Desperate to recruit more men, Kremlin has promised to facilitate the issue of Russian citizenship to migrants who would serve in the army for one year. Moreover, it seems that people with dual citizenship also receive summons and are forced to flee back to their countries of origin. This is especially problematic for those who are trapped in the country, like refugees and forcibly displaced people staying in Russia.

Russians hosted abroad

New emigrants from Russia find themselves between a “hammer and anvil”. On the one hand, many men subject to mobilisation, activists, and opposition activists cannot stay in their country under political pressure and are trying to emigrate by all means. On the other hand, some countries are reducing opportunities for Russians to emigrate. They are closing the borders to Russian citizens, cancelling airline flights, and limiting the issuance and renewal of visas and residence permits.

The most severe reaction was caused by the Baltic states, which first refused to issue Schengen visas, and then banned Russians with Schengen visas issued by other countries from entering their territory. Similar measures have recently been introduced by Finland. Latvia stopped issuing residence permits to Russian citizens based on real estate ownership. In Georgia, the rhetoric of some politicians has radicalized, trying to problematize the influx of large numbers of Russian men as a threat to national security, promote restrictive measures on the border and encourage Russians to leave Georgia for Turkey and other countries.

On the other hand, some Western countries have simplified procedures for certain categories of Russians. For example, Great Britain, from March 10, 2022, simplified the Global Talent Visa for Russian citizens, whose holders can develop their own businesses or research projects and obtain employment without being tied to an employer. The Russians became the fifth group of immigrants to the USА by the number of approved green cards. Nevertheless, there has been also an increase in irregular crossings of the Mexico-USA border by Russian citizens.

Following the announcement of mobilisation in Russia, German authorities announced that they would accept people who had refused to be mobilized into the Russian army. Federal Interior Minister Feather said: “As a rule, deserters threatened by brutal repression are given international protection in Germany. Those who bravely oppose Putin’s regime and therefore face the greatest danger can apply for asylum in Germany on the grounds that they have been politically persecuted. The granting of asylum, however, she said, is an individual decision, in the context of which a security check is also carried out”.

Russian opposition social scientists have already argued that restrictive measures against Russian refugees can produce a contrary effect. They may encourage the rhetoric of resentment that ideologically underpins Putin’s regime. They also send a contradictory message to the Russians: if the West wants to stop the war, why doesn’t it welcome those who are leaving everything behind to avoid going to the combats?

[1] Lecturer in Sociology at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil, academic director of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair for refugees (UNHCR/Federal University of São Carlos) and leader of the InterMob Research Group.

[2] Professor at the Graduate School of Sociology at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. Leader of the Research Group “Social History of Labour and Migration”.

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