Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations warned Thursday he is concerned that some men fleeing Russia to ostensibly avoid conscription might actually be Kremlin “Trojan horses” meant to wreak havoc later.
“While genuine members of opposition should be considered for temporary protection in Europe and elsewhere, the army of Trojan horsemen of would-be Russian soldiers in Europe may pose a security threat, especially to neighboring countries and beyond,” the ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said.
“Why should we turn a blind eye to the high probability that hundreds of thousands of conscript-refugees now infiltrating Europe [are] the same people who remained loyal & obedient to [P]utin till the very last moment,” Kyslytsya said Thursday.
The accusation exposes the deep divisions among European leaders about how to treat Russian citizens fleeing Russia now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced a “partial mobilization” for the war in Ukraine. While some experts suggest sympathy should be extended to citizens who disagree with Putin’s war, doubts have grown about whether Russians fleeing now are truly opposed to the war, or whether they just don’t want to go to war themselves.
Russian men have been fleeing the country in the tens of thousands ever since Putin made the announcement earlier this month that 300,000 men would be headed to fight in Ukraine. And although the orders are meant for those with military backgrounds, panic appears to have set in that the Kremlin may loosen and expand that eligibility. In some cases, Russian men are being sent without any training to the front, according to a human rights group accounting of the mobilization, which Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has said makes the mobilization, in essence, a death sentence.
So far, Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) claims that approximately 260,000 Russian men have fled the country, according to Novaya Gazeta.
While Ukraine’s UN envoy appears concerned that fleeing Russians may harbor sympathies for the war and may one day be leveraged by the Kremlin, it’s not clear whether the accusations are based on any evidence or whether Russia has plans to leverage deserters in other countries for further chaos. The tone of the complaint echoed other suspicions among European authorities, which have questioned in recent months whether Putin has designs on territories beyond just Ukraine.
Other nations are not keen on welcoming a mass influx of Russians during the war. The Finnish government announced Thursday that by Friday it will be closing its borders to “strongly” restrict entry of Russian tourists due to security concerns.
While there will be exceptions for unspecified “humanitarian reasons,” Finland’s government said welcoming Russian citizens into Finland would be a dangerous step it doesn’t wish to take at this time in the war.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the mobilization declared by Russia have changed the security situation in Europe,” Finland’s Ministries for Foreign Affairs and the Interior said in an announcement. “The Government deems that the Russian mobilization and the rapidly increasing volume of tourists arriving in Finland and transiting via Finland endanger Finland’s international position and international relations.”
Poland and the Baltic states also enacted bans earlier this month in an attempt to punish Russia for the invasion.
Estonia’s Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets said Estonia shouldn’t let Russian people into Estonia now because there is a “collective responsibility of Russian citizens” for the war in Ukraine.
Estonian and Lithuanian officials emphasized they weren’t interested in welcoming Russians to their countries because they believed Russians should stay in Russia and protest the war and put domestic pressure on Putin to abandon his goals in Ukraine, rather than just run away.
“It will hopefully increase discontent among the population. It is no longer just professional soldiers, people from remote regions or convicts who are being sent to the front, but the desire is for everyone to be relegated to cannon fodder,” Laanemets said.
“Things Russian men can do instead of running away to Europe: Protest, disobey, AWOL, POW, mutiny. Asylum for 25 million draft dodgers is not an option. Russians must liberate Russia,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said.
World leaders have drummed up debates about whether Russian citizens should bear the brunt of Putin’s war in Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion earlier this year.
The European Union this year suspended a visa facilitation agreement with Russia, which has effectively increased the processing time for visas and introduced other more restrictive rules for Russians. The EU and the U.K. have also imposed a flight ban on Russian planes, restricting Russians’ movement around the world.
The White House has said in previous months that in issuing sanctions and directives on Russia, the United States does not intend to punish Russian citizens.
“We’re not trying to hurt the people of Russia or the Russian people. We’re trying to… squeeze the financial system and sector to make sure there are significant consequences for the actions of the president,” then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing with reporters.
Russians are welcome to come to the United States and apply for asylum, the White House said this week. The State Department appeared to express openness Wednesday to granting asylum to Russians fleeing conscription.
“What we have made clear is the distinction we make and that a number of countries have made around the world, the distinction between the Russian Government and the Russian people,” State Department Press Secretary Ned Price said Wednesday in a briefing. “We think it’s important, for our part, to continue to have our doors open to Russians who are in a position to come to this country, and we have seen over the course of this war potentially hundreds of thousands of Russians quite literally vote with their feet—Russians who have never had the genuine opportunity to have their voice heard at the ballot box are now in a position to vote with their feet.”
But when it comes to Russians fleeing conscription, the Biden administration appeared to acknowledge there is some grey area that countries will have to deal with in the coming days.
“Each country is going to have to make its own sovereign decision about how to respond to Russians that are seeking refuge and safety within their borders,” Price said. “That is not something that we are going to prescribe.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which will be handling such asylum requests in the United States, did not immediately return request for comment on whether the Biden administration considers fleeing conscription as a reason enough to grant asylum.