By Rick Mogezomp

The war in Ukraine is a horrible war in which many people suffer the terrible consequences resulting from the insane decisions made by a tyrannical dictator supported by a fascist ideology and regime. Without a doubt, the Ukrainian people are suffering the most. However, that does not mean that we should not give in to the temptation to view every Russian person as a supporter of Putin and his war. Simply being Russian is not a crime! Men fleeing Russia to avoid conscription by Putin’s army should be treated as any other refugee. This is both legally and morally the right thing to do.

Across the EU, we have seen different attitudes toward the idea of Russian men fleeing Russia to avoid being conscripted. While some of the more western countries such as Germany are more open, countries to the east such as the Baltic States are rather hostile fuelled by anti-Russian sentiment resulting from their highly problematic past with their neighbour. The arguments made in statements by eastern European officials should be called out for what they are, which is unrealistic and simple rhetoric. Take for example a tweet by the Lithuanian minister of foreign affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis who tweeted that “Russians should stay and fight. Against Putin”. He went on to say that Russian men could protest, disobey, mutiny, or even become prisoners of war. He added that “Russians must liberate Russia”. 

This example portrays an unrealistic situation, that considers it possible for ordinary Russians to put up considerable resistance against Putin that could overthrow him. This seems to ignore the fact that the Russian president has spent the last twenty years insulating himself and his clique against regime change by annihilating all forms of organized opposition. To successfully achieve regime change political scientists have found that uprisings need the participation of around 3.5 percent of the population. Translating this assumption to Russia would mean slightly over five million people would have to revolt for change to take place. This number is much higher than any of the protests seen in Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine.

The 3.5 percent statistic itself also can be questioned. Looking at a comparable country such as Belarus, we can see that even if the 3.5 percent is satisfied, regimes are not necessarily toppled. During the mass protests after the Belarussian presidential elections in 2018, approximately 700.000 people (14% of the population) went to the streets. Furthermore, even when Russian anti-war protesters went to the streets, instead of achieving the regime change deemed realistic by critics such as Landsbergis, some were detained and subsequently forcibly conscripted. This undeniably shows that the expectations of Landsbergis, among others, are highly unrealistic and unfair.

The stance of blaming all Russians and asking them why they did not become dissidents against the authoritarian regime is not only morally unfair—we do not expect the same of refugees from Iran and North Korea, for example. It is also inconsistent with international refugee law. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees—to which all EU Member States have committed themselves—is based on the criterion of fear of persecution and hence does not require a person to resist an authoritarian regime to get access to a safe haven.

Fleeing to avoid conscription to fight in a war that is considered unlawful does not automatically guarantee refugee status under international law according to refugee law. However, in the case of Russian men fleeing their country, it seems that for many of them two key conditions can be met.

The first condition of having a well-founded fear of being persecuted is easily met as draft evaders face up to ten years of imprisonment and other types of absurd punishment. There are also reports of mobilized Russian troops being severely punished for refusing to fight. An example of this is the cruel punishment camp in Donetsk.

The second condition is that persecution takes place because of one’s political objection to the war (or other grounds listed in the 1951 UN convention). One can think of many political objections to the war in Ukraine as it is an unmistakably illegal war of aggression against a sovereign state. Furthermore, individuals can object based on being at risk of engaging in war crimes that are widespread and systematically carried out by Russian troops in Ukraine. The second condition requires more justification and should be established on a case-by-case basis, but simply denying all Russians refugee status based on them being Russian would constitute a severe violation of international law by European countries. 

Whilst I understand the historical grievances within many eastern European countries, we cannot hold all Russians responsible for the Putin regime. We should not engage in simple politics by telling Russians that they should just stay and put up resistance to achieve regime change, something which is highly unrealistic at this stage. Instead, Russian individuals who try to avoid serving as Putin’s cannon fodder and who fulfil the two key conditions stemming from refugee law should be granted refugee status in EU countries; morally and legally it is simply the right thing to do.

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