The mobilization announced by Putin a few days ago has become a watershed event for Russia. Most Russians are against it, regardless of their ideology, political leanings or previous attitude toward Putin and his policies. For many, this is the first time that they have refused to accept a mandate from the government and, specifically, one vocalized by Putin personally, which creates a unique opportunity in terms of working with public opinion.
We can anticipate that a new wave of protests in response to mobilization will rise when dead bodies and maimed conscripts start returning from the front and as those deployed begin sharing information with their families, relatives, and friends on what is really happening in Ukraine and in the Russian military.
We may have a few weeks or even months before this process is full swing, but the unprecedented wave of refugees —males leaving Russia to avoid mobilization— is already a massive crisis that demands a thoughtful response.
Minus one soldier
Let’s be clear— every man of conscription age leaving Russia now (and sometimes even a woman, especially with a medical profession) is one man that the Russian Armed Forces do not get. Therefore, it just makes sense to enable this exodus, with financial and emotional support.
Since it is impossible to go from Russia directly to Europe, Britain, or the United States, and many refugees do not even have international travel passports, the main flow of refugees is absorbed by neighboring countries that have visa-free regimes with Russia or allow entry with domestic Russian IDs. Among them are Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. Georgia and Kazakhstan receive the largest numbers of refugees from all over Russia, while Mongolia receives significant numbers from Russia’s border regions.
While the Baltic states have closed their borders to all Russian citizens, Finland has only announced its intentions to do the same. Latest reports from the Finnish Border Agency show a significant increase in crossings by Russians with Schengen visas, residence permits, or passports from other countries. Therefore, by closing their borders, the Baltic states have not solved any real problems, but merely forced Russian citizens with visas, residence permits and passports to seek other routes — via Finland, Georgia and even Mongolia.
For some of the exiles, the initial destination was meant to be just a transit point. They may have plans to move elsewhere or even return to Russia — after the end of mobilization or the war itself. But it does not always work out that way. Those without a long-term plan may soon face serious hardships: they would have to live in locations where they ended up accidentally and without any means of sustenance for much longer than expected.
Modern weapons systems cost an enormous amount of money, and their purpose is to kill soldiers who have been sent to war. If we proceed from this harsh logic, we may look differently at the cost of providing minimal relief to the Russians fleeing mobilization. Think of it as a way to realize savings on military supplies that, thanks to their unwillingness to serve in the Russian army, will not be needed.
By the fall of 2023, Putin will be short 200-300,000 young men fit for military service. Despite the bombastic assertions about a mobilization reserve of 25 million, in reality, the demographic situation in Russia is not favorable at all to Putin’s plans. According to published reports, men over the age of 40 are already being actively drafted into the army, which in itself says a lot about the human resource situation in Russia.
Thus, any flight from conscription should be welcomed — for the sake of defeating Putin as soon as possible.
Decolonization in Real Time
There are plenty of complaints about the people fleeing the mobilization: that they are actually apolitical and had supported Putin until very recently, that they carry with them the values and ideas of Putin’s propaganda.
Never in modern Russian history, have tens or even hundreds of thousands of Russians, and for the most part ethnic Russians, voluntarily fled to neighboring countries from their government, relying only on the mercy and hospitality of Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, Mongols, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Even during World War II, the evacuation of Russian residents to Central Asia was carried out by the authorities. Here, however, we see a unique experience of private exodus, when an average citizen decides on his own that leaving for Kazakhstan or Mongolia is now the way to save himself.
Thus, before our eyes, hundreds of thousands of Russians are undergoing a unique experience of decolonization to which they would never have been exposed in any other setting. For the first time in their former colonies, they are not the masters, not the emissaries of the empire, not its pioneers, missionaries or exiles, and not even tourists, but refugees who depend on the mercy of governments of countries whose existence they either did not think of at all or viewed with imperial arrogance until recently.
Obviously, the hubris does not evaporate all at once. But for some, the experience will determine whether they return to Russia or live the rest of their lives in other countries forever. Therefore, we have an opportunity to actively support a sustainable decolonization narrative for Russian society. It is now that the conversation about decolonization should begin, and it will be much more successful if it begins not with ridiculing and hazing refugees, but with supporting them and demonstrating to them that the world around Russia is not at all what they have been led to believe. This is the time to lay the foundation for a future in which Russia will be a neighbor and partner to adjacent countries and peoples, rather than a constant threat to them.
New Opportunities and Challenges
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and their families are not the traditional audience of the opposition and Western media, with their established worldview and familiar terminology. In fact, we now have a unique chance to work ideologically with a wide cross-section of Russian citizens outside the area of Putin’s propaganda, or in a situation where trust in it has been lost. This moment should not be missed and should be used wisely instead of dumping on an untrained audience all the information that the opposition and émigré media are accustomed to imparting.
Regardless of the views held by those who left, by their refusal to deploy they have already committed a transgression against the authorities. It is important to note that so far the Russian authorities have not launched a wide campaign to smear the exiles. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that a significant portion of the xenophobic and suspicious posts in social networks are the work of Russian structures engaged in propaganda. The objective of this activity is clear: on the one hand, to set the local population against the newcomers, exposing them as bearers of imperial ideology and potential agents of war and Putin, and, on the other hand, to show those who have left Russia that Russophobia really reigns in the world and it is easier for them to return to Russia than to suffer the promised humiliation and abuse. And we must not forget the main goal of Putin’s propaganda, which is to create chaos. Closure of borders, discrimination against refugees and even more so, violence against them — this is what Putin’s propaganda really needs right now to work both inside Russia and with the refugees themselves.
What can and should be done now?
First, it is necessary to review communications aimed at the Russian audiences, turning down the attacks on those who have left and encouraging refusal to serve in the army among those who remain in Russia. It is important to show them that their behavior is approved by the international community and that there may even be help, albeit within reasonable limits, without privileges or special statuses.
Second, plans should be made for working with the local population and local authorities in the host countries is necessary. This can only be done with the support of the United States and other Western countries, which can not only financially support the host countries, but also express moral and political support for them and their population. It is important to support local volunteers, NGOs and public organizations helping refugees — so that these people also get positive experience from their activities and get in touch with international organizations.
For countries like Georgia, accepting refugees is a serious strain on the infrastructure; and for Kazakhstan, it is the first serious attempt to politically resist Russian pressure. Therefore, each country should get its own package of support measures — based on the peculiarities of the situation.
Third, we urgently need programs to help the refugees themselves. Shelters, relief funds and structures of cooperation with local authorities and communities should be created in countries where refugees are concentrated or where there is willingness to accept them further. Existing emigrant and opposition structures should be actively involved. It may be necessary to move refugees from places of spontaneous concentration to other regions or countries, so as not to create unnecessary social tension where it may arise.
Fourth, there is a dire need to develop and launch programs of ideological work with those who have left. It is necessary to involve prominent figures from among emigration leaders, artists, writers, musicians, etc. Pro-Western, pro-democracy, anti-imperial mind set must be actively formed in those who are ready to listen. Decolonization happens not so much by speeches made at conferences as by working with specific groups and reformatting their thinking. Everything that has been accumulated in this sphere must be used now, but taking into account the real state of mind of each and every Russian.
An important problem for the implementation of the third and fourth paragraphs of the above-mentioned program is the complicated relationship between the authorities of the countries bordering Russia and the Russian leadership and its critics. In a practical sense, it is important to explore whether they are ready to allow not only international, but also emigrant organizations to work on their territory. If there are issues with the entry of some opposition figures even into Georgia, can we guarantee that some leaders of the anti-Putin resistance will be able to visit Central Asian countries without the threat of extradition to Russia? Are the authorities of Russia’s neighboring countries ready to stop broadcasting Russian channels on their territory and replace them with Western and opposition Russian-language content? Maybe a compromise could be the creation of new local Russian-language media outlets with the help of emigrants and opposition activists, which would allow for interaction with the local Russian-speaking community. All of these issues need to be resolved as soon as possible, especially in view of the potential emergence of new waves of refugees.