Russian men fleeing mobilization could bring down Putin — but destabilize Eastern Europe

Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization could signal a last putrid breath for Russia’s KGB king. In any case, there’s no “Make Russia Great Again” in the men pouring out of the country — some 250,000 in the few first days by some estimates, although the actual figure is likely higher and growing. That’s more men than Russia’s original Ukraine-invasion force.

No one expected Putin’s move to be popular, but images of tens of thousands of Russian men of fighting age flooding into the European Union, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia — and really any country willing to take them — have been stunning. One would think Russia is being invaded, not the other way around.

Russians are blowing up recruitment centers (and sometimes themselves). It’s a grim picture and a sobering moment. Putin is in a pickle. But if Putin goes down, he cannot be allowed to take the neighborhood with him.

Some have invoked humanitarian reasons for letting Russian men in. Kazakhstan shares an almost 5,000-mile border with Russia. Authorities there claim nearly 100,000 men have crossed into their country. The men must be cared for; they’re fleeing a hopeless situation, goes the official line. That’s Central Asia.

In Eastern Europe, however, fears and the threat of serious destabilization loom large. For smaller countries in particular, accepting large numbers of Russian men could have catastrophic consequences.

A police officer directing traffic as cars make their way out of Russia and into Georgia.
A police officer directing traffic as cars make their way out of Russia and into Georgia.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS via ZUMA Press

Take Georgia, a country of fewer than 4 million. Russians are already everywhere — filling restaurants and bars, turning up in towns and villages. Twenty percent of Georgia’s territory has been occupied since Putin’s 2008 land grab. Back then, Russians were lining up in tanks to enter Georgia. Today, the line stretching at the Russo-Georgian border is even longer. This time, though, it’s not tanks but private cars of men pouring into the country.

The Russians taking advantage of Georgia’s visa-free regime don’t want to fight; that’s clear. Less clear is what these would-be asylum seekers think about Putinism and its wider goals. Their presence in large numbers could lead to civil unrest and perhaps even violence — both against Georgians and Ukrainian refugees. Their prolonged stay — they’re unlikely to go back any time soon — could provide Russia leverage over Georgia. Think more political interference from Moscow, not less. Remember many Russians support Putin’s revanchist, imperial ambitions.

The Baltic countries have bigger problems. These three nations are even smaller than Georgia. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says stay home and fight your nasty ruler. Estonia has resisted fanciful ideas of political asylum. Latvia just declared a state of emergency at its Russian border.

A group of Russian men have a meal as they prepare to cross the border.
A group of Russian men have a meal as they prepare to cross the border.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS via ZUMA Press

Moscow has manipulated Russian ethnic minorities in the Baltics for decades. Ominously, Russia’s security strategy has claimed the right to militarily intervene abroad in defense of ethnic minorities.

The Kremlin dares not risk an outright invasion of a NATO country. But destabilization from within, that’s an early page from the Putin playbook. Polish officials are concerned about infiltration by Russian security services. Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wasik, says Russians will “wreak confusion, disinformation, and infiltrate Russian opposition circles.”

Look at Moldova, where in the early 1990s Moscow created a war by mobilizing ethnic Russians against the government. Today, mass protests are taking place against Maia Sandu’s pro-Western government. Moscow’s heavy-handed instigation has the entire region on edge.

Not to say that any of this is without its dilemmas. There are indeed humanitarian reasons to consider granting asylum to Russian citizens fleeing conscription. There are those fleeing who claim they’re against the war but felt powerless to oppose it.

What’s more, throughout this invasion, Moscow has predominantly mobilized men from the North Caucasus and ethnic Asians from Siberia and the Far East. These are some of Russia’s poorest regions, targeted by the Kremlin to avoid drafting the privileged Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some of these draftees may actually know little of Moscow’s reckless and brutal Ukraine adventure. With virtually no training, they’re being sent into a slaughterhouse.

The Germans have led in compassion. Let Germany and the rest of Western Europe lead on this. “Let those fleeing Russia go to France, or Catalonia, or Italy,” says one Polish diplomat. Of course, there’s domestic risk and ultimately a potential threat to domestic stability in their countries, too. But first things first: Think strategically, and avoid bitter ironic history.

Imagine Putin’s revanchist dreams turn to ashes yet, however inadvertently, he manages to batter Eastern Europe’s young democracies on his way off the stage.

Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, DC, and co-hosts the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”

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