In the days since Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s largest mobilization since World War II, some 400,000 Russians have fled the country, with many more attempting to follow. Some neighbors, including European Union states, are fretting about the consequences. The reluctance of front-line countries to absorb new waves of Russian exiles is understandable — but closing the doors to them will only strengthen Putin and undermine the West’s goals in Ukraine.
Putin’s mobilization order has shocked the Russian public, much of which had until now regarded the invasion as an unpleasant mess to be ignored. Though the Kremlin claims its call-up of 300,000 troops applies only to former military personnel, there’s ample evidence the net is being cast far wider. Russia’s annexation of areas in Ukraine that its forces barely hold will require even more men to be rushed to the front; many are reportedly being deployed without medical checks or substantial training. In one unverified video widely circulated on social media, an officer tells recruits to bring their own mats, tourniquets and even tampons to stanch the bleeding from bullet wounds. Pharmacies have reported a run on first aid kits and material.
In the first week after Putin’s announcement, the number of Russians traveling to the EU increased by 30%. Nearly half went to Finland, which last week closed its border to Russians seeking to enter for reasons other than to work, study or visit relatives. Those who favor denying Russians entry or limiting it to those with actual conscription papers argue that many of these men have not been active opponents of the regime, so should be left to deal with the consequences. Their fear and anger, the argument goes, should be channeled into collective protest at home and overthrowing Putin. There are also worries about how Russians will fit with existing refugee populations, which include millions of Ukrainians.
And yet shutting doors to Russian refuseniks would be counterproductive to the West’s most pressing aim: draining Putin’s war machine, already struggling with mounting casualties and badly in need of reinforcements. For one, if these men are turned back, there is no guarantee they will rise up against the regime, let alone that such protests will succeed. But it’s almost certain that they will end up being sent to fight, probably sooner rather than later. Even more importantly, those leaving are men Russia cannot afford to lose. A lack of manpower is already straining the Kremlin’s efforts to build a self-reliant fortress and circumvent sanctions through parallel imports of technology and other goods. There’s a reason companies have been left scrambling to exempt staff from draft orders.
For tactical reasons alone, Western countries should help more Russians get out. EU member states that support entry for refuseniks, such as Germany, should facilitate their resettlement from countries bordering Russia that are smaller, and for historical reasons more reluctant to let them in. European governments should provide more visas for students, scientists and other Russians with technical skills. Europe and the US can step up humanitarian support for non-EU countries struggling to deal with the social and economic strain caused by the influx of Russians, particularly in central Asia. All the while, the West must keep supporting Ukraine militarily while tightening up sanctions, as Brussels is attempting to, thereby ensuring pressure on the Kremlin from all sides.
The plight of Russians seeking to avoid the battlefield pales in comparison to the suffering Putin has inflicted on the people of Ukraine. Yet giving more Russians a way out erodes Putin’s ability to prosecute his assault. The West should make the most of it.
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The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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