Russian Deserters in the European Union? No, Thank You!

By Michał Górecki

In light of the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, on September 21, President Putin announced partial mobilization, showing no willingness to end Russia’s aggression despite the poor performance of Russian armed forces and significant losses in the military personnel. The decision constitutes a substantial escalation, as the successful mobilization of ultimately 1 million troops would give Russia a numerical edge on the battlefield, forcing the NATO countries to offset this advantage. The measure taken by President Putin has triggered protests in Makhachkala, Dagestan, Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg, raising hopes that Putin’s regime may fall. However, the mobilization decree has also caused a massive exodus of Russians, as the fears of being drafted into the military and sent to the frontlines have arisen. Though the numbers of the fleeing are near-to-impossible to determine, estimates suggest that over 700,000 Russians might have fled the country, some into Kazakhstan and Georgia, and some into the EU. These events have prompted European policymakers to ask themselves whether to allow Russian deserters into the Union. The answer should be: No, thank you! — due to security, political, and moral considerations.

Security Considerations

Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the tensions between the Kremlin and NATO have been mounting. President Putin has been threatening Ukraine and the West with the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, hoping to extort some concessions from the two. However, in some instances, the Kremlin decided not to limit itself to rhetorical threats. The actions orchestrated by Russia have ranged from flying drones over Norwegian critical infrastructure, conducting massive disinformation campaigns, spying on German military bases, and alleged severing of marine Internet cables near the Shetland Islands to possibly sabotaging Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines.

The actions undertaken by the Kremlin should prompt European policymakers to realize that the massive flow of Russians into the EU might be taken advantage of by the Russian regime to smuggle its spies into Europe in the disguise of ‘refugees’. President Putin would likely capitalize on that occasion, as many Russian spies performing diplomatic functions have been expelled from the European capitals throughout the last months. This loss in resources will have to be compensated sooner or later. It will allow Russia to maintain on-the-ground capabilities to conduct propaganda campaigns, hostile economic and political actions, and sabotage to further sow destabilization within the European Union.

Political Considerations

Besides the security concerns, the influx of Russians fleeing the mobilization might constitute a political problem too. With the number of Russian nationals rising in European cities, the tensions between the Ukrainian refugees and Russian defectors are likely to grow, and the incidents, such as those in Dresden and other German cities, where Russians attacked Ukrainian refugees verbally and physically, will become more prevalent. Those tensions could ultimately lead to ethnically-tinted civil unrest, which is the last thing Europe needs in dire economic circumstances that have already contributed to high frustration levels among the public.

Not only does allowing fleeing Russians into the EU stand to undermine social cohesion in the Member States, but it also constitutes a missed opportunity to exert more substantial pressure upon President Putin’s regime. Since the 24th of February, the West has done a lot in economic, political, and military terms to induce the Kremlin to reconsider its war of aggression against Ukraine, however, western indecisiveness in this regard is inconsistent with previous policies and potentially prolongs the war. Russia found itself under massive external pressures, while partial mobilization sparked domestic adversity against the regime. Those two factors, if combined, could weaken Putin’s rule and make the Kremlin more willing to start serious negotiations. Allowing the Russians into the EU is counterproductive and diminishes previous efforts of the West, as it relaxes domestic strains in Russia and gives President Putin more freedom to act.

Moreover, the increasing number of Russian deserters in the Member States might bring the Union reputational damage. Western states have been the largest donors of military, financial, and humanitarian aid, displaying unambiguous support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the manifestations, such as those in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Larnaca, where demonstrating Russians displayed pro-war banners and flags with the “Z” symbol, do not bring splendor. Such images run the global public opinion, feed the Russian propaganda machine, and show the European Union in a bad light. President Putin’s media will happily tamper with those images to show the domestic audience that average EU nationals support ‘special military operation’, but their ‘vicious elites’ orchestrated a plot to defeat Russia and assist the ‘regime’ in Kyiv. Such messages would strengthen the pre-existing false beliefs of the Russian population about Ukraine and the EU, leading to the growth of President Putin’s approval ratings.

Moral Considerations

Although security and political concerns are critical, European policymakers should not forget about the moral layer of the war. After Russia invaded, Ukrainian women, children, and the elderly began to flee their homes to seek international security and protection from rape, torture, violence, and murders, which the Russian army brought to Ukraine. The refugees themselves, their mothers, sisters, or daughters have likely fallen prey to these atrocities. They arrived in the EU to seek protection, not to exacerbate their trauma. Telling the refugees to live next to compatriots of their oppressors is morally reprehensible and inhuman. In order to maintain moral legitimacy, European policymakers should draw an exceptionally clear boundary between the victims of the war and the aggressors, between the oppressed and the oppressors, and between Ukrainians and Russians.

Drawing a clear line of distinction is becoming increasingly urgent, as President Putin will likely continue mobilization that will plausibly lead to another wave of Russians knocking on the European door. It will amplify the magnitude of the problem because Russians support Putin’s aggression. In January 2022, 69% of Russians backed President Putin, whereas, in March, his approval rates skyrocketed to 83%. After the mobilization, the ratings dropped to 79% in October. Despite a tiny decrease in public support for President Putin, the support for the war is still pervasive. It is evidenced by a growing number of Russians snitching on their neighbors, friends, and relatives who oppose the invasion of Ukraine. Even more appalling is that the conviction about the righteousness of the invasion is sometimes so powerful that Russian wives cheerfully urge husbands to sexually assault Ukrainian women. Such behaviors require moral condemnation instead of an invitation to be part of the European family.


Though the Russian invasion of Ukraine caught many European policymakers off-guard, they must adapt to the new situation and understand that Russia virtually declared war on the West. This state of affairs is not about to end, as Russians have already received mobilization calls for March 2023. Hence, the Europeans must prepare for a long war and start thinking prospectively and strategically in all fields; whether to allow Russian deserters into the EU is one of those fields.

Some have argued, invoking pragmatism, that the EU should welcome Russian defectors because, in that case, fewer Russians would fight on the frontlines. However, this approach has nothing to do with pragmatism. Instead, it reflects naivety, shortsightedness, and immorality. The benefits of the welcoming policy pale in comparison to the security, political, and moral costs outlined above.

The reality is that the West is at war, as of now, indirectly. The European Union should circle the wagons and ban Russians from entering the Union. Otherwise, if the conflict escalates and the West becomes directly involved — a scenario that cannot be ruled out — we end up hosting the Trojan horse we ourselves invited.

European Horizons welcomes open and innovative analysis on relevant and occasionally controversial transatlantic issues. The viewpoints expressed in Transatlantic Perspectives do not necessarily reflect an institutional position.



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