The Volokh Conspiracy

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Vladimir Putin's Partial Mobilization Order Strengthens the Case for Opening Western Doors to Russians Fleeing His Regime

It should also lead Western nations to grant asylum to Russian soldiers who surrender or desert, and those who evade the military draft.


The Russian-language sign in this image says "exit."


Vladimir Putin's recent partial "mobilization" order mandating conscription of up to 300,000 people into the Russian military has sparked protests and led many Russians to try to flee the country. The latter trend is on top of the hundreds of thousands who have already left or tried to do so since Russia's brutal invasion began on February 24.

This situation further strengthens the case for opening Western doors to Russians fleeing the regime, and granting asylum to Russian troops who surrender. The mobilization policy was obviously brought on by Russian manpower shortages and accumulating setbacks on the battlefield. Thanks to the new order (and the possibility of future expansions of it), many of the people seeking to flee now might otherwise be forced into the Putin's military. Every one that manages to escape is one less potential pair of boots on the ground for Putin, at a time when his need for additional manpower is particularly dire. The prospect of saving people from being forced into becoming unwilling gun fodder for Putin also strengthens the purely moral case for accepting refugees, at least those who are potential draftees.

For the same reasons, it is imperative that the US and other Western nations offer asylum to Russian troops who surrender or desert. I described the potential advantages of this idea—first developed by economist Timur Kuran—early in the war; see here and here. At that time, I also explained why Western offers might be useful even as Ukraine makes similar ones.

The case for this approach is even stronger now, because Russia has a more serious manpower shortage (making the loss of troops even more damaging to their cause), and because Russian military morale—a problem since the start of the conflict—is likely even lower now, in the aftermath of recent Ukrainian victories. The policy can also be extended to cover Russians who evade military conscription.

We can and should exclude troops guilty of war crimes. Prisoners suspected of such can and should be tried for them. But Russia's horrible atrocities should not lead us to forego the advantages of granting refuge to surrendering troops who are not guilty of them. To the contrary, the atrocities are all the more reason to pursue this low-cost tactic to help end the war. The more Russian military manpower is depleted by surrender and desertion, the faster Putin can be defeated, and the fewer atrocities there will be.

These relatively new considerations in favor of offering refuge to Russians fleeing Putin's regime are in addition to the moral and strategic benefits I and others (such as Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell), have pointed out in various writings since the beginning of the war. These include freeing people from tyranny, imposing a "brain drain" on Putin's war machine, and bolstering our own economies. For my previous pieces on this topic, see  here, here, here, and here. In one of my earliest articles on the subject, I also described why we should not be deterred by fears that helping dissenters flee would actually help Putin.

And, for those keeping track, I have also consistently advocated opening Western doors to Ukrainian refugees from the war (e.g. here, here, and here)—an issue on which more progress has been made than that of Russian ones. In  other earlier writings (e.g. here and here), I have responded to arguments that accepting Russian and Ukrainian refugees is unfair so long as we are less open to those fleeing war and oppression elsewhere. These are genuine iniquities. But they should be remedied by "leveling up," not "leveling down."