Europe faces dilemma on Russians fleeing Putin’s draft

BRUSSELS – The European Union is facing a tough balancing act over how to deal with Russians fleeing military mobilisation, as some countries look to block entry and others offer possible refuge.

President Vladimir Putin’s order on Wednesday calling up hundreds of thousands to fight in Ukraine appeared to send droves of Russian men scrambling for the exit in a bid to avoid going to the front lines.

Flights to countries granting visa-free entry to Russians, mainly neighbouring former Soviet republics, were nearly entirely booked up despite rocketing prices, and queues were reported at some borders.

So far, the numbers coming to the EU seem modest as the bloc had already curtailed travel from Russia by banning direct flights and toughening up visa rules in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

Finland – the only member that had kept its land border open with Moscow – reported that arrivals from Russia doubled to 6,470 the day after Putin’s announcement.

But despite the small scale, the issue is stirring debate in Brussels as EU members adopt starkly differing approaches to Russians looking to escape the fighting.

The Baltic states and Poland – which had already gone further than others in the EU by drastically restricting entry for Russians with visas – are leading those taking a hawkish line.

“Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then,” Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, wrote on Twitter. “There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go (to).”

Estonia’s interior minister, Lauri Laanemets, told local media, “We should not offer protection to deserters.”

“That would be fundamentally contradictory to the aim of all our sanctions so far, which is the collective responsibility of Russian citizens,” he said.

Finland on Friday signalled that it was taking the same track by announcing it would “significantly restrict the entry of Russian citizens” after the uptick in arrivals that followed Putin’s decree.

‘Overthrow Putin’

At the other end of the spectrum, Germany signalled on Thursday that it may be ready to take in Russians fleeing conscription.

“Deserters threatened with serious repression can as a rule obtain international protection in Germany,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

“Anyone who courageously opposes Putin’s regime, and thereby falls into great danger, can file for asylum on grounds of political persecution,” she said.