The announcement of a partial mobilization in Russia prompted thousands of people to try to leave the country. Michel Ben Gad argues that instead of discouraging Russian citizens from crossing their borders, NATO members should grant asylum to those who wish to leave as this would hasten the end of the war in Ukraine.
President Putin’s announced mobilization of 300,000 reservists to bolster his disintegrating invasion of Ukraine has led to long lines of Russian men trying to escape across the border. Unfortunately, many neighbors of Russia refuse to give them refuge.
Arvydas Anusauskas, Lithuanian Defense Minister said that “being enlisted in the army is not enough”. In fact, Lithuania is a member of NATO, and NATO is committed to helping Ukraine defend itself in every way, unless actively participating in combat. So far, the three Baltic States have been admirably consistent in their support for Ukraine. Yet, rather short-sighted, they are now sending back what are in fact enemy soldiers.
Wars are not won by spawning piles of enemy corpses, but by breaking the enemy’s will to keep fighting. Military rounds, unlike the far more lethal hollow point ammunition supplied to civilian police forces, are designed to be fired from a distance and to pierce through the body of an enemy soldier, leaving them injured (and hopefully, too). to hit and wound the soldier behind him). It is better to hurt an enemy soldier than to kill him. Dead soldiers do not cry out in agony, distracting comrades and sapping their morale. Nor do they need to be immediately treated or bandaged and then carried by other soldiers on a stretcher to safety for further medical attention.
The best is still to capture an enemy soldier before he gets hurt. Obviously, a soldier who surrenders is out of action, but what else? True, frightened and exhausted captives can divulge useful information; but more often than not, the value of whatever little information ordinary soldiers may possess depreciates so quickly on the rapidly changing modern battlefield that its half-life can be measured in hours.
Instead, the real benefit is the impact he has on others. The news that a soldier or an entire unit has surrendered creates a permission structure for others to save themselves rather than risk death or serious injury. In short, like desertion, surrender is contagious. It is for this utilitarian, rather than moral, reason that disciplined armies strive to instill in their soldiers an ethic that favors capturing prisoners, even when it involves some risk, and then treating those prisoners humanely.
While some commanders may encourage a “take no prisoners” attitude in their troops to instill aggression, more often than not such behavior is a sign of an undisciplined force. In his revisionist history of the First World War, Niall Ferguson cites “massive surrender, not slaughter, which marked victory on all fronts” for the allies. This was indeed the perception of people at the time, as confirmed by George Hall’s study on fluctuations in exchange rates on the Zurich currency market in response to news from the front.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Reuters that “refusal or desire to fulfill one’s civic duty in Russia does not constitute a sufficient reason for obtaining asylum in another country”. It’s a very strange way for the top diplomat of a NATO member to characterize an unwillingness to fight in Putin’s failed imperial adventure. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēv, for his part, said that “for security reasons, Latvia will not issue humanitarian or other visas to Russian citizens who avoid mobilization”.
Clearly, the three Baltic states have reason to fear that some Russian men may be intelligence agents sent to engage in sabotage, and they can be forgiven. for not wanting to complement their potentially irredentist Russian minorities. The Baltic States can at best serve as transit points. Other NATO members can and should step in and absorb them – something they can do without burdening their savings in any way.
The Russian government could, in the days to come, take measures to prevent the young men from leaving. That would be an admission of failure and an acknowledgment that support for the war is dwindling. Meanwhile, the morale of the Russian army is already low and the defection to the West of thousands, if not tens of thousands of their potential comrades can only diminish it further.
One might even hope that the offer of asylum would generate a cascade of young men fleeing the country, reminiscent of the flight from East Germany which finally sounded the death knell for this regime. This eventually led to the collapse of the communist bloc and interrupted the career of a certain KGB officer stationed in Dresden at the time. This new exodus could, with a bit of luck, also cut short Putin’s presidential career.
Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: © European Union