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Ukrainians in Germany fear Russian deserters

September 27, 2022

A growing number of Russian men are trying to leave their country to avoid being drafted into the army. Many in Germany are willing to grant them asylum. But the Ukrainian community is more than skeptical.

A person glimpsing over a fence to watch a group of recruits
More and more Russian men are trying to leave the country to avoid being recruited for the war in UkraineImage: Alexey Malgavko/REUTERS

When Ukrainian national Kateryna Rietz-Rakul first heard that Germany wants to take in Russian deserters, she thought it was a bad joke. "I thought this can't possibly be true, I couldn't believe it at first. Until I watched the evening news," says the interpreter, who has lived and worked in Germany for 20 years.

There, she was amazed to see German politicians from all three ruling parties literally falling over themselves with offers of help for the Russian conscientious objectors who are seeking to leave the country since President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization last week.

"Those who hate Putin's policies and love liberal democracy are welcome to join us in Germany," said German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann from the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

"To support such people, to give refuge to such people, I really think that is natural reaction," said Lower Saxony's Premier Stephan Weil from Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

And the parliamentary secretary of the Green Party, Irene Mihalic, demanded: "Anyone who does not want to take part in Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine, which is contrary to international law and murderous, and therefore flees Russia, must be granted asylum in Germany."

Russian men flee military mobilization

Rietz-Rakul, who works with Ukrainian fellows at the Humboldt Forum, cannot understand this attitude. Giving asylum to Russian deserters is a clear political mistake, she says. "These are not opposition figures or dissidents. These are men who just don't want to risk their own lives. They had no problem with Russian policy until just a few days ago, and now they have woken up. But it's not the West's job to protect these people."

The Ukrainian recalls videos that have gone viral these past few days. They show the situation at Russia's border with Georgia. An estimated 50,000 Russians have already fled to the neighboring country in recent days, partly because Poland and the Baltic states have virtually closed their borders to Russians, fearing infiltration by spies.

"That's where we see Russians getting upset because they're being turned away because they either have a Z sticker on their car or Z tattoos on their body," Rietz-Rakul says. She is referring to the letter "Z" which has come to symbolize support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"And then you hear comments like, 'Georgians, you better remember the tanks of 2008' [when Russia invaded Georgia — the ed.]. In Germany, people always say, if only we had listened to the Eastern Europeans earlier. But now they're not listening to the Eastern Europeans again," Rietz-Rakul complains.

But can Germany really turn away people who don't want to join the Russian war of aggression?

One argument often repeated by German politicians is that every soldier who receives asylum in this country is one less soldier for Putin's army. But that's a naive fallacy, according to Kateryna Rietz-Rakul. "Russia will get its 300,000 or one million reservists together one way or another. Letting some deserters into Germany won't change that fact — it will just mean that we will have a big security problem here."

Russian reservists in Krasnodar
Over the past week reservists have been drafted also in remote regions in RussiaImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Major challenge: security screening

The Federal Interior Ministry has stressed that asylum is granted on a case-by-case basis that includes a security check. Especially with applicants who are members of the Russian military, it is necessary to know who they actually are. Friedrich Merz, the chairman of the largest opposition party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) has said in an interview with private broadcaster Bild TV that he is "strictly against providing access to Germany for all conscientious objectors to military service, and the mobilization in Russia." And Rietz-Rakul also wonders how the German authorities will cope with a possible flood of applications in the current situation.

"We are already overwhelmed here in Germany with the reception of Ukrainian women and children, with providing housing and checking documents. Now, many federal states are saying we are overcrowded and cannot take in any more refugees. So where are these men from Russia going to go? How will this security check take place? And how will their social networks be vetted?" the Ukrainian asks.

More than a million people from Ukraine are already registered in Germany, mostly women and children. Many of them fled Russian soldiers, Kateryna Rietz-Rakul points out. Now they could face Russian soldiers again in their new homeland if Germany grants them asylum as deserters.

Statue by the Brandenburg Gate showing Vladimir Putin swallowing Ukraine
Since the war began on February 24, there have been many solidarity protests across GermanyImage: Christian Behring/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Ana* came to Germany from Ukraine as a child and is now an activist for the Ukrainian diaspora association "Vitsche," which is also leading the pro-Ukraine protests in the German capital.

"Of course, we activists are afraid, because already now we often face provocations at demonstrations, where people with a Russian background try to provoke participants. Germany is not aware of the looming security threat here," she says.

A week ago, Vitsche demonstrated in front of the German Defense Ministry in favor of deliveries of infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. In October, they are planning to draw attention to how intellectuals in Germany are allegedly falling for Russian propaganda. The nongovernmental organization's work also includes scouring Russia's social media.

"In Russian Z-groups, many people cheered quite loudly when any war crimes happened," Ana recalls. "After mobilization, the same people suddenly fled or want to flee. They should not be allowed to enter this country. Because the Russian army is suffering a lot of losses right now, they would rather watch the war comfortably from a distance. But you don't know if they are really distancing themselves from this war as well."

Helpers giving food to refugees at Berlin train station in March,2022
Ukrainian women and children began arriving in Berlin just after the war began Image: Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance

Ukrainians criticize German 'naivety'

Ana also does not believe that security checks can sufficiently scrutinize Russian deserters; chat histories, after all, are easy to delete.

She says it is the apolitical, privileged middle class from the larger cities who wants to leave the country now. "They have good connections and the money to afford these expensive flights. And certainly, the means to disguise what their position has been the last few months."

The Ukrainians in Germany feel that Germany's stance on the Russian deserters reflects the general attitude: Still many in this country believe in the myth of the good, mysterious Russian soul, says Ana.

"This naivety has brought us to where we are today," she warns. We used to open our arms in Western Europe and say, see our values, we accept you, we tolerate you and you can do what you want. But this naivety is not going to get us anywhere. It will only further jeopardize our security and also the security of Ukrainian refugees here in Germany."

This article was originally written in German.

*Ana did not want to reveal her real name for security reasons.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.