Are the Fleeing Russians Merely Draft Dodgers?

Ten of thousands of Russian men are fleeing the country to avoid President Putin’s mobilization. Miles after miles of cars are jamming the roads to Finland. Flights to Georgia and other countries are fully booked. For someone who was faced with the draft during the Vietnam War and pondered various possibilities, including leaving the United States, I raise three immediate questions:

1) Are they fleeing this particular war or military service in general?

2) If they are opposed to this particular war, wouldn’t it be more productive for them to protest within the country?

3) How have other countries reacted to their demands to be given special status as political refugees? Georgia has granted one year asylum with no questions asked.

While it is not obvious to make a general statement about all those leaving Russia, it should be noted that many young people left the country after the outbreak of war on February 24. Estimates are in the range of 30,000. Those fleeing now could have left well before the draft was declared if they were radically opposed to the “special military operation.” The fact that they didn’t leave earlier suggests that they opposed doing military service in this war, not war in general. While they may have not agreed with all aspects of the invasion, they still remained in Russia. Those leaving object to doing military service in this particular war. They might have been prepared to serve their country in another conflict.

The difference between objecting to a particular war and all wars should not be minimized. In order to be given conscientious objector status in the United States during the Vietnam draft, one had to be a pacifist, opposed to all violence. The classic question in 1968 was: “If your mother was attacked in the street, would you defend her?” A negative answer, with some form of religious confirmation, was necessary.

If the men fleeing do not want to fight in this particular war, wouldn’t there be the option to participate in protests against the war within Russia. By leaving the country, they are reducing the number of potential anti-war activists. Their objections to serving in this war outweigh the overall objections to the war. “We don’t like the war, we don’t want to serve in it, but we are not so against the war that we will stay to protest,” goes their position.

The same could be said about those who left shortly after February 24. Those who fled soon after the invasion were against the war, saw no future for themselves in Russia, and thought protesting futile.

The risks of protesting against the “special military operation” are very high. Granted. But think of the women in Iran who are burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in public. Aren’t they taking risks knowing full well the consequences they face? If all the able-bodied men who have left Russia recently stayed to protest or refused induction, it might have an effect on Putin’s policies. There is an argument to be made that those who leave the country have no impact on domestic policy.

Similar reasoning would be that those who left the United States in the 1960s for Canada or elsewhere had much less effect on United States’ policies than those who protested in the streets or tried to levitate the Pentagon in Washington DC. While many did return to the United States years later, it cannot be shown that their living outside the country had any effect on the Vietnam War or its end. “Love it or leave it” was the popular refrain that reduced the influence of those who left.

And the question of how the fleeing Russians will be treated outside the country is most intriguing. While many countries welcomed U.S. protesters during the Vietnam War, and Afghan and Ukrainian refugees have been generally welcomed recently, reactions to the Russians leaving have been mixed. The Baltic countries have ended asylum for them. The European Union is divided.

The Afghans or Ukrainians have genuine humanitarian reasons for asking for refuge. So why not the Russians? Is it because there is such a strong anti-Russian feeling in the West? Or is it that countries dislike giving safe haven to those refusing military service? If Vietnam War protesters were accepted during an internationally unpopular war, why aren’t the Russians being accepted with open arms?

My answer is somewhat emotional and personal. When I arrived in Europe in 1972 I was frequently asked if I were a draft dodger. The fact that I had done four years of alternate service in New York – teaching school in the South Bronx and Harlem – carried little weight. The emotional importance of fighting for one’s country, in whatever war, had emotional appeal. Those who don’t fight by leaving their country are judged not patriotic and hence suspicious. The fact that I had served in a way that I thought positive – instead of leaving – did not impress most people. And perhaps that is one reason the Russian men are not welcomed. The very concept of draft dodger, for whatever reason, has a negative implication. Patriotism has a certain valor. Those who are “draft dodgers,” are not patriots.

As an example, this is how the Czech Foreign Minister explained why his country will not allow fleeing Russians asylum: “I understand that Russians are fleeing from ever more desperate decisions by Putin. But those running because they don’t want to fulfill a duty imposed by their own government, they don’t meet the criteria for humanitarian visa.”

A recent article using the patriotism argument suggested that now that Edward Snowden is a Russian citizen, he should also be drafted, implying that since he left the United States and became Russian, he should defend his new country.

Are the men fleeing merely draft dodgers? If they are against the invasion, shouldn’t they stay and protest? What is most important to underline is that internal protests against the invasion will not be possible in Russia as they were on campuses throughout the United States and the streets of Washington. In October 1967, 100,000 marched on Washington DC. In May 1970, President Nixon even left the White House to chat with protesters. Massive marches have not occurred in Russia. Putin will certainly not talk to protesters. So those leaving Russia today probably have fewer options than American males in the 1960s and early 70s. But those fleeing are still draft dodgers, with all the negative implications that phrase entails.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.