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Thousands of Russian soldiers are fleeing the war in Ukraine but have nowhere to go

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If the choice was death or a bullet to the leg, Yevgeny would take the bullet. A decorated hero of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Yevgeny told his friend and fellow soldier to please aim carefully and avoid bone. The tourniquets were ready.

The pain that followed was the price Yevgeny paid for a new chance at life. Like thousands of other Russian soldiers, he deserted.

“I joke that I gave birth to myself,” he said, declining to give his full name for fear of retribution. “When a woman gives birth to a child, she experiences very intense pain and gives new life. I gave myself life after going through very intense pain.”

Yevgeny made it out of the trenches. But the new life he found is not what he had hoped for.

The Associated Press spoke with five officers and one soldier who deserted the Russian military. All have criminal cases against them in Russia, where they face 10 years or more in prison. Each is waiting for a welcome from the West that has never arrived. Instead, all but one live in hiding.

For Western nations grappling with Russia’s vast and growing diaspora, Russian soldiers present particular concern: Are they spies? War criminals? Or heroes? “I did the right thing,” said another deserter who goes by the nickname Sparrow, who is living in hiding in Kazakhstan while he waits for his asylum applications to be processed. After being forcibly conscripted, he ran away from his barracks because he didn’t want to kill anyone. “I’d rather sit here and suffer and look for something than go there and kill a human being because of some unclear war, which is 100 percent Russia’s fault. I don’t regret it.” Asylum claims from Russian citizens have surged since the full-scale invasion, but few are winning protection. Policymakers remain divided over whether to consider Russians in exile as potential assets or risks to national security.

Andrius Kubilius, a former prime minister of Lithuania now serving in the European Parliament, argues that cultivating Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin is in the strategic self-interest of the West. Fewer Russian soldiers at the front, he added, means a weaker army.

“Not to believe in Russian democracy is a mistake,” Kubilius said. “To say that all Russians are guilty is a mistake.”

Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona has documented more than 7,300 cases in Russian courts against AWOL soldiers since September 2022; cases of desertion, the harshest charge, leapt sixfold last year.

Record numbers of people seeking to desert – more than 500 in the first two months of this year – are contacting Idite Lesom, or “Get Lost,” a group run by Russian activists in the Republic of Georgia. Last spring, just 3% of requests for help came from soldiers seeking to leave; in January, more than a third did, according to the group’s head, Grigory Sverdlin.

Overall, Sverdlin’s group says it has supported more than 26,000 Russians seeking to avoid military service and helped more than 520 active-duty soldiers and officers flee – a drop in the bucket compared with Russia’s overall troop strength, but an indicator of morale in a country that has made it a crime to oppose the war.

“Obviously, Russian propaganda is trying to sell us a story that all Russia supports Putin and his war,” Sverdlin said. “But that’s not true.”

The question now is, where can they go?

Farhad Ziganshin, an officer who deserted shortly after Putin’s September 2022 mobilization decree, was detained in Kazakhstan while trying to board a flight to Armenia because local authorities found his name on a Russian wanted list.

“It’s not safe to stay in Kazakhstan,” Ziganshin said. “I just try to lead a normal life, without violating the laws of Kazakhstan, without being too visible, without appearing anywhere. We have a proverb: Be quieter than water and lower than grass.”

He’s still waiting on his asylum applications.

German officials have said that Russians fleeing military service can seek protection, and a French court last summer ruled that Russians who refuse to fight can claim refugee status. In practice, however, it’s proven difficult for deserters, most of whom have passports that only allow travel within a handful of former Soviet states, to get asylum, lawyers, activists and deserters say.

Fewer than 300 Russians got refugee status in the U.S. in fiscal year 2022. And less than 10% of the 5,246 people whose applications were processed last year got some sort of protection from German authorities.

But Russians continue to flee. Customs and Border Patrol officials encountered more than 57,000 Russians at U.S. borders in fiscal year 2023, up from around 13,000 in fiscal year 2021. Affirmative asylum requests nearly quadrupled, to almost 9,000, in the year ending September 2022, the latest data available.

In France, asylum requests rose more than 50% between 2022 and 2023, to a total of around 3,400 people, according to the French office that handles the requests. And last year, Germany got 7,663 first-time asylum applications from Russian citizens, up from 2,851 in 2022, Germany’s Interior Ministry told AP in an email. None of the data specifies how many were soldiers.

Another Russian officer, nicknamed Sportsmaster, made a video diary of his escape. As he was about to leave Russia, he did what he could to make a grand gesture to demonstrate his opposition to the war.

“They wanted to force me to go fight against the free people of Ukraine,” he said to his camera. “Putin wanted me to be in a bag, but it’s his uniform that will be in a bag.”

He shoved his military uniforms in two black trash bags and threw them in a dumpster.

“The worst thing that could have happened has happened,” he said after crossing out of Russia with the remnants of his former life stuffed in one small backpack. “Now only good things are coming.”

Sportsmaster is an optimist. In fact, deserters have been seized by Russian forces in Armenia, deported from Kazakhstan and turned up dead, riddled with bullets, in Spain.

“There is no mechanism for Russians who do not want to fight, deserters, to get to a safe place,” Yevgeny said. He urges Western policymakers to reconsider. “After all, it’s much cheaper economically to allow a person into your country – a healthy young man who can work – than to supply Ukraine with weapons.”

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