ADVERTISEMENT

Russian deserters in limbo: Facing criminal charges and unanswered asylum claims

A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023.
A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. Copyright AP/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright AP/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with AP
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button
Copy/paste the article video embed link below:Copy to clipboardCopied

Ex-soldiers deserting the Russian army are prosecuted in Russia and face obstacles in receiving asylum in the West.

ADVERTISEMENT

Faced with the options of death or a bullet in the leg, Yevgeny chose the latter. A decorated hero of Russia’s war in Ukraine, he asked his fellow soldier to 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 the army.

“I joke that I gave birth to myself,” he said. “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.

Ex-soldiers face criminal charges in Russia

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 lives in hiding.

All but one of the soldiers spoke with AP on condition of anonymity, fearing deportation and persecution of themselves and their families. The AP reviewed legal documents, including criminal case files, Russian public records and military identification papers, as well as photos and videos to verify their stories, but it was impossible to independently corroborate every detail.

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, leaped 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. 

While the number of known deserters is small relative to Russia's total troop strength, it signals issues with morale.

“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.”

Asylum claims remain unanswered

Since the full-scale invasion, there has been a surge in asylum claims from Russian citizens, though few have been successful in gaining protection. Policymakers are split on whether to view Russians in exile as potential assets or security risks.

German authorities have stated that Russians fleeing military service can seek asylum, and a French court ruled last summer that Russians refusing to fight may claim refugee status. 

However, in practice, deserters find it challenging to obtain asylum. Most hold passports that restrict travel to just a few former Soviet states, according to lawyers, activists, and the deserters themselves.

In fiscal year 2022, fewer than 300 Russians received refugee status in the US. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Patrol officials encountered over 57,000 Russians at US borders in fiscal year 2023, a significant increase from around 13,000 in fiscal year 2021.

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. 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.

As they count the days until their legal right to stay in Kazakhstan ends, Yevgeny – and the others – have watched other deserters get seized by Russian forces in Armenia, deported from Kazakhstan and turn 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.”

Share this articleComments

You might also like

Aluminium prices soar after UK and US ban Russian metals trade

War in Ukraine: The army says it has destroyed Russian drones

Russian army advancing 'in all directions' in Ukraine - Moscow