Some Argue the U.S. Should Offer Refuge to Russian Troops Who Defect. Could It Even Work?
A few American academics have a different idea. They believe that the United States should provide refuge for Russian soldiers who surrender or defect to Europe as world leaders try to punish Russia through sanctions and trade bans.
Peter Schuck, a former Yale Law School professor, and Ilya Somin, a George Mason University’s Anontin Scalia Law School, each published op-eds on the subject—in The Wall Street JournalThe New Yorker Times, respectively—and Timur KuranDuke University economist, Judith tweeted the ideaFebruary 26, 2006. “Don’t assume Russian soldiers and officers like what they are doing,” he wrote. “Some…must be willing to break ranks, if only they have options. Let’s get it done! [European Union] and NATO countries offer asylum to Russian military defectors.”
Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research institution, says it’s an idea countries should consider. “Countries should certainly offer safe harbor to Russians who run afoul of the Russian government and have protection needs,” she says.
The question of how exactly this would work is another.
Mittelstadt said that this kind of protection would be most likely to occur in Europe rather than the U.S. U.S. Trump Administration destroyed the Refugee Resettlement Programme, which was then gutted by the Biden Administration. According to Mittelstadt, despite a cap on refugee resettlement at 125,000 per fiscal year 2022 the government seems to be on pace to resettle less than 20,000, assuming the current pace continues. “It seems unlikely that the U.S. could play a significant role over the near term in accepting significant numbers of Russian refugees,” she says.
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Somin suggests that Russian defectors could utilize the U.S.’s humanitarian parole program, which offers temporary protections from deportation for people on humanitarian grounds—a quick fix considering the state of the U.S.’s refugee system. Most Afghans resettled in America since last summer’s withdrawal are there on humanitarian parole.
It’s also possible, although not likely, that Congress could act to welcome Russian military defectors. “This is the sort of thing that is just common sense. It’s not a left wing idea or a right wing idea,” Kuran tells TIME says. “We we may have a short window. It could be that Russia…is planning to dramatically escalate using much heavier weapons, much more lethal bombardment, to win the war at all costs. At the moment, it’s not doing that. And during this window, we can increase the chances of unraveling the Russian army by making it easier for soldiers to defect.”
Somin adds that there’s nothing intrinsic to the plan that makes it appeal to either side of the aisle. “It’s a cheap and easy way to degrade the Russian military,” he says.
While the idea appears to have caught the imagination of social media pundits, it’s not close to becoming policy. TIME spoke with a White House official who said that they are not aware of any plans to change the policy.
Learn moreUkrainian officials appeal directly to Russian soldiers and their families as casualties mount
U.S. Department of Defense stated that Russian forces are already struggling with morale, while the Pentagon claimed that Russian troops surrendered to American soldiers without any fighting. Even before the invasion, there were reports that Russian forces had run out of food, gasoline, and other supplies. Though the DOD does not have an estimate, it believes “that a significant number,” of Russian troops, “are conscripts, very young men drafted into service,” said one senior defense official during a March 1 briefing. “Not all of them are apparently fully-trained and prepared, or even aware that they were going to be sent in to a combat operation,” the defense official added.
Kuran, whose academic work has focused in part on why people in autocratic societies often misrepresent their true feelings, suggests that offering a safe pathway to escape to Russian forces already struggling with low morale may trigger defections—which would, in turn, would further lower morale.