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The Dartmouth
June 13, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Lane: The Bear In The Room

The West pulled off amazing feats for Ukrainian refugees when Russia invaded. But is it prepared if the next refugee wave is Russian?

This month, the world witnessed quite the whirlwind of events in Russia. Yevgeny Prigozhin led his Wagner mercenary company in a short-lived but shocking mutiny against the Russian military, with Wagner forces driving from the Southern city of Rostov-on-Don to less than 150 miles from Moscow. If they had completed their march, it would have been about the driving distance between Chicago and Washington, D.C. Given that the whole rebellion only lasted about a day, this is quite a feat — and a very embarrassing one for the Russian government. If it can’t even stop a column of mercenaries driving in broad daylight on the highway, the Russian state seems pretty vulnerable. What matters here is that had the revolt lasted longer, it easily could have generated a massive wave of refugees, and it seems unlikely anyone would have been prepared. Next time, we need to be.

It’s hard to say if the outcome of the power struggle could have been important for peace prospects had it ended differently. No doves work in the Kremlin, and if anything, Prigozhin and Wagner are even bigger pro-war hardliners than the current regime. Additionally, Wagner forces are documented to have been involved in heinous war crimes, both in Ukraine and around the world. The rebellion happened not because Wagner forces refused to carry out Russia’s atrocious war any longer, but rather because they thought the regular Russian military leadership was too incompetent to carry the war out effectively. This was a battle between two sides, neither of which merited any support.

What was important, though, was how ordinary Russians reacted to what was very close to the start of a civil war. Many of those who lived in the areas where the rebellion took place fled. Rostov’s train station was swamped, and flights out of Moscow sold out. Now that Putin’s regime has been exposed as vulnerable, the question we need to ask is this: What happens if there’s another internal power struggle in Russia?

Europe welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms, but Russian refugees are likely to be a harder sell. Not only are there many who feel ordinary Russians bear some level of responsibility for the ongoing war, but the countries bordering Russia — gateways to safety in the West — tend to have had very negative historical experiences with Russia. Most of them were conquered, dominated or otherwise mistreated by the USSR, and it is quite understandable why their people may feel the way they do. Convincing countries like Poland or Estonia to house Russian refugees, or even simply to let them travel through their territory to reach another country, will not be easy. But for the sake of a more peaceful and cooperative future, it is in everyone’s interest to do so.

While those who committed or enabled war crimes should of course be vigorously prosecuted, the ordinary Russian populace must be shown that the West is not their enemy. Should Russians choose to flee, the West treating them with dignity is key to that goal. It is imperative that Western institutions prepare for an opportunity to provide safety to Russian refugees should the need arise. A positive experience with the West will go a long way in breaking ordinary Russians out of the mindset, as they have been told by the Kremlin, that they cannot have a future where we are all better off as friends. Russian propaganda has maligned the West for years as Russia’s forever-enemy, and a reset is essential. 

What would such preparations look like? The obvious first step is ensuring that there’s a plan. Where will Russian refugees go? Is there housing available? How will they be cared for? Who will pay the bills? These are all hard questions, but they are essential and should be answered in advance. With the wave of Ukrainian refugees in the war’s initial stage, these problems were solved on the fly, which is a very risky way of operating. Luckily, there was no collapse back then because of widespread sympathy and altruism towards the Ukrainians. Frontline countries like Poland and Moldova were willing to make sacrifices. Russian refugees likely won’t have that benefit, so it’s essential we plan ahead at international, national and local levels. If the United States were to accept Russian refugees — and it should — how will our community here in the Upper Valley respond? We should be ready to shelter them, or at least support those who do.

There must be a broader discussion not just of how we should be responding to Russia’s actions right now, but also what we hope to help Russia become. All actions we take today must be towards that goal, including those regarding potential refugees. Russia will always exist in the world, so we must find ways to make coexistence as positive as possible. In the past, the West has successfully pacified the perpetrators of wars of aggression by using a strategy of accountability followed by an opportunity for redemption. We must learn from these lessons and apply them to Russia. It must have a pathway to join the Western world after accountability is ensured. Russian refugees would be one of our most prime opportunities to do so.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

Thomas Lane

Thomas Lane '24 is a former Opinion editor.