In the middle of the night, a few hours after Putin announced ‘partial mobilization’ for the war in Ukraine, there was a hammering on the door of Bayar’s flat in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia. His parents had been expecting this and they refused to open. “He’s not here. We don’t know where he is,” they called out. At dawn, Bayar, a young Buryat eligible for the draft, fled to a friend’s place in the country. For two days he could not decide what to do. Should he try to escape across the border to Mongolia? His wife would not be able to come – she was pregnant and looking after a young child. Also, there were rumours that men were being captured en route to the border, or even issued with the draft-notices by the border guards. These rumours persuaded many Buryats and Russians that they were trapped, there was no alternative but to go to the recruiting-office as ordered. However, Bayar did not want to fight this war. He knew about the dreadful conditions in Russian prisons and had also heard of the confusions and shortages of equipment facing the recruits in training camps. So he joined together with two friends, got hold of a car, worked through the long queue to reach the border at Kyakhta, and managed successfully to cross into Mongolia. Here his family had distant relatives and they welcomed the young man. They put him up for two weeks in their apartment in Ulaanbaatar, and then helped him with the otherwise almost impossible task in a city crowded with refugees of finding a flat to rent and work to earn a living.Neighbors are put in a difficult position
This story is typical of many Buryats escaping from the military draft. It speaks both to the relation between Buryatia and Mongolia, which I discuss later, and to the wider issue of how the countries neighbouring Russia are refusing, welcoming – or perhaps merely enduring – the influx of tens of thousands of escapees. While the neighbours to the west, such as the Baltic states, do not let in Russians escaping mobilization, this is not true of countries to the south and in Central Asia. In fact, as of early October, the number of refugees they have taken in exceeds the 200,000 who enlisted
. By far the greatest number fled to Kazakhstan with its long border and good railway links with Russia, but Georgia, Armenia, and Mongolia have all accepted substantial and even nationally destabilizing numbers. These flows have put international relations under pressure. Although Mongolia was not formally part of the Soviet Union, it existed under heavy Soviet influence for most of the 20th
century. The proverbial saying ran: “Kuritsa ne ptitsa, Mongolia ne zagranitsa
” (“A chicken is not a bird, Mongolia is not abroad”). Today, even though Mongolia has extracted itself from Russian dominance and pursues its own path of more Western-friendly relations, it remains very dependent on Russia for electricity, gas, and rail transport, and of course it also has to balance this with the massive economic clout of China to the south. The country’s political stance is far from clear-cut.
During the seven months of the war with Ukraine relations between Russia and its neighbours ran according to unofficial rules, according
to Kirill Krivosheev. Russia, wary of destabilizing the region, did not demand that these countries recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics nor declare support for the ‘special operation.’ It was enough to remain neutral and, most important, not to supply Ukraine with weapons or ammunition. Russia tolerated pro-Ukrainian media publications in these countries
and statements by opposition politicians. But this fragile status quo changed with the mobilization. The mass exodus (100,000 to Kazakhstan alone in one week) forced the neighbours into taking a more definite stance. For simultaneously Russia was openly trying to attract migrants from these countries, offering good pay and a fast-track citizenship process in exchange for signing up to fight in the army. Such conditions are potentially very attractive to men from the poorer countries of Central Asia.
Meanwhile, the accepting countries have had to work out what to do with the mass arrivals. So far, they have stated that they will not extradite Russian nationals refusing the draft. Nevertheless, the incomers only have the right to stay for a certain period, varying between one month and a year according to the country, before they are expected to move on or apply for residency through stringent procedures. In Kazakhstan in particular, there are problems of housing, rent rises, and work opportunities; in Georgia, the arrivals face unfriendly protests (“Occupiers! Terrorists!”) by locals who have not forgotten Russia’s incursion into their own territory in 2008.Mongolia: Mixed response to Russian refugees
Mongolia has been one of the more welcoming of neighbouring countries to the fleeing escapees. On 23rd
September Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the former democratic president of that country, gave a video address in which he called on Russia not to fight against Ukraine. Speaking in English, thus addressing a global not just a regional audience, he declared that Ukraine has a right to exist as an independent sovereign nation. He invited Buryats, Tuvans, Yakuts, Kalmyks and representatives of other peoples ethnically close to the Mongols fleeing mobilization to come to Mongolia: “We Mongols will greet you with open arms and an open heart.” Yet the situation is considerably more complicated than this warm invitation implies. Since 2017 Elbegdorj no longer holds office, and the current government is trying to maintain strict neutrality. The public response is also mixed.