Those Refusing to Fight in the Ukraine War Should Be Protected

As Russian men fled after Vladimir Putin’s draft announcement, Latvia closed its border with Russia, and Finland said it was tightening its visa policy. Those choosing not to fight need to be celebrated, not shunned.

Viktor Zakarov, a 35-year-old scientist from Saint Petersburg, poses for a photo after passing the passport check at the Vaalimaa border crossing with Russia on September 28, 2022, in Finland. Zakharov, who arrived in Finland with his partner and their three children, says he has five friends who have left Russia since the draft announcement. (Alessandro Rampazzo / AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Congress passed $5.5 billion more in military assistance to Ukraine, $1.7 billion to replenish previously given weapons and equipment, and $3.7 billion for new weapons. This is on top of the up to $40 billion in military assistance the United States had already committed to the war. Given this grotesque amount of lethal aid and the hardening positions on both sides of the conflict, it is hard to envision an end to this horrific war. But with Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21 that, for the first time since World War II, his country would be imposing a military draft, a unique opportunity to support peacemaking has presented itself.

Within three days of Russia’s announcement that it was instituting a draft, 261,000 men, according to a source inside Russia’s Federal Security Service, fled the country. Those who could booked flights; others drove, bicycled, and walked across the border.

Russians aren’t the only ones not up for fighting. According to estimates by Connection e.V., a European organization that supports conscientious objectors and deserters, an estimated 22,000 draft-eligible Belarusians have fled their country since the war began.

Even inside Ukraine, there are men who don’t want to fight.

At the outbreak of the war, Ukraine suspended citizens’ right to conscientious objection and forbade men between the ages of eighteen and sixty from leaving the country; nevertheless, since February, more than one hundred thousand draft-eligible Ukrainian men managed to flee instead of fight. It’s estimated that several thousand more have been detained while trying to escape.

International human rights law affirms people’s right, due to principled conviction, to refuse to participate in military conflict, and conscientious objection has a long and rich history. In 1914, a group of Christians in Europe, hoping to avert the impending war, formed the International Fellowship of Reconciliation to support conscientious objectors. When the United States joined the Great War, social reformer and women’s rights activist Jane Addams protested. She was harshly criticized at the time, but in 1931, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, the Russian organization Kovcheg, or The Ark, helps Russians fleeing because of their antiwar positions, condemnation of the military aggression against Ukraine, and/or persecution in Russia. The Belarusian organization Nash Dom runs a “No means No” campaign to encourage draft-eligible Belarusians not to fight. Inside the war zone is the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement (UPM), which was founded in 2019 when fighting in the separatist-ruled Donbas region was at a peak. According to Yurii Sheliazhenko, who founded UPM, Ukrainian men were “being given military summonses off of the streets, out of night clubs and dormitories, or snatched for military service for minor infractions such as traffic violations, public drunkenness, or casual rudeness to police officers.”

On Tuesday, September 27, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declared Russians fleeing Putin’s draft “welcome” and encouraged them to apply for asylum in the United States. But as far back as last October, before Russia invaded Ukraine, amid tit-for-tat US-Russia tensions, Washington announced it would henceforth only issue visas to Russians through the US Embassy in Warsaw, 750 miles away from Moscow.

To put a further damper on Russian hopes of refuge in the United States, on the same day that the White House held its press conference where it encouraged draft-eligible Russians to seek US asylum, the Biden administration announced that it would be continuing into fiscal year 2023 its FY2022 global refugee cap of 125,000.

You would think that those resisting this war would be able to find refuge in European countries, as Americans fleeing the Vietnam War did in Canada. Indeed, when the Ukraine war was in its early stages, European Council president Charles Michel called on Russian soldiers to desert, promising them protection under EU refugee law. But in August, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asked his Western allies to reject all Russian émigrés. Currently, all non-visa travel from Russia to EU countries is suspended.

As Russian men fled after Putin’s conscription announcement, Latvia closed its border with Russia, and Finland said it was likely going to be tightening its visa policy for Russians. In the words of twentieth-century pacifist, clergyman, and political thinker A. J. Muste, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” That is the path chosen by the Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who are refusing to fight. Their courage should be commended, supported, and recognized as a time-honored choice to wage peace.