This is a guest post written by Felix Bender (Northumbria University). Felix’s research explores who we should recognise as a refugee and here he considers whether we should consider Russian deserters as refugees through a moralised or politicised lens.
“Perhaps the most pressing task of ethics is to warn against morality”. This statement, issued by German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, rings nowhere as true as it does now. Moralism dominates the day. Political decisions are made based on the imperative of differentiating between the blameworthy and the blameless, between approval and disapproval of persons. You are either good or bad, and this should dictate the political decisions you face. But is moralizing the right reaction to a political problem, or does it create more problems than it solves? Does it help in reacting to political crises, such as posed by the exodus of Russian men of fighting age, or does it lead us astray from wise political decision making? I will argue for the latter. Wise decision making should not consider moralizing arguments. In the following, I will show, that there are politically prudent reasons for admitting Russian deserters as refugees.
As Russian men flee conscription in their country to avoid fighting an illegal war against Ukraine, Western governments and the public sphere has reacted with contempt. How is it that most Russians were uninterested in opposing their government when their troops marched onto their neighbors lands, but fled in their hundred thousands’ once they were asked to fight themselves? Should cowardice be rewarded? Should evading the draft be sufficient for welcoming Russians in the West? Should Russia’s men be let in, even if the reason for their flight does not stem from a political disagreement with their government or from opposing the war, but simply from their unwillingness to fight and die for the regime?
These questions introduce moralism to political decision-making. They ask us to differentiate between the good Russians, and the bad Russians – those that we should disapprove of because they had not (yet) voiced their opposition to the Russian government, and those whom we should approve of because they did. They ask us to make political decisions based on distinguishing between good and bad people. But this form of moralization blocks political solutions to political problems.
Perhaps it is better to look at the issue not through a moral lens, but through a political one. Then, the questions differ. It is no longer about whether it is morally right to admit someone who might be blameworthy for not having sufficiently condemned Russia’s autocracy or its invasion of Ukraine. The question then is what refugeehood for Russians achieves politically in this specific situation. Why, thus, should the borders of the West remain open to Russians? There are four reasons why this might be the case.
First, admitting Russian men in fighting age is a direct blow to the Russian army. Estimates peg the exodus of potential conscripts at about 700 000. If it is the goal to weaken the Russian war effort, it is prudent to allow these men to avoid conscription by offering them refugee status in the West.
Second, admitting Russians sends a political signal. The communicative function of political asylum is rooted in its history. It has always been used to condemn the illegitimacy of the actions of other governments. During the Cold War, the West regularly welcomed political exiles from the Soviet block. It allowed showcasing that its system is crumbling under its own illegitimacy. It is no different now. Admitting Russians serves a condemnatory role, and it also signals the disapproval of Russians about the war. The fact that many fleeing Russians did not voice their opposition prior to their flight does not matter. Their leaving, not their motivations, matters politically: they signal opposition to the war.
Third, refugeehood creates political dissidents. It is not only the political dissidents that leave and remain politically active in domestic politics from abroad. Refugeehood politicizes, too. You do not need to be Lenin or Kropotkin to espouse a political opinion from abroad. Being thrown into a different environment and political culture leaves its marks, and it will undoubtedly leave its political marks on all the Russians having fled their home country.
Fourth, and perhaps most crucially, not admitting Russians would threaten the institution of asylum itself. The argument that refugees should be rejected at the borders because they should, rather, fight their respective regimes back home is an old but flawed idea that challenges the liberal foundations of the institution of asylum. It argues that there is an obligation to die for your convictions, and that fleeing is an illegitimate option. It wrongfully confuses the choice to fighting one’s government with an obligation to do so. Yet, if the idea is to protect individuals, no such obligation exists. That does not mean that remaining at home and opposing autocratic police states is not a courageous thing to do, but no individual cannot be asked to shoulder the responsibility of upholding their rights against a persecuting state themselves. In other words, the institution of asylum exists exactly to remedy the violation of fundamental rights of individuals elsewhere. Rejecting Russians, based on the idea that they should oppose their government at home, is tantamount to rejecting Asylum altogether. On this basis, it would be possible to reject any asylum seeker, from those who fled the Soviet Union, to the many Syrians and Afghanis seeking protection. Lastly, it would rid us of a useful political instrument in condemning other states for their illegitimacy, and building oppositional movements from abroad.
Despite the allure of distinguishing between who is a good Russian and who is a bad Russian when it comes to admitting refugees, it seems to be politically prudent to refrain from moralization. Political problems need political solutions. Moralization might soothe our thirst for revenge, but it is of little use to contributing solutions to political crises and to facilitate opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps we should then take Luhmann’s advice to heart and be critical wherever the urge to moralization crops up. We should, in other words, engage in reflection that is critical of the moralization of political matters. We need an ethics that warns of the use of morality.