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Thousands of Russians have packed their bags and left the country in response to President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a limited draft of troops for Ukraine.  Two Russians who fled to Thailand talk of their and their compatriots’ struggles to seek more peaceful pastures.

File photo of a razor wire. (Source: @ehmitrich (Unsplash License))

Within 30 minutes of hearing Putin announce a partial mobilisation of Russian troops on 21 September 2022, John, a 32-year-old IT consultant, had already purchased a plane ticket to fly out of Russia the next day. After spending two weeks in neighbouring Kazakhstan planning his next move, he ultimately headed to his new home for the foreseeable future: Bangkok. 

“My friend and I discussed a lot about the country where we would like to spend winter. But after our government started mobilisation, I decided to move before our initial plan dates,” he said.

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 with an initial force of 190,000 troops. On 15 October,  nine months after the war began, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that almost 65,000 Russians had died in the fighting. 

Facing a troop shortage, a partial mobilisation of the Russian populace was called to fill the gap. In response, large numbers of Russian men left the country to avoid the draft.  

“The outbreak of the war prompted me to start a new life immediately. A lot of people need a trigger to get themselves off the beaten track.” said Stas, a 33-year-old IT specialist and blockchain enthusiast who moved to Thailand three months ago.

Tourist attraction turned safe haven

Thailand is a popular Southeast Asian destination for Russian tourists. The Tourism Authority of Thailand estimated that some 1.4 million Russians tourists visited the country in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, Phuket remains a popular choice for Russians who made up nearly 17% its arrivals in January 2022 as the island was slowly reopening. Among Russians working from home or taking online freelance jobs, some have decided to relocate  to Thailand, according to John. 

The invasion in February made life difficult for some Russians already living in Thailand. Russian banks were denied access to the SWIFT network. Mastercard and Visa suspended Russian operations. Several airlines also dropped flights to and from Russia, leaving a number of Russians caught unawares and stranded in Thailand without access to online banking or return flights. 

There were work-arounds, however. The SWIFT changes only target some Russian banks, not all of them. The Mastercard and Visa changes only affected cards issued by Russian banks, not other entities. Using UnionPay cards is also an accessible alternative. Finally, while flights to and from Russia are limited, flights to and from its neighbours are not. Neither John nor Stas had any trouble moving to Thailand.

“Living in Thailand has not been problematic,” said Stas.  He qualified his remark by noting that the situation his friends faced was “quite tense.”

Partial mobilisation, unlike a full mobilisation, seeks “only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialities and corresponding experience” said Putin in his speech. Basically, only former soldiers will be called to arms since a full mobilisation has not been declared. 

Nor has Putin officially designated the conflict in Ukraine a war, preferring to call it a “special military operation”. This stipulation has not stopped a flood of Russians from leaving the country in response, even if they are not directly at risk of being sent to battle.

Stas pointed to the mass border crossings into Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Georgia after the mobilisation, noting that these neighbouring states “were literally flooded by Russians. Because of this, rental prices soared by 250-400% in just 2-3 days.” Over 100,000 Russians, John among them, crossed the border into Kazakhstan. John mentioned that while there, he met many like-minded Russians who had fled by car and plane, but were in worse financial shape due to being less prepared.

Calling for peace in the face of aggression 

Stas said he would like to return home, but is not sure when he will be able to do so. “We need to be realistic and take into account the current situation. The war may possibly last for several more years. Our president has opened a Pandora’s box,” he said.

As for living in Thailand, he said it was beautiful, warm, and certainly good, “but I will always be a foreigner here without rights. This fact is a little depressing, and sometimes because of this I miss my homeland.”

While John, Stas, and thousands of fellow Russians have been relocating to Thailand and other countries to escape Putin’s limited draft policies, Thailand has been defining its diplomatic stance on the Russian invasion and the war in Ukraine at the United Nations. 

On 12 October, Thailand voted to abstain from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling on countries not to recognise Russia’s seizure and annexation of territory in Ukraine. This vote is in direct contradiction to its previous stance in favour of the UNGA resolution condemning Russian aggression on 2 March, but falls in line with its abstention on the decision to remove Russia from the UN human rights council on 7 April.

Suriya Chindaawongse, Thailand’s permanent representative to the UN, released a statement to express the reasoning behind the abstention. It declares, in part, that the vote “takes place during an extremely volatile and emotionally charged atmosphere and situation, and thus marginalises the chance for crisis diplomacy to bring about a peaceful and practical negotiated resolution to the conflict that may push the brink of nuclear war and global economic collapse.” It further states that the “condemnation provokes intransigence and therefore greatly reduces the chance for constructive engagement.”

Thailand claims neutrality in the conflict. Tanee Sangrat, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said as much in his response to Khaosod English’s opinion piece on the abstention, tweeting on his personal account “what or who gives you the right to pass judgment on Thailand’s or any country’s foreign policy. Thailand stands on her own side and interests and not with any side in the game between the great powers. We prefer dialogue and diplomacy over more war and losses”.

He later tweeted to “take[s] back the first sentence” of his original tweet. Thailand’s neutral stance is not always so clear. A Thai military-owned and operated television channel was recently caught reporting fake news on reported deaths in Ukraine.

The upcoming APEC summit in Bangkok and G20 summit in Bali may be a chance for Thailand to further define its stance on Russia and Ukraine. Putin’s attendance at the APEC summit on 18 and 19 November is currently unconfirmed.

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