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The Kremlin has another weapon in its arsenal: Migration policy

How committed is Russia to embracing Slavic migrants from Ukraine and beyond?

- April 11, 2022

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian lawmakers have been quietly aligning Russia’s approach to citizenship with Moscow’s geopolitical aims. More than 4.5 million refugees have left Ukraine since Russia attacked on Feb. 24 — and about 350,000 headed to Russia, according to U.N. figures.

Members of parliament have proposed fast-track citizenship for Russian speakers in NATO countries and Ukraine — and also propose to legally claim all Russian speakers abroad as part of the “Russian world.” On April 5, these bills moved toward their first of three readings in the Russian parliament. Another proposal introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin last December would offer citizenship in cases where Russia’s borders change to include new populations.

Putin has passed numerous decrees, granting visa-free access to foreigners with any passport coming from Ukraine, while canceling simplified visa procedures for diplomats and journalists from “unfriendly countries.”

Russian migration policies have a specific purpose

As my research shows, Russia often uses migration policy to fight geopolitical battles. The war in Ukraine is no exception.

My research evaluates how committed Russia is to its migration policy by looking at the types of legal mechanisms the Russian government adopts. These findings suggest that when migration is managed only by presidential decree, the intent of the policy announcement is mostly symbolic — like the current decree offering visa-free access.

In March, the Kremlin tried to channel refugees into Russia, a proposal Ukraine rejected. Putin’s offer of visa-free access was a signal to other nations that Russia would protect the more than 75,000 foreign students in Ukraine hailing from India, Central Asia, Africa and China.

Russia was probably counting on support in return from these countries, several of which abstained (India and China) or did not vote (Morocco) in the U.N. General Assembly motion March 2 to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

The foreign students, Putin alleged, were being held hostage by Ukrainian forces in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Sumy after Russian troops crossed into Ukraine. Putin positioned himself as rescuer, maintaining close contact with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi until the students were eventually evacuated to central Ukraine.

After the students were evacuated, the Russian media claimed they were mistreated at the border. These statements fit with a common theme of Putin’s remarks highlighting the Western bungling of refugee crises.

Russian treatment of refugees is not consistent

When migration policy involves a comprehensive package of laws, as in the case of citizenship law directed toward Ukrainian refugees and labor migration more broadly, it demonstrates a longer-term commitment.

Russia’s response to those fleeing Ukraine after 2014 was expansive. The Kremlin created temporary emergency shelters throughout the country and changed Russia’s citizenship law to allow easier pathways to citizenship for native Russian speakers.

Even though the parliament passed a flurry of laws to ease the entry of White Slavic migrants from Ukraine, legalization and integration proved difficult. Many were unable to formalize their status and remained undocumented.

In the run-up to Russia’s 2022 invasion, Russia’s minister of emergency situations announced that nearly 300 temporary shelters were open in the border region of Rostov-on-Don for those fleeing Ukraine. Within a week, the number had increased to over 800 shelters in 49 regions of Russia.

In the Moscow region, a proposal by local lawmakers offered Russian passports to those coming from the contested Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, continuing a years-long trend of issuing Russian passports to those living in frozen conflict zones.

As Russia has scaled back its offensive, reportedly shifting troops east to focus on the Donbas region, would-be citizens fleeing east are receiving renewed attention. Regional media outlets throughout Russia, for example, offer instructions for how to settle in Russia.

The refugee flow eastward has paled in comparison to those fleeing to the west. But the Ukrainian government has voiced concerns that Russia may be forcibly deporting Ukrainians. Ukraine claimed a proposed Red Cross shelter in Russia is a move to legitimize this deportation as a humanitarian effort that sends Ukrainians into Russia.

Check out all TMC’s analysis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict at our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Russia’s largest group of migrants have few protections

By far the largest group of migrants in Russia are the millions of workers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries. These migrants enjoy visa-free entry and on-demand access to Russia and its labor market, though they are often racialized because of their Asian appearance.

However, difficult bureaucratic procedures, lack of access to health care, predatory policing, quickly moving deportation cases through the court system without due process, and discrimination in the workplace keep Central Asians in a precarious position in Russia. Some Ukrainians also utilize these same labor migration policies and encounter similar bureaucratic problems.

Russia’s policies toward migrants were becoming even less friendly in recent months. In December, Russian started issuing migrant workers a biometric card with their labor permit and began making migrants pay for comprehensive medical checks, including invasive procedures such as pelvic exams for women.

Russia’s Council on Human Rights, an advisory body to the president, recently proposed a ban on foreign workers altogether to preserve jobs for native Russians. Another proposal being considered by the newly established Migration Committee of Russia’s Security Council would exclude migrant children from public education.

Even when Russia has addressed migration through comprehensive legal changes, there’s been little progress on protecting migrant rights.

Russia’s efforts to “save” foreign students in Ukraine lines up with the Kremlin’s rhetoric of rescuing and freeing those in Ukraine. But the use of one-off presidential decree suggests Russia’s declared commitment to these students is largely symbolic. The more comprehensive approach to Slavic refugees from Ukraine underlines a greater level of commitment to creating a legal framework for the idea that Ukrainians are a rightful part of Russia.

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Caress Schenk is associate professor of political science at Nazarbayev University (Kazakhstan) and the author of “Why Control Immigration: Strategic Uses of Migration Management in Russia” (Toronto, 2018).