By Sabine Siebold and Charlotte Van Campenhout
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -European Union countries started discussing on Monday how to treat Russians trying to get into the bloc to avoid President Vladimir Putin’s call-up for the war in Ukraine.
The number of draft-age men heading abroad since Putin called up 300,000 reservists on Wednesday has posed a dilemma for EU members, particularly eastern states, that had been limiting Russians’ access in response to the war.
It has also raised fears of increased traffic and possible security risks at frontiers.
EU leaders gave mixed messages ahead of a meeting of their ambassadors in Brussels on Monday, with another one planned for Tuesday.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told TV show De Zevende Dag Sunday the bloc should not open its doors widely to those fleeing conscription now.
“I think it cannot be the intention in Europe now to say ‘yes’ to all Russians who are conscientious objectors, or who do not agree with the regime in Russia,” de Croo said.
“Today we hardly hand out any visas to Russians, and I want to keep it that way…. It would be a difficult signal in relation to the many Ukrainian refugees that we have taken in our country to suddenly start taking in Russians as well.”
European Council President Charles Michel took a different tack, telling Politico on Friday the bloc should show an “openness to those who don’t want to be instrumentalized by the Kremlin.”
An EU official told Reuters that throwing the borders open could cause major migratory pressures on the EU’s eastern flank, as well as security risks if Russian agents get in to stage provocation or engage in hybrid warfare.
On the other hand, not engaging would dishearten those Russians opposed to Putin, added the official, who spoke under condition of anonymity.
Russia invaded Ukraine – a former Soviet republic that now wants to join the EU – on Feb.24 by air, land and sea. The war has already killed tens of thousands, ravaged Ukraine’s economy, cities and infrastructure, and pushed ties between Moscow and the West to new post-Cold War lows.
Almost 17,000 Russians crossed the border into Finland over the weekend, Finnish authorities said, while Russian state media said the estimated wait to enter Georgia hit 48 hours at one point on Sunday, with more than 3,000 vehicles queuing.
More than 2,000 people have been detained across Russia for protests at the draft, says independent monitoring group OVD-Info. With criticism of the conflict banned, the demonstrations were among the first signs of discontent since the war began.
On Monday, senior Russian lawmaker Sergei Tsekov told RIA news agency that Russia itself should bar draft-age people from leaving.
Asked about such a possibility, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “At the moment, no decisions have been taken on this.”
(Reporting by John Chalmers, Sabine Siebold, Charlotte Van Campenhout, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Andrew Heavens)