The Russians settled abroad and whether they’re on Putin’s payroll
Millions have fled Russia in recent years as they look to escape the despotic rule of Vladimir Putin. And in recent months this number has been boosted by those desperately avoiding conscription into the bloody war in Ukraine.
But wrapped up in the figures, away from the legitimate escapees of Russia, are feared to be a huge number of Putin’s spies looking to sew unrest in neighbouring countries.
Hundreds of thousands have left Russia in recent months and in the nations receiving the most immigrants from the Federation, suspicions are mounting that Kremlin spies are also finding their way in.
No better is this threat exemplified than in Georgia.
In 1990, Soviet troops brutally dispersed a pro-independence protest in Tbilisi, leaving 21 dead and hundreds injured.
Their hopes to keep the country in step with the rest of the USSR were quashed a year later, as with many republics, when Georgia formally declared its independence for a second time, on December 26, 1991.
Unlike in the Baltic states where a peaceful settlement and forming of government happened, Georgia experienced a deadly civil war for the next two years, in large part fuelled by Russian separatists who wanted to remain a part of what they saw as the mother country.
Georgia soon lost control of the province of South Ossetia to the separatists, and Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the region. Soon it lost another province, Abkhazia, which fought to become independent and did so with Russia’s support. Both are today occupied by Russian forces.
On Thursday, facing mass protests and widespread criticism from the international community, the Georgian government said it would drop controversial legislation targeting organisations funded from abroad.
The bill would have required all non-governmental groups and media outlets receiving over 20 percent of their funding from outside the country to register as “foreign agents” or face fines, with critics saying the bill would limit press freedom and undercut Georgia’s recent efforts to align with Western powers.
The bill — which was viewed as an authoritarian shift and aligned with Russian law — comes amid increasing fears of covert meddling in Georgia and elsewhere from Russian operatives.
The most alarming reports from within Georgia itself suggest Moscow could be planting “agents of influence” to set the stage for an attempted invasion and annexation, as it did in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas and Luhansk regions.
Georgia: Protestors break windows at the Parliament
Agents of influence
When 400,000 Russians flocked to Georgia in trains, planes and cars in the first half of last year, in the wake of the outbreak of war, many residents were left wary.
It was not only Georgians that were fearful but genuinely persecuted Russians who were terrified fellow nationals were actually “intelligence assets” recruited by the feared FSB, Putin’s Federal Security Service.
In Georgia – which applied for EU membership alongside Moldova on March 3 just days after Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s border – clandestine efforts are already thought to be well underway.
Speaking to Express.co.uk last month, Natia Seskuria, founder and director of the Georgian Regional Institute for Security Studies (RISS), said among the hundreds of thousands of Russians flowing into the country, it was very difficult to tell if people were genuinely fleeing Putin’s oppression. Many of them could, in fact, be “agents of influence”.
And this is more than mere speculation: one Russian in Tbilisi was unmasked as an informant sent into Georgia to watch the dissidents who had recently fled Putin.
The spy revealed how he was originally recruited when threatened with imprisonment after being arrested for taking part in a march supporting jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
He explained how he had a “pre-departure briefing” with Kremlin officials where he was told “to go to cafes and restaurants in Tbilisi requested by the Russians”.
He said: “I wasn’t supposed to ask any questions or go out of my way to meet people, just observe and keep my thoughts to myself. Then, once a week, I was supposed to report to my coordinator what the general scene was like and if I had picked up on anything important.”
“I wasn’t supposed to ask any questions or go out of my way to meet people, just observe and keep my thoughts to myself. Then, once a week, I was supposed to report to my coordinator.”
But concerns spread beyond Georgia. Putin has dispatched dozens of consuls to former Soviet dominions and allies to stir up pro-Russian sentiment and shore up support for Moscow among local officials.
Putin has maintained strong ties to Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko – who supported and facilitated the invasion of Ukraine from day one – but a number of former close allies have gone cold on the Russian leader of late.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan declined to recognise the Kremlin’s declaration of Donbas and Luhansk as now parts of Russia. In January Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan cancelled Russian military drills scheduled to take place in the country later in the year.
As Russia’s out-in-the-open diplomatic efforts come up short, many fear the Kremlin will increasingly resort to more subversive measures honed during the Cold War to ensure its long-term ambitions are fulfilled. This has entailed election interference and disinformation campaigns in the past.
The Soviet Union today
There has never been any ambiguity as to Putin’s intention to restore Russia as a great power. Although his primary focus on taking over the young ailing state in 1999 was on restoring stability and the Kremlin’s authority, his attention soon turned outwards.
In a 2005 address, the Russian president described the collapse of the Soviet Union 14 years earlier as a “major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. His obsessive aim to right this perceived wrong was made clear following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said: “Putin’s plan is simple. He wants to restore the Soviet Union in one form or another. Ukraine here is his main enemy.” But most experts agree Ukraine is just the beginning.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – known to the West as the USSR – was made up of 14 nations alongside the new Russian Federation: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the Baltic coast, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine in Europe, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Caucasus and the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
According to Moscow’s official statistics service Rosstat, mother Russia experienced positive net migration – more people coming in than leaving – during every year of its existence, though these figures are unverified.
In total, the figures claim that over the 30 years between 1991 and 2021, just under 112 million people migrated to the country while 103 million left – meaning eight million people decided to settle there long-term.
Migration flows in and out of Russia were both in a steady decline until the early 2010s, when a “patent” system was introduced to allow visa-free entry for citizens of former Soviet states wanting to work in Russia. The loosening of border restrictions allowed ever more native Russians to migrate to satellite countries.
The war in Ukraine severely incrased this trend. In mid-March, less than a month after the conflict began, a survey by OK Russians – a non-profit group helping people leave the country – estimated at least 300,000 Russian citizens had left the country. In the weeks following Putin’s reintroduction of conscription in September, another 300,000 – primarily young men up for enlistment – fled the repressive regime, with miles-long queues reported at the Georgian border.
Total emigration over the past year of war has been pegged as high as a million, constituting the largest exodus since the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Russians abroad today
Currently between 20 and 30 million ethnic Russians are thought to live abroad. As of the last census, 8.3 million were recorded in Ukraine alone, making it the single largest long-term destination for the Russian diaspora.
But in terms of countries home to the most registered Russian citizens – a number generally far lower – Europe was found to be the top destination, with 6.2 million settled there as of mid-2020 according to the United Nations.
There were 84,000 people with Russian citizenship in Estonia in 2021, according to Eurostat. A paper by the London School of Economics (LSE) the same year found 24.7 percent of the Estonian population was ethnically Russian. A similar rate (24.9 percent) was found in Latvia, where 40,000 Russians called home. The respective numbers were far lower in Lithuania, at 12,500 and just 4.5 percent.
At latest counts, a total of 3.5 million people of Russian ethnicity resided in Kazakhstan, 700,000 in Belarus, 640,000 in Uzbekistan.
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