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Russian Defectors Tell Their Stories About Reaching Finland


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In an extraordinary interview, Yle was able to speak with two Russian men who defected during the summer — Andrei hiked through forests to cross the border and Tomas, who came by a sailboat and rubber dinghy via the Gulf of Finland.

The men’s names have been changed for security reasons.

Illegal departure and desertion in Russia carry long prison sentences, in addition to the potential risk of death. Both men also still have families in Russia.

Yle knows the identities of the men and has also seen their Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) ID cards. Efforts have been made to verify their backgrounds as far as possible.

Video shows unauthorised border crossing

According to Andrei’s own account, he hitchhiked from somewhere far away in Russia, first to St Petersburg and then to Vyborg. From there, he walked to the Finnish border. After crossing the border, he bumped into a Finnish woman and asked her to call the authorities.

He would not say any more about his journey. Andrei wanted to come to Finland because he had a good impression of the country.

The video below shows him crossing the Finnish-Russian border without permission. The fence in the video is not one of the new barrier fences being constructed on the eastern border, but a standard border fence.

The video and audio have been edited for security reasons.

Preview image
Andrei says: – Live coverage of the last minutes in Russia. There’s Finland. That’s their border. We still have to find the border guards. There’s the fence, of course, I understand. I’m finally safe. That’s all. I’m officially in Finland.

After serving three months as a contract soldier, Andrei decided to terminate his contract in the autumn of 2021 because of the army’s shortcomings.

His superiors did not accept his resignation. According to Andrei, he was also abused by his platoon’s deputy commander. Andrei never returned to his unit and was charged with unauthorised absence without leave.

In June 2022, Andrei was again ordered to return to his unit, but he disobeyed.

“The war in Ukraine had begun. I was against that war and did not want to go to Ukraine to fight. All my relatives are also against this war,” Andrei said.

Andrei fled the army in Russia for a year with his family. At the beginning of the summer, he was issued a wanted notice for desertion.

Andrei made the decision. Legally, he would have had no chance of leaving the country.

Andrei, a Russian defector, sits on a park bench with his back to the camera in the summer of 2023.
“I only have two choices, either prison or war,” Andrei said. Image: Pasi Peiponen / Yle

“I decided to leave my family in Russia, as they are not threatened for the time being, and crossed the Finnish border without permission. I had no other choice,” said Andrei.

According to Andrei, desertion in Russia can get you up to 15 years in prison.

Yle has previously reported how Russia now also blackmails conscripts into the army in every possible way.

The upper age limit for compulsory military service was recently raised to 30 and all men between the ages of 18 and 30 years will be called up for military service from the beginning of next year. Penalties for refusing to carry out military service are also being expanded, including the revocation of driver’s licences.

Instead, Andrei is now seeking asylum in Finland.

He hopes to get a positive decision from Migri because he wants to reunite his family.

“I want to reunite with my family as soon as possible, I miss them very much. I want to see my son, his smile. I don’t want my son to grow up in an occupying country, I want him to see how great the world is,” Andrei told Yle.

Escape to Finland by rubber dinghy

Tomas and his nephew escaped from the port of Primorsk, near Vyborg, on a sailboat in mid-June.

The men’s primary goal was to get to the United States one way or another. Reaching Finland was not their intention.

However, the Russian Coast Guard spotted their boat leaving Russian territorial waters and went after it. According to Tomas, they left the sailboat at sea, where it was intercepted by the Russian Coast Guard.

“We had no choice but to get on a rubber boat, which was harder to spot, and escape in the direction of Finland,” he told Yle.

The men were eventually caught by Finland’s Gulf of Finland Coast Guard.

Tomas' sailboat and rubber dinghy at a harbour in St Petersburg.
Tomas’ sailboat at a harbour in St Petersburg. Image: Tomas

Tomas said he is a businessman and has opposed the Putin regime.

“I was criminally charged with fraud with the aim of taking over my company and silencing me and my activism,” he told Yle News.

Tomas said he was in pre-trial detention, released and then re-investigated by a lower court.

He is a fierce critic of the Russian judicial system.

“There is no control over the courts in Russia. They act entirely at their own discretion and decide for themselves what is law and justice,” he said.

The escape was also prompted by Russia’s continued need for men on the Ukrainian front.

“If I had been taken into custody, I would definitely have been recruited into Wagner’s forces. That would have been offered to me as an alternative to my release,” said Tomas.

Russian defector Tomas stands with a hood on his head against a tree.
”Because of the allegations, I could not leave legally. No one would have let me leave Russia,” said Tomas. Image: Pasi Peiponen / Yle

Tomas holds a pessimistic outlook towards his home country.

“One thing I can say for sure about Russia. Russia will remain under Putin’s illegitimate regime for a very long time,” he

According to Tomas, Russia has two options. Either all the people in the Putin-led group will die, or there will be a revolution.

“I think that’s radical, but it’s still possible,” said Tomas.

Charges of fraud, illegal departure and avoiding war in Ukraine would mean long prison sentences for Tomas and his nephew in Russia.

He hopes for one thing from Finland.

“I hope to be welcomed here and have my safety guaranteed, if that is possible. If not, I will look for another place,” said Tomas.

Are Russian asylum seekers a security threat?

There are currently 1,275 asylum applications from Russians pending at Migri.

Last year there were 1,180 applications. Of these, 775 were filed after Russia declared a partial mobilisation last September. The majority of applicants are men.

Migri confirmed to Yle that there are Russian soldiers among the asylum seekers.

At the moment, however, asylum decisions for adult Russian men have been suspended.

Migri is awaiting a common EU policy on how to deal with Russians who justify their application on the grounds of Russian mobilisation. A decision is expected in the autumn.

There is some concern over whether Russian intelligence agents or military personnel would falsely claim asylum.

Petteri Lalu, a senior analyst at the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service (Supo), pointed out that a military profession or previous military training does not in itself make an asylum seeker a threat to national security.

However, he acknowledged that there may be people among asylum seekers who have motives other than the need for asylum.

“Identifying such people is part of the security authorities’ professional skills,” said Lalu.

In Lalu’s view, however, the likelihood of Russian intelligence officers entering the country as asylum seekers is low.

Pressure on eastern border increasing?

According to Commander Juho Vanhatalo, a border security expert at the Finnish Border Guard, the situation surrounding the war in Ukraine has not yet been reflected in unauthorised border crossings. Rather, tensions between Finland and Russia have increased.

A sign telling people to stop in front of the border zone between Finland and Russia.
Last year, 26 people crossed the eastern border without authorisation. Image: Pasi Peiponen / Yle

Vanhatalo believes that the longer the war goes on, the more it will affect the people of St Petersburg and the border region of Karelia.

The pressure will increase, especially on Russians who are not allowed to leave the country because of lack of a foreign passport, unfinished military service, a criminal case or some other reason.

“Even before the war in Ukraine, Russia had, and still has, large numbers of people who would like to come to Finland and Europe if they have the opportunity,” Vanhatalo told Yle.

Source: Yle


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