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Make Desertion Fast
Ukraine is offering amnesty plus five million rubles to anyone who deserts from the Russian army and agrees to go to a Ukrainian prison. That’s about $48,000, probably several years’ pay for a young Russian worker.
On the surface, this sounds like a sweet deal, but on reflection, it’s anything but. Put yourself in the shoes of a Russian soldier. First, you have to elude the Russian Army, knowing you could be shot for desertion. Then, you have to surrender without getting killed by Ukrainians. After that, you’re stuck in prison; maybe they’ll deposit you in a regular POW camp, complete with Russian loyalists ready to kill you when the guard’s not looking. Wherever you languish, you know your fate hinges on the outcome of the war.
Case 1: The Ukrainian government survives the invasion. They’ll probably release you, but will they really pay you? And what if the peace settlement requires repatriation back to Russia, as in the infamous Operation Keelhaul?
Case 2: The Russians win. You’re probably facing a firing squad for desertion.
Still, I admire the creativity of the Ukrainian proposal. Enticement to desert should be a standard part of military strategy, but hardly ever is. But let me propose a Version 2.0 to better fulfill the intent of the original offer.
Version 2.0: The EU, in cooperation with Ukraine, offers $100,000 plus EU citizenship to any Russian deserter. Russians can either go directly to the EU, or surrender to Ukrainian forces for speedy transport to the EU border.
The key gain: Deserters no longer have to gamble on Ukrainian success. As long as they escape from the Red Army’s zone of control, they survive. A much better gamble.
Extra benefits: Instead of going to a Ukrainian prison or POW camp, you get to enjoy freedom in the EU. And the EU is far more likely to swiftly hand over the promised monetary bounty.
How much of a burden is this on the EU? Chump change, really. Even in a magical scenario where all of the roughly 200,000 Russian troops in the vicinity take the deal, $100,000 per soldier is a mere $20 billion. That’s less than one-fifth of what Germany now plans to spend on defense in 2022 alone. It wouldn’t be crazy to go up to $1,000,000 per deserter. You could even do a classic multi-tier offer, where the first 10,000 deserters get a million bucks each to compensate for the high initial risk, followed by lower payments for late-leavers who get to desert in comparative safety.
If paying deserters big bucks is such a great idea, how come hardly any country does it? I suspect that many governments view this tactic as akin to poison gas: It’s a ghastly weapon – and if we use it on them, they’ll use it on us. This might make sense when brutal dictatorships fight each other. But if a country that people habitually flee to fights a country that people habitually flee from, the poison gas analogy breaks down. Scary countries are deeply vulnerable to paid desertion, while the nicest countries are almost immune. How much would Russia have to offer Germans to desert to Russia? Nein, danke!
Credibility is a compounding factor: Only a fool would trust the Russians to pay up, but the EU’s word is, if not solid gold, at least solid silver.
Another cause of reticence, though, is the standard economically illiterate view of immigration. Soldiers are all healthy, prime-age potential workers, quite capable of self-support. Yet many people in receiving countries will look and them and think, “Why should we have to take care of a bunch of Russian deserters for the rest of their lives?” The correct answer is: You don’t. When their desertion money runs out, if not sooner, let them get jobs and take care of themselves.
Update: Ilya Somin, a native Russian speaker, tells me that my original source mistranslated the Ukrainian government’s offer. The actual deal offers amnesty to deserters, not prison. Much improved, but my Version 2.0 is still far sweeter.