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Disillusioned Army Reservist And Ex-Cop Who Fled Russia Gets Latvian Reprieve, Says He 'Doesn't Want To Kill And Die'

After getting out of the army, Stanislav Bashilov says he then resigned from the police force after seeing firsthand the level of corruption and bribery there.
After getting out of the army, Stanislav Bashilov says he then resigned from the police force after seeing firsthand the level of corruption and bribery there.

Twenty-seven-year-old Stanislav Bashilov's life as a Russian deserter has been filled with twists and turns, ups and downs.

Last month, the disillusioned ex-cop and army reservist whose lawless flight from wartime Russia has tested asylum policies in neighboring Latvia learned that he was seemingly back from a precipice.

As tens of thousands of his countrymen continued the brutal and unprovoked 10-month-old war on Ukraine that has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians while sending millions more fleeing abroad, a Riga district court ruled that Bashilov's own bid to escape the fighting seemingly paid off.

It was a far cry from the day four months earlier when the Pskov native learned that Latvia's Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (PMLP) had rejected his asylum request, citing a lack of any evidence of intimidation or any history of political or human rights activism that put Bashilov at risk.

"'The world had collapsed.' I thought, 'That's it, the end,'" Bashilov told RFE/RL's North.Realities in a recent interview from Latvia, describing his disappointment at the prospect of being repatriated. "'Now it's back to the border guards [and] a 'kindly uncle' from the FSB will come, and I'll go to war or to jail,'" he added, in a reference to the post-Soviet successor to the KGB, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

His plight and court victory at a time when hundreds of thousands of Russians have already fled abroad -- many of them to neighboring post-Soviet countries -- highlight the unpopularity in Russia of the war.

But they also underscore the dilemma of EU and other states allied with Ukraine who think Russians themselves must do more to thwart the Kremlin's aggressive actions abroad and that offering sanctuary to Russian draft dodgers is a slippery slope for political and security reasons.

Anti-War Or Anti-Going-To-War?

Latvia and its Baltic cohorts have been leading voices for sanctions and other punishments to discourage Moscow's aggression since the all-out invasion began in late February, and Riga has dramatically increased security and military preparedness along its 214-kilometer border with Russia.

A once-captive Soviet republic with an ethnic Russian minority of about one-fourth of the population, Latvia has also led the push to keep ordinary Russians from traveling to the EU. It has also publicly discouraged Russian nationals from seeking asylum in Latvia to avoid the draft.

As tens or hundreds of thousands of young Russian men fled for the borders after Putin ordered a "partial mobilization" in September, one month after Bashilov's asylum request was originally rejected, Latvia increased its border patrols.

Interior Minister Kristaps Eklons warned that "mobilization in not a basis for granting asylum in Latvia." But he acknowledged that "each case is considered individually" and said that just two of 16 Russian asylum seekers in Latvia to that point were specifically trying to avoid conscription.

Bashilov was one of the two Russians to whom Eklons was referring.

Weeks later, in an interview with Current Time, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics further warned Russians that if they disagreed with what their country was doing in Ukraine, they should oppose the Russian authorities. "These people are not against the war that Russia is waging in Ukraine but against mobilization -- and this is a big difference," he said.

'Everyone Was Talking About Mobilization'

Bashilov described himself as "an ordinary guy" who joined the army for one year of service but quickly realized "what a mess it was," then studied at a police academy in his native western region of Pskov. But he says he resigned from the police force after seeing firsthand the level of corruption and bribery that was taking place.

But he remained an army reservist as he moved on to a job at a fertilizer factory.

Bashilov described to RFE/RL's North.Realities his shock at the news of the invasion on February 24, something he said he "didn't believe until the very end that it was possible [even] in principle."

Western estimates were that as many as 200,000 Russian troops were part of the initial invasion force, which had been building for months and prompted a blunt U.S. warning, entering Ukraine from Russia and via neighboring Belarus.

He said that with resistance in Pskov limited to solo pickets by the war's early opponents, he traveled the 300 kilometers or so to St. Petersburg for "something more massive" on February 27 to express opposition to the invasion before that event was dispersed by riot police.

Protesters rally against the war in Ukraine in St. Petersburg on February 27.
Protesters rally against the war in Ukraine in St. Petersburg on February 27.

As an army reservist, Bashilov said, he grew nervous as "everyone was talking about mobilization" and the possibility of Putin declaring martial law. "I was definitely not going to support all this, but it was morally difficult to stay, and you fear for your life when this happens," he said.

Improvised Escape

Then, when he was at work on March 4, he said, he was "pushed" to act when his parents informed him that a summons had come for him to report for military service.

"Here the war begins and you're called to the military registration and enlistment office," Bashilov said. "And from my experience with the service, I understood: They can sign a contract for you, they can persuade you, [or] blackmail you" into military service.

Despite having no visa, he says he simply drove toward the Latvian border, about 40 kilometers from Pskov.

Acknowledging that in retrospect he might have simply traveled through Belarus and entered legally into Latvia, Bashilov says he probed the border near the junction of the Estonian and Latvian borders before driving south to a spot about a kilometer past where he spotted "border guards in Russian uniforms."

Then, he said, he simply climbed over the fence, then walked through the forest avoiding the town of Vilaka, before deciding it was safer roadside so he "wiped his clothes [clean] a little and left the forest."

He eventually boarded a bus for Riga, where he turned himself in to a slightly confused police officer and said he'd crossed the border illegally and wanted political asylum.

"It was evident that he didn't immediately realize what I'd just told him," Bashilov said, but he was told to get into a squad car. He said he'd been thinking nervously about what to do if someone tried to take him back to the border but sat helplessly in the squad car unsure of where the police were taking him.

"It was very scary," he told RFE/RL. "But they drove me to the border-service building, and I realized that I was more or less safe."

A 'Single Knot'

Bashilov was transferred to the Mucenieki Detention Center, a newly opened facility for housing immigrants near Riga.

Feeling safe for the time being, he attended courses on integrating into Latvian society and successfully learned Latvian well enough to get an A1 certificate. Three months later, he received a work permit and got a job working for an online casino. He also learned some English.

Then came the news of his rejection by the PMLP in August, when he thought his "world had collapsed."

Latvian authorities had deemed that while Bashilov appeared to have participated in a protest and made some comments online, there was no evidence of any threat to his life.

And as Bashilov described it, "as for mobilization, they wrote that there are no signs that it will be announced, since the military invasion of Ukraine is defined [by Russian authorities] as a 'special military operation,' not a war."

Kyiv and Western military analysts had long been warning that the monthslong war was not going to plan for the Kremlin, and a brutal clampdown on media and dissent wasn't completely stifling public displays of frustration.

But it was still more than a month before Putin effectively acknowledged unexpected challenges that had emerged in the Ukrainian invasion by announcing a "partial mobilization" to eventually rope in at least 300,000 more reservists like Bashilov along with other recruits for the war effort.

Bashilov got his day in court, however.

Latvia's migration service "drew a strong distinction between my political position and my unwillingness to participate in the war," he said.

He and his lawyer "tried to tie it into a single knot," inextricably connecting Bashilov's broader views with his resistance to fighting in the war, as well as noting his previous service and resignation from the police force.

"Of course, I'm not a prominent political figure, I didn't burn military enlistment offices," Bashilov told RFE/RL. "I'm an ordinary guy who doesn't want to kill and die."

Officials from Latvia's State Security Service (VDD), wary of threats from an inflow of Russians with questionable motives and loyalties, testified that they opposed allowing Russians with military experience into the country.

On December 15, Bashilov learned that Riga's Administrative District Court ruled that he should be granted asylum.

If his Latvian request had ultimately been rejected, he says, he'd been preparing for a possible attempt to get to Georgia, another former Soviet republic where thousands of Russians have resettled since the invasion in February.

But he knew he didn't want to return to Russia.

"If you go back there, it's either to prison or to war," Bashilov said. "If we go to war, then on the other side."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting and an interview by Maria Kugel of RFE/RL's North.Realities

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