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Bordering On Delusion: Where Are All The Russian Refugees?

A screenshot from a Russian TV channel purportedly showing thousands of ethnic Russians fleeing Ukraine for the safety of the motherland.
Earlier this month, Russia's border guard service warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, saying 675,000 Ukrainian citizens had already fled across the border into Russia to escape "revolutionary chaos."

Russian journalists living close to the border, however, say the situation is somewhat sleepier.

Five correspondents for RFE/RL's Russian Service have been reporting from the five Russian regions bordering Ukraine -- Bryansk, Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov.

Their findings appear to indicate that while Russian officials remain nominally prepared for a Ukrainian exodus, very few people have crossed over seeking shelter from "chaos." And those who have haven't necessarily been enveloped in the patriotic embrace they'd come to expect.

In southernmost Rostov, local officials have acknowledged a few hundred "guests" have crossed the border in recent weeks -- a far cry short of the 15,000 that authorities cleared out sanatoriums and other public buildings to make room for.

One of the "guests" is Aleksandr, an ethnic Russian who arrived from Luhansk early this month but has yet to receive legal documents. These so-called "refugees" are allowed to live document-free in Russia for three months. But Aleksandr -- who fled his home not because of a specific threat but because of a fear that something might happen -- was hoping to take advantage of Russia's expedited citizenship service offered to Crimeans -- and presumably other ethnic-Russians in Ukraine -- in the wake of the annexation. So, far, he says, he's received only empty words.

Many of the regions are measuring the crisis not in terms of refugees but by economic pinch. In Voronezh, which reportedly did an estimated $1 billion in cross-border trade last year, many residents would prefer to keep the border porous and apolitical. On March 19, however, border guards temporarily suspended a number of border crossings, "to prevent provocations and other illegal acts."

Perfunctory News Coverage

The shutdown has added a number of detours and many extra kilometers for ordinary daytrippers, but it hasn't helped manage an inflow of refugees, largely because there haven't been any.

Local border officials say in the first quarter of the year, 14,366 entered Russia and 13,226 left. Even they say, however, that the net gain is due to standard labor and education migration, not refugees. The oblast has not received a single application for temporary asylum or refugee status.

Taxi drivers with Russian plates in the Belgorod region have reportedly cut down on cross-border trips, with anecdotes making the rounds about crowbar-wielding "nationalists" from the Ukrainian west.

Otherwise, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis gets barely a mention in casual conversation, and even local newspapers offer only perfunctory coverage of the Crimea situation. Buses, trains, and cars continue to cross the border unimpeded, and officials have recorded no rise in the number of people remaining on the Russian side.

There are, of course, exceptions. Customs officials in Kursk last week reportedly detained six "infiltrators" -- one cat and five dogs, all attempting to cross the border without proper veterinary certificates. A local spokeswoman for the regional Interior Ministry also acknowledged that several dozen shipments of meat, honey, and frozen fish had to be returned to Ukraine due to lack of documents.

In Bryansk, border officials have generously made room for a possible wave of refugees, clearing out space in orphanages, retirement homes, and facilities for the physically disabled to make way for fellow Russians. Surprisingly, no one has applied. The only statistical tick noted by customs officials is a significant drop in cross-border trade from the same period last year. Small potatoes, perhaps, compared to the euphoria over acquiring Crimea.

-- Daisy Sindelar