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Ukrainian Refugees in Russia: The War in Mariupol as a Saver for Ukrainians from Putin and the Kremlin

In the absence of a reliable evacuation corridor to Ukrainian-held territory, going to Russia was the only option for many people in Mariupol at that time. Ukraine describes these refugees as forcibly deported, though Natalia says no one forced her to leave.

From there, she and many other Ukrainians were encouraged by Russian authorities to take a 4,000-mile train journey east to the very edge of Siberia, to a coastal town called Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan, a stone’s throw from North Korea. It is close to Alaska than it is to the front lines.

The United Nations estimates more than 2.8 million Ukrainians have taken refuge in Russia over the past year. Some – largely those who could afford it – have transited through Russia to other countries in Europe, and many have even made it back to Ukraine.

Others who spoke to CNN also expressed reluctance to return. “We will stay in Russia. Valeriya, another Ukranian who ended up in Nakhodka, told CNN by text that she did not want to think about Ukraine.

Some gave vaguely pro-Russian views while others didn’t answer questions about the war. It’s not clear how freely people feel they can speak, but no one directly criticized Moscow.

If Kyiv makes clear that Ukrainians who went to Russia can come back, many will not, he says. And that only serves Russia’s interests.

“In many parts of the country, they don’t have enough citizens to make those municipalities function,” he said. There is a propaganda benefit to putting these people in this position, which is indicative of the larger narrative of Putin and the Kremlin. [are pushing]… trying to rebrand the war as saving Ukrainians from purported Nazis.”

According to official figures, the cost of living in Vladivostok, which is the main city in the Northeast region, is 11th highest in Russia. It’s due to the fact that new homes are lagging behind the national average.

The Russian Embassy in Ukraine: What is the fate of the least vulnerable Ukrainian citizens in the world? Victims’ perspective of Oksana’s situation

Russian authorities took her Ukrainian passport and swapped it with a Russian one, Natalia says. Everyone has the right to leave any country, even their own according to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Natalia seemed confident that the work would be done for her family long term. She must live there for at least three years, or she will be forced to repay her family’s state benefits.

Ukrainian people who have signed on for the years-long program are in “basically a degree of indentured servitude,” Raymond said. “Being in a contract, so to speak, for three years puts them in a very vulnerable position.” It’s critical to recall that their core rights under international law mean “they have a right to return, and they have a right to return safely,” regardless of any agreement, he said.

Raymond said that the biggest problem is the lack of clarity about whether or not Ukrainians in Russia will be able to return home.

By law, Ukraine considers those who publicly deny occupation, assist the Russian military in Ukraine, or even call for support of Russian actions, to be collaborators and liable for criminal penalties.

Oksana would like to visit Mariupol, if it is part of Russia, but only if she had both Ukrainian and Russian passports.

In Russia things are quieter than in Ukraine. She told CNN by phone that she is for peace all over the world, and that it is unclear what our government is doing.

Fellow Ukrainian Marina wrote in a text message that after three years, “We will see. It is dependent on the job and well-being. It is not easy so far.

Raymond thinks that the less well off people who ended up in Russia’s far east are less likely to go back to Ukraine if they wanted to. War after war, the same pattern can be seen – those with the least money have the fewest options, he says.

“I was going to stay and die there, were it not for my daughter who said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to eat like this and die in the basement.’” Oksana’s brother was already in Russia’s far east, so they decided to go.

Oksana intends to stay even though people have encouraged her to go back, but that doesn’t mean she won’t do it again.

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