By Henry Ridgwell
Thousands of Russians are trying to flee the country to escape the partial mobilization of civilians into the military. The move was announced Wednesday in a televised address by President Vladimir Putin, after Russian armed forces suffered significant losses in recent weeks of their invasion of Ukraine.
Some European officials say this poses a security threat at their borders, and they intend to shift the onus to Putin at home by keeping their borders closed.
The Associated Press reports Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Thursday that many of those fleeing “were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors.”
At land borders in the country’s east, south and west, lines of cars stretched several kilometers Friday, as Russian citizens – mostly men of conscription age – tried to escape the draft.
Footage obtained by Radio Free Europe (VOA’s sister organization) showed long lines of cars and trucks at the Zemo Larsi crossing into Georgia. Russian citizen Ivan, who did not want to give his full name, said the crossing took 12 hours.
“I think the Russian border guards were letting people through very slowly. For example, yesterday before midnight you could cross the border much more quickly. After midnight, either lots of cars arrived or the border guards started to work more slowly,” he told Reuters.
Increased traffic and long lines also were reported at Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
In the far west, Finnish border guards reported that traffic from Russia has more than doubled in the past 48 hours. Among those fleeing the draft was 34-year-old Nikita, who did not want to give his full name.
“I am afraid. Because it’s a very big mistake, for Russia, for Europe, and of course for Ukraine citizens,” he told Reuters.
Germany said it would offer protection to Russians fleeing the mobilization “on a case-by-case basis.”
“Deserters threatened with serious repression can, as a rule, obtain international protection in Germany. Anyone who courageously opposes Putin’s regime and thereby falls into great danger, can file for asylum on grounds of political persecution,” German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said in an interview published Friday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
Several other European countries, including those neighboring Russia, such as the Baltic states and Finland, are restricting entry for Russian citizens.
Many European and North American countries banned Russian airlines from their airspace, and since Moscow imposed reciprocal measures, leaving Russia has become increasingly difficult.
Flights to countries that don’t require a visa, including Turkey, Serbia and Dubai, reportedly were sold out by Thursday. Russian citizen Alex, who also did not want to give his family name, flew to Istanbul Thursday to escape the military draft.
“Partial mobilization is one of the reasons why I am here. [It’s a] very poor step and it seems to be that it can lead to lots of problems for lots of Russian citizens. I didn’t believe that the next step would be mobilization, and I feel that not many Russian people want to fight and want to be mobilized and want to go to the army,” he told Reuters.
In Wednesday’s televised address, Putin announced the partial mobilization of around 300,000 military reservists, maintaining that only those with previous combat experience would be mobilized.
Alex Titov, a Russia analyst at Queen’s University Belfast, said the policy represents a watershed moment in the invasion of Ukraine.
“The initial plan to conduct a swift military operation with only [the] professional army involved has failed, and now they have to turn to something very unpopular and something they tried to avoid and tried to delay, the official mobilization of the civilian population. There is no way of knowing how many actually will be called up over what period. There’s no clear end to it either,” Titov told VOA.
The Russian government denied that people are fleeing the mobilization. “The information about the hype at airports and so on is very much exaggerated … There is a lot of fake information about this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday.
A continuing exodus of Russians escaping the draft could present a problem for Putin, says analyst Titov.
“If the exodus is large, then perhaps they might put formal restrictions on men traveling abroad, particularly of a certain age, or require them to have formal papers permitting them to leave and so forth,” Titov said.
“How significant it is? It’s really hard to say because the type of people who are fleeing are maybe not the people [who] are actually being called up, in the sense that they usually go for more remote and less urban areas for conscription. There is a general trend toward more and more kind[s] of disillusionment and annoyance about the war. But whether it kind of reaches a critical point, I’m not sure,” Titov told VOA.
The Russian government said those being drafted have specific military experience or training. However, there are widespread reports of regular civilians being forced to enlist.
Dmitry, a student from Moscow who did not want to give his full name, was handed mobilization papers Thursday and was driven away from his residence in a minibus. Dmitry’s father, who also did not want to give his name, told The Associated Press that his son has no links with the military. “The president’s decree said no students would be recruited. And then it happened, they recruited him without any explanation. This is not right,” he said.
Many draftees are being brought in from the remote regions of Russia. Pavel Sokolov, from the eastern city of Yakutsk, served in the Russian army 10 years ago. He received draft papers Thursday.
“I didn’t expect it. I went to the kindergarten with my daughter, and they gave [the draft paper] to me in the street. I came here at once. I’m fine, keeping calm. I won’t be away for long hopefully,” Sokolov told The Associated Press.
There have been widespread protests against the mobilization in cities across Russia. Human rights groups claim that about 1,400 demonstrators have been arrested since Wednesday. There are reports that some of those detained are being handed mobilization papers while in custody.
The jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny Thursday called for mass protests against the war.