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Russian military call-up sparks major exodus

Juri Rescheto
September 24, 2022

President Putin's decision to partially mobilize Russian reservists has sparked a mass exodus of men trying to avoid the fighting in Ukraine. Juri Rescheto reports from Riga.

Scores of Russians wait to scross into Kazakhstan
Scores of Russians were seen waiting to cross into Kazakhstan after Putin's announcement on WednesdayImage: DW

Thousands of Russians are trying to flee the country while they still can, fearing they will be called up and sent to fight in Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that only 300,000 men up to the age of 55 with prior military experience are being mobilized.

Russian media outlets have, however, reported cases where older individuals and men without military training have been called up as well. Online media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe has even reported government plans to draft up to 1 million men to serve in the armed forces, a claim the Kremlin has denied. With rumors of a major mobilization circulating, many Russians are concerned.

"I am not really scared; they can catch anyone, if they really want to," said 28-year-old Michail Bayankin. The warehouse worker from the city of Cherepovets, north of Moscow, told DW he will nevertheless refuse to fight, because he does not understand the purpose of Russia's so-called "special military operation."

"They are talking about some sense of duty, but what kind of duty is that? I would understand if our country had been attacked, but we are attacking our neighbor," he said.

Many Russians share Bayankin's view and have decided to get out of the country — fast. Those without travel visas are driving to neighboring Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Locals have shared reports on social media of kilometers-long lines of cars at various border crossings. Those with money are flying out of the country, heading to the United Arab Emirates or Turkey. Many are also making their way to Serbia and Finland.

Finish security officials check vehicles at Vaalimaa border crossing point between Russia and Finland
Finnish security officials have increased vehicle checks at the border crossing between Russia and FinlandImage: Oliver Morin/AFP

Leaving Russia with a heavy heart

One 34-year-old engineer from the southern city of Krasnodar, who asked to remain anonymous, told DW he had previously served as a Russian contract soldier. This makes him likely to be called up. Now, he has fled to neighboring Georgia.

The engineer said he had long considered leaving Russia, and Wednesday's announcement of a partial mobilization compelled him to go though with his plan. "I am not leaving Russia forever, I love Russia and will definitely return one day," he said from Tbilisi.

Dennis, an online trader from Rostov-on-Don, not far from the border with Ukraine, told DW he never wanted to leave Russia. But when war broke out February 24, he realized things were going south. "We all understood this whole thing would lead to nothing good, despite our faith things would eventually turn out well," he said.

People look at a flight information display at the Vnukovo International Airport
The price for one-way flights out of Russia has skyrocketedImage: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Valeri Klepkin has also left Russia to avoid fighting in the war. The 43-year-old, who until recently lived in Russia's north, is an engineer by training and previously served in the forces with the Interior Ministry. When war broke out, Klepkin received several requests from his local military district, but he never responded.

When news of the mobilization broke this week, Klepkin immediately packed a bag and drove to neighboring Finland, where he has many friends. He knows the language, and his grandfather lived there.

"I'm a first-class reserve officer; I did not want to wait around before having to decide between going to jail or becoming a murderer," he said.

'We are just cannon fodder'

Many European states, however, have closed their borders to Russians, or restricted entry. Latvian Foreign Minster Edgars Rinkevics has made it clear that his country will not take in any Russian conscientious objectors, citing national security concerns.

Similarly, Estonian Prime Minster Kaja Kallas has said her country will not grant entry to Russians fleeing their country. Instead, she urged Russian opposition figures to push for regime change at home.

Lithuania, too, has said it will not automatically offer asylum to Russians fleeing the draft, and neither will the Czech Republic. Finland, meanwhile, is considering barring Russians from transiting though the country.

Men flee conscription in Russia

Lev Shlosberg, a veteran Russian opposition activist, has criticized these restrictions. Speaking with DW, he said Eastern European governments were caving to right-wing populist pressure and effectively pulling up a new Iron Curtain. "Sooner or later, we will live in peace again," he said. "The wider the gulf between us now, the harder it will be for us all to unite."

But Michail Bayankin thinks this won't happen any time soon, and said the Russian government attaches no importance to human lives. "They tell us were are heading for the front line, but they don't care if we ever make it back. For them, we are just cannon fodder."

Valeri Klepkin isn't particularly optimistic about Russia's foreseeable future, either. "When civil war broke out in Russia over 100 years ago, my compatriots could not imagine the totalitarian Soviet regime would persist for 70 years. [Russian President] Putin will not be in power for that long, but a few more decades certainly," he said.

This article was previously published in German