‘I’m leaving Russia’: Young men flee excursion, Finland to restrict entry

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VAALIMAA, Finland, Sept 23 (Reuters) – When 27-year-old Nikita saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announce a military mobilization while visiting his uncle in St. Petersburg, he decided to leave his homeland.

Two days later he crossed the border into Finland.

“It’s just crazy. All my friends (are) in danger,” said the sound engineer, minutes after entering the Nordic country.

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He had first fled Russia after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine for Turkey and had gone back for a short visit to get some papers. He now plans to return to Turkey.

“It’s just crazy. I’m just for freedom, Russia (free) from Putin, democracy in Russia,” he said, breaking into tears. He refused to give his last name.

Nikita was one of a dozen young men Reuters spoke to at the Vaalimaa border crossing in southeastern Finland, and their numbers have grown in the days since Putin announced the call-up of 300,000 military reservists.

They traveled on tourist visas but said they were either not coming back or were considering not.

“I’m leaving Russia,” said Alexander, 21, who was going to France.

Traffic to Finland across the border with Russia was heavy on Friday. But the Finnish government, wary of becoming a major transit nation, plans to stop all Russians from entering on tourist visas in the coming days, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told a news conference in New York.

“All tourist travel will be stopped,” Haavisto said.

Exceptions could still apply for humanitarian reasons, but avoiding conscription was unlikely to be grounds for asylum, he said.

The Finnish border guard said the number of Russians who had entered the previous day was more than double the number who arrived the week before.

About 7,000 people entered from Russia on Thursday, about 6,000 of them Russian, according to border guards.

Max, a 21-year-old Russian student who declined to give his last name, said he was going to Finland to catch a flight to Germany to visit relatives.

“Technically I’m a student so I shouldn’t be afraid of being appointed, but we’ve seen things change very quickly so I suppose there’s a chance,” he told Reuters. “I just wanted to be sure.”

A Russian couple, 29-year-old Slava and 35-year-old Evgeniy, also left because of the uncertainty of being drafted into the military at some point.

They had decided to leave the moment Putin announced the partial mobilization on Wednesday, they said. They had left their dog Moby with friends. Their families cried when they left, they said.

“At the current stage we are not in demand, but we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” Slava told Reuters. “We don’t support what’s happening now. We don’t want to be a part of it.”

“It was a difficult decision (to leave). We have plans, we have careers. The best scenario is to go back. On the other hand, it’s important (to save our) lives.”

Finnish border crossings have remained among the few points of entry into Europe for Russians after a number of countries closed both physical borders and their airspace to Russian aircraft in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At Vaalimaa, the busiest crossing point, cars queued for up to 400 meters (440 yards) on Friday, a longer line than the day before, a border official said.

“Compared to Friday last week, we have more traffic,” Vaalimaa station deputy chief Elias Laine told Reuters. “We expect traffic to remain busy through the weekend.”

Those arriving by car or bus left their vehicles to have their papers checked before continuing their journeys. Border guards searched some vehicles.

Lines were also “longer than normal” at the second largest Nuijamaa crossing.

Finland chose to keep its border with Russia open after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, although the country has cut the number of consular appointments available to Russian travelers seeking visas.

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Reporting by Essi Lehto in Vaalimaa and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; writing by Stine Jacobsen and Gwladys Fouche; editing by Terje Solsvik, Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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