Traffic jams and border desperation as Russians flee Putin’s ‘partial mobilization’

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For Ivan, a man who said he is an officer in Russia’s reserves and left his country for Belarus on Thursday, the motivation was clear: “I don’t support what’s going on, so I just decided I had to leave right away,” he told CNN.

“I felt like the doors were closing, and if I didn’t leave right away, I might not be able to leave later,” Ivan said, adding that he thought of a close friend at home with two small children, who in unlike him was unable to pack up and leave.

Alexey, a 29-year-old who arrived in Georgia from Russia by bus on Thursday, told CNN the decision was partly due to his roots.

“(Half of) my family is Ukrainian … I’m not in reserves now for this mobilization wave, but I think if this continues, all the men will be eligible,” he said.

Cars line up to enter the Brusnichnoye checkpoint on the Russian-Finnish border in the Leningrad region of Russia on September 22.
Putin declared on Wednesday that 300,000 reservists would be called up as Moscow seeks to rebuild depleted forces after a successful counteroffensive from Kiev this month. The move is intended to change the scope of Russia’s invasion from one fought mainly by volunteers to one involving a larger portion of its population.

The announcement sparked a battle for some Russians, with social media chats on platforms such as Telegram exploding with people frantically trying to figure out how to get seats in vehicles heading to the borders, with some even discussing cycling.

Long queues of traffic formed at border crossings to several countries, according to video footage. Images on Kazakh media websites appeared to show vehicles backed up near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. In one, posted by Kazakh media outlet Tengri News, a person can be heard saying their vehicle has been “stuck for 10 hours” in Russia’s Saratov region while they try to get to Kazakhstan.

“Endless cars. Everyone is running. Everyone is fleeing Russia,” the person in the video can be heard saying. CNN cannot independently verify the videos.

In the arrivals hall at Istanbul Airport, 18-year-old student Daniel told CNN about his plans to wait in Turkey. He flew into Turkey on Friday for what was supposed to be a pre-booked holiday, but since the mobilization announcement he has had to struggle with a new life in the country.

“We are young, we can learn and build a new life. We want to be useful. For now it’s vacation and waiting,” he said of his plans with his girlfriend. “Since I’m a student, technically I’m not mobilized, but that could change. And we know our government is lying to us. We’re just meat for them,” Daniel said.

Software engineer Roman told CNN that he hastily bought his ticket to Turkey minutes after Putin’s mobilization speech. He plans to go to Portugal, where he has obtained a visa.

“War is terrible. I am strongly against this war. Everyone I know is against it. My friends, my family, nobody wants this war. Only politics wants this war,” he said, adding that his wife has had to to stay in Russia as she does not have a Portuguese visa.

“The only plan is to survive. I’m just scared,” he added.

Another Russian citizen, who declined to be named, described the war as useless and cruel, “it should never have started in the first place. And I’m sorry for the Ukrainians – I sympathize with them.” The divorcee will fly to Israel on Saturday without his two children, who are still in Russia.

“I hope to bring them to me when I am settled,” he said. “I will try to move them out, because Russia is definitely not the place for them.”

On Thursday, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee released a statement saying the borders were “under special control” but were operating normally amid an “increase in the number of foreign nationals” entering the country. The number of passenger vehicles entering Kazakhstan from Russia has increased by 20% since September 21, the country’s State Revenue Committee said in a separate statement.

At Finland’s eastern border with Russia, traffic intensified overnight on Thursday, the Finnish border guard says. Earlier in the day, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament that her government was ready to take steps to put “an end” to Russian tourism and transit through Finland, according to Finnish public broadcaster Yle.

Many of those who left appeared to be men. Women are not part of Russia’s conscription.

Travel agency websites also showed one dramatic increase in demand for flights to places where Russians do not need a visa. Flight sales websites indicate that direct flights to such countries are sold out through at least Friday, while anecdotal reports indicated that people were having trouble finding ways to travel well beyond that time frame.

At least two Russians who left the country, one by land and one by air, told CNN that the departing men were questioned by Russian authorities, with questions including whether they had had military training and others about Russia and Ukraine.

“It was like a normal passport control, but all the men in the line were stopped and asked additional questions. They took a bunch of us to a room and mainly asked questions about (our) military (training),” Vadim, a Russian who arrived in Georgia by air, CNN reported.

The mobilization begins

Within Russia’s borders, the mobilization that some aimed to escape appeared to be already underway.

Videos on social media showed the first phase of the partial mobilization in several Russian regions, particularly in the Caucasus and the Far East, far from Russia’s wealthy metropolitan areas.

In the Far Eastern Russian city of Neryungi, families said goodbye to a large group of men as they boarded buses, as seen in footage posted on a community video channel. Many people are visibly emotional in the video, including a woman crying and hugging her husband goodbye as he reaches for his daughter’s hand from the bus window.

Russian families say goodbye as men leave for military service in Neryungri, Sakha Republic, Russia.

Another shows a group of about 100 newly mobilized soldiers waiting at Magadan Airport in the Russian Far East, next to a transport plane. Telegram videos showed another mobilized group of men waiting for transport, reportedly in Amginskiy Uliss in the Yakutiya region, a vast Siberian territory.

Much closer to the Ukrainian border, a crowd gathered near the city of Belgorod to watch a group of newly mobilized men depart. As they board a bus, a boy shouts “Bye, Daddy!” and starts to cry. CNN has not been able to independently verify the videos.

In other scenes circulating on social media, tensions over conscription were high.

In Dagestan in the Caucasus, a furious argument broke out at a recruitment office, according to a video. One woman said her son had been struggling since February. Told by a man that she shouldn’t have sent him, she replied, “Your grandfather fought for you to live,” to which the man replied, “Then it was war, right now it’s politics.”

Despite and detention

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday called on the Russians to protest against the partial military mobilization.

Thousands of Russian soldiers “died in this six-month war. Tens of thousands are wounded and maimed. Do you want more? No? So protest. Fight back. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for you to survive ,” Zelensky said in his daily video address to his country.

Amid anti-war protests that erupted across Russia on Wednesday, the Ukrainian leader said: “(The Russian people) understand that they have been cheated.”

But dissent is typically quickly crushed in Russia, and authorities have placed further restrictions on free speech following the invasion of Ukraine.

Police quickly knocked down on Wednesday’s demonstrations, which were mostly small protests. More than 1,300 people were detained by authorities in at least 38 cities, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.

Some of those protesters were immediately drafted into the military after their arrests, according to the group’s spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova, who told CNN by phone Wednesday that at least four police stations in Moscow some of the arrested protesters were being drafted.

Earlier this week, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service and increased the prison term to up to 15 years for violating military service obligations – such as desertion and evasion of service, according to state news agency TASS.

Ivan, the reservist who spoke to CNN after leaving the country this week, described the sense of hopelessness felt by many in Russia in the wake of recent events.

“It feels bad because a lot of my friends, a lot of people don’t support the war and they feel threatened by what’s going on and there’s no democratic way to stop this, even to declare your protest,” he said.

CNN’s Gul Tuysuz, Yulia Kesaieva, Lauren Kent, Sugam Pokharel and Anastasia Graham Yooll contributed to this report.

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