Draft-aged Russians have apparently begun to flee the country as it enters is biggest conscription drive since the Second World War – with plane ticket prices soaring above $5,000 (£4,443) and border crossings increasing.
Vladimir Putin launched a new mobilisation campaign on Wednesday for the seven-month-old war in Ukraine that has already decimated cities, killed thousands, and displaced millions – as well as damaged the global economy.
While surveys in Russia have suggested widespread domestic backing for Moscow’s “special military operation” – in part due to extensive propaganda from the government – the threat of mass conscription has seen residents flee and demonstrations across the country.
Prices for some airline tickets from Moscow soared above $5,000 (£4,443) for one-way flights to the nearest foreign locations, with most sold out for the coming days.
“This is panic demand from people who are afraid they won’t be able to leave the country later – people are buying tickets not caring where they fly to,” a tourism industry source said.
Traffic has also surged at border crossings with Finland and Georgia.
The Finnish government is considering ways to sharply reduce Russian tourism and transit through Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin told a news conference on Thursday.
Finnish land border crossings have remained among the few entry points into Europe for Russians after a string of Western countries shut both their land borders and air space to Russian planes.
Finland opted to keep its frontier with Russia open following Moscow’s 24 February invasion, although it has cut back the number of consular appointments available to Russian travellers seeking visas.
Traffic at borders ‘intensified’ during the night
At the Vaalimaa border crossing, roughly three hours’ drive from Russia’s second-largest city St Petersburg, three lanes of cars each stretched for 300-400 metres (yards) at around 1:15 p.m. local time (1015 GMT), a border official told Reuters.
“Traffic at the Finnish-Russian border intensified during the night,” the border guard’s head of international affairs, Matti Pitkaniitty, said in a tweet. He told Reuters that border guards were ready at the nine checkpoints.
Although traffic from Russia was busier than normal, the border guards said in a statement that it had not changed “alarmingly” in recent days compared with pre-pandemic times.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the other EU countries that border Russian territory, began turning away Russian citizens from crossings at midnight on Monday, saying they should not travel while their country is at war with Ukraine.
The three Baltic nations will offer no refuge to any Russians fleeing Moscow’s mobilisation of troops, their ministers said on Wednesday.
More than 1,300 people were arrested on Wednesday as anti-war protests gripped 38 Russian cities.
Some of the detainees had been ordered to report to enlistment offices on Thursday, the first full day of conscription, independent news outlets said.
More rallies are planned for the weekend.
“Now, due to mobilisation, for most Russian citizens, Russia’s war against Ukraine is not something on TV or the internet but something that has entered every Russian home,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address on Thursday night.
But Russia said reports of a mass exodus were exaggerated and state news agencies reported on Thursday that 10,000 people had volunteered to fight even before their call-up papers had arrived, citing the Russian General Staff.
Plans to annex Ukraine – and a nuclear threat
On Wednesday, Mr Putin effectively announced plans to annex four Ukrainian provinces, with referendums starting on Friday, and threatened to use nuclear weapons if need be.
The votes have widely been condemned by the international community as “sham referendums”, with NATO calling them “illegal and illegitimate”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that talk of a nuclear conflict was “totally unacceptable” and said any move to annex territory would break international law.
“The very international order we’ve gathered here to uphold is being shredded before our eyes,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council.
“We can’t let President Putin get away with it.”
But in his speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Kyiv of “brazenly trampling” the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine.
He later walked out of a UN meeting as allies slammed Russia over the war.