Men have reportedly been fleeing Russia in their droves after the nation’s leader Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of the army on Sept. 21 amid its ongoing war with Ukraine.
Putin’s announcement, the first of its kind since World War II, came less than a day after pro-Russian leaders in four Ukrainian provinces: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia announced plans to hold separate referendums on whether or not to join Russia.
Russia has been dealt a series of blows in recent weeks amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has seen the latter take back large swathes of the northeastern Kharkiv region.
In response, Putin has called upon what could be as many as 300,000 reservists who have previously served in the Russian army and have combat experience or specialized military skills to fight in Ukraine.
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the call-up applies to those with experience as professional soldiers, and that students and conscripts—young men serving mandatory 12-month terms in the armed forces—would not be called up.
However, declining the draft is a criminal offense in Russia.
The Washington Post reports that the majority of men were handed written notices at their homes. Russian law states that draft papers must be handed to the recipient in person. According to the Post, others were given orders by telephone and some were told to appear for a health check after having their identity documents checked on the street.
However, the partial mobilization of the Russian army prompted a mass exodus of men who are leaving the country in an effort to avoid the military call up; prompting queues at border crossings with Finland and Georgia while flights out of the country surged.
Video footage posted on social media on Thursday shows long lines of vehicles stuck in heavy traffic as they attempt to make it across the border with Georgia.
Further footage showed an allegedly massive queue forming at the border with Finland, however, that footage was later reported to have actually been posted on Sept. 19, two days before Putin’s mobilization call. Border agents have said though that while the situation near is calm, things are still busier than usual.
Meanwhile, flights to countries like Turkey, Dubai, or Tel Aviv; places that are visa-free to Russian citizens, soared in price, in some cases rising five times more than the average Russian’s monthly wage, before quickly selling out.
Google trends data showed a spike in searches for Aviasales, Russia’s most popular flight-booking site.
Multiple reports state that some men even went to extreme lengths to avoid being called up, and had resorted to breaking arms or legs so that they would be excused.
‘My Heart Sank’
Oleg, a 29-year-old sergeant in the Russian reserves, told the Guardian on Thursday that due to his military experience he knew he would likely be the first to be called up if a mobilization was declared but had stayed in the country in the hopes that would not happen.
This week, that all changed.
“My heart sank when I got the call-up,” he said. “But I knew I had no time to despair.” Oleg packed everything he owns and booked a one-way ticket to Orenburg, a southern Russian city close to the border with Kazakhstan where he plans to stay for now.
“I will be driving across the border tonight,” he said in a telephone interview from the airport. “I have no idea when I’ll step foot in Russia again.”
Ira Lobanovskaya, who started the “Guide to The Free World” NGO, which helps Russians against the war leave the country, told the publication: “We are seeing an even bigger exodus than when the war started.”
Protests also broke out across the country in multiple cities in response to the military call-up, with video footage showing large numbers of demonstrators taking to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg chanting “no to war”.
Roughly 1,400 arrests, including 33 minors, were made at protests, according to OVD-Info, an independent group monitoring protest activity in Russia. Some of those who were detained were reportedly handed raft papers.
However, the Kremlin has fiercely denied reports of men fleeing the country, stating that such reports are being greatly exaggerated by western media. The Russian military said Thursday that at least 10,000 people had volunteered to fight in the 24 hours since the order was announced.
Reuters contributed to this report.