Over 194,000 Russians flee call-up to neighboring countries
TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — It took Vsevolod four days to drive from Moscow to Russia's southern border with Georgia. He had to abandon his car at one point and continue on foot.
On Tuesday, he finally finished his 1,800-kilometer (1,100-mile) journey and crossed the frontier to escape being called up to fight in Russia's war in Ukraine.
“At 26, I do not want to be carried home in a zinc-lined (coffin) or stain (my) hands with somebody’s blood because of the war of one person that wants to build an empire,” he told The Associated Press, asking that his last name not be used because he feared retaliation from Russia.
He was one of over 194,000 Russian nationals who have fled to neighboring Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland — most often by car, bicycle or on foot — in the week since President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists.
The mass exodus of men — alone or with their families or friends — began Sept. 21, shortly after Putin’s address to the nation, and continued all this week. Early on, they snapped up airline tickets, which spiked in price on the few airlines still flying out of Russia. But the rest had to gas up their cars and join the long lines snaking on roads toward the borders.
According to the online service Yandex Maps, the traffic jam leading to Verkhny Lars, a border crossing into Georgia from Russia’s North Ossetia region, stretched for about 15 kilometers (over 9 miles) on Tuesday. Social media showed hundreds of pedestrians lining up at the checkpoint after Russian border guards relaxed regulations and allowed people to cross on foot.
Similarly long queues were reported at some crossings into Kazakhstan.
The Interior Ministry of Georgia said over 53,000 Russians have entered the country since last week, while Interior Ministry officials in Kazakhstan said 98,000 crossed into that nation. The Finnish Border Guard agency said over 43,000 arrived in the same period. Media reports also said another 3,000 Russians entered Mongolia, which also shares a border with the country.
Russian authorities sought to stem the flow, barring some men from leaving and citing mobilization laws. The practice did not seem widespread, but rumors persisted that Moscow may soon shut the borders to all men of fighting age.
Police in North Ossetia said a makeshift enlistment office will be set up at the Verkhny Lars crossing, and local officials confirmed to the state news agency Tass that Russian men are being served call-up summonses at crossings into Georgia.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that only about 300,000 men with prior combat or other military service would be mustered, but reports have emerged from various Russian regions that recruiters were rounding up men outside that description. That fueled fears of a much broader call-up, sending droves of men of all ages and backgrounds to airports and borders.
“There's a risk that they will announce a full mobilization,” according to a resident of St. Petersburg who made it to Kazakhstan on Tuesday. The man, who refused to give his name because he feared for his safety, told AP he spent three days driving from his home to Uralsk in northwestern Kazakhstan near the border.
He said Putin’s mobilization remarks differed from what his decree said, leaving room for a broader interpretation, adding: “People worry that sooner or later, a full mobilization will be announced, and no one will be able to cross the borders.”
Kazakhstan and Georgia, both part of the former Soviet Union and both offering visa-free entry by Russian nationals, seemed to be the most popular destinations for those traveling by land to flee the call-up. Finland and Norway require visas.
Georgia, whose support for Ukraine is visible by the yellow and blue flags adorning buildings as well as graffiti against Putin and Russia, has been somewhat apprehensive about the influx of Russians, especially after the country fought a brief war with Moscow in 2008.
Opposition politicians have demanded the government take drastic actions against the arriving Russians, from introducing visas to banning them completely. No such action has been taken yet.
Kazakhstan seems more welcoming. Since the beginning of the war, the Central Asian nation of 19 million has taken a course increasingly independent from its ally, Moscow, especially on the war in Ukraine.
In announcing the number of Russians crossing the border, Kazakhstan Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov said authorities won't send home those avoiding the call-up unless they are on an international wanted list for criminal charges.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev even ordered his government to help the Russians entering his country “because of the current hopeless situation.”
"We must take care of them and ensure their safety. It is a political and a humanitarian issue. I tasked the government to take the necessary measures,” he said, adding that Kazakhstan will hold talks with Russia on the issue.
In Uralsk, volunteers helped those entering the city of 236,000. Some of them told AP that they were serving free hot meals and helping the arrivals to find accommodations, which were quickly filling up. Those who can't find apartments or hotel rooms could spend the night in gyms, one volunteer said.
Dilara Mukhambetova, director of the Cinema Park theater, even said arriving Russians could sleep in her facility after she drove around the city and saw a lot of people who looked lost.
“We freed up one auditorium, organized tea, and volunteers brought hot meals,” Mukhambetova was quoted by local media as saying. “We filled four auditoriums, (accommodating) about 200 people in total.”
Associated Press journalist Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed.
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