‘I am leaving Russia’: young men flee draft, Finland to restrict entry

VAALIMAA, Finland, Sept 23 (Reuters) – Watching Russian President Vladimir Putin announce military mobilization during a visit to his uncle in St Petersburg, Nikita, 27, decided to leave his home country.

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 first fled Russia to Turkey after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine and returned for a brief visit to get some papers. Now he wants to return to Turkey.

“It’s just crazy. I’m just for freedom, Russia (free) from Putin, democracy in Russia,” he said, breaking down in tears. He did not want to give his last name.

Nikita was one of a dozen young men Reuters spoke to at the Vaalimaa border crossing in southeast Finland, and their number has been growing in the days since Putin announced he would call up 300,000 reservists.

They traveled on a tourist visa but said they would either not come back or would consider doing so.

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“I’m leaving Russia,” said Alexander, 21, who went 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 bar all Russians from entering the country on tourist visas in the coming days, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said at a news conference in New York.

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

Exceptions may still apply on humanitarian grounds, but avoiding conscription is not a reason for asylum, he said.

Finnish border guards said the number of Russians who entered the country the day before was more than double that of the week before.

Around 7,000 people entered from Russia on Thursday, including around 6,000 Russians, 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 drafted, but we’ve seen things change very quickly so I assume there’s a chance,” he told Reuters. “I just wanted to be sure.”

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A Russian couple, 29-year-old Slava and 35-year-old Evgeniy, also left the country because of the uncertainty that they would eventually be drafted into the military.

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

“At the moment we are not asked, but we do not know what will happen tomorrow,” Slava told Reuters. “We do not support what is happening now. We don’t want to be 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.”

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

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At Vaalimaa, the busiest border crossing, cars queued up to 400 meters (440 yards) long on Friday, a longer line than the previous day, 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 high over the weekend.”

Anyone arriving by car or bus leaves their vehicle to have their papers checked before continuing. Border guards searched some vehicles.

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

Finland chose to keep its border with Russia open following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, although it has reduced the number of consular appointments for Russian travelers applying for visas.

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

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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