Russian men flock to Istanbul, fearing call-up to fight in Ukraine

A stream of Russians are pouring into Istanbul, expressing personal relief but also concern for the safety of their loved ones after the Kremlin announced a partial military mobilization for the war in Ukraine.

The price of some tickets from Moscow rose tenfold after President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced Russia’s first conscription of combat-age men since World War II. The total number of reservists involved could be as high as 300,000.

Those carrying hastily packed belongings refused to give their full names for fear of retaliation from Russian police against those still at home. But all the fears described have not been felt since the first days of Russia’s February 24 invasion of its Western-backed neighbor.

“We talked to our friends and many are thinking about leaving,” said Daria, 22. “Not everyone wanted to go in February. The September 21 decision forced many to reconsider.”

Her husband Andrei, 23, said he had been thinking about leaving since the first days of the war.

The mobilization was the last straw. “A lot of people have decided to leave now,” he said. But Andrei also feared that speaking to reporters could cause problems for his family and friends back home.

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“Yeah, I think what I’m about to tell you – I’m worried there might be a penalty for this,” he said, standing next to a huge suitcase. “The laws (in Russia) are applied very loosely. If they want, they will find a reason to punish you.”

Fear of closed borders

Putin’s mobilization order aims to replenish the Russian military with hundreds of thousands of men after a series of setbacks that appear to have turned the tide in the seven-month war.

Dozens of flights from Russia – with tickets selling at sky-high prices – carried men to international destinations such as Türkiye, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Serbia.

Türkiye is a popular holiday destination for many Russians and is one of the few countries that still offer flights from Russia. Russians can also reach Türkiye without a travel visa, which makes last-minute trips much easier.

Flights to Türkiye sold out almost immediately after Putin’s television announcement. Recent tickets sold by popular Russian travel sites have skyrocketed due to rising demand, making the flight too expensive for many.

National carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) began using larger aircraft on its Russia services, switching to wide-body Boeing 777s as it could not schedule more flights immediately.

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“Turkiye is our intermediate point. We are here temporarily because there is a risk that the borders will be closed for good,” Daria said. “But that’s not certain, and nobody really knows.”

Among those who reached Türkiye was a 41-year-old man who landed in Istanbul with a suitcase and a backpack and plans to start a new life in Israel.

“I am against this war and I will not be part of it. I will not be a murderer. I will not kill people,” the man told The Associated Press (AP), identifying himself only as Yevgeny to avoid possible retaliation against his family left behind in Russia.

“We feel pressure”

Sasha, a 48-year-old company manager, said he knew people who tried to escape but couldn’t. “I think many people would like to leave Russia, but there are very few flights,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP) at the airport.

Sasha said it was difficult to gauge the true mood of Russians after the mobilization order because some still supported the war and were ready to fight.

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“There is currently no consensus in Russia. Some people support Putin, others don’t support him,” he said. “It depends on their view of the war and their philosophy.”

He added that many are too afraid to speak their mind. “Of course we feel under pressure. There is a facial surveillance system in Russia. And when someone sees your face, it’s very easy to tell who you are,” Sasha said.

“This interview could be interpreted as bad for the Russian army. In the future, people who give such an interview could get in trouble.”

Andrei said that now he is particularly worried about one of his childhood friends.

“My friend couldn’t buy a ticket because it already cost 400,000 rubles ($7,000). It’s ten times more expensive than before,” he said.

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