BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Large numbers of Russians rushed to book one-way tickets out of the country while they still could on Wednesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of military reservists for the war in Ukraine would have.
Flights filled quickly and ticket prices for remaining connections soared, apparently spurred on by fears that Russia’s borders could soon be closed or that Putin might later announce a broader call that would send many Russian men of military age to the front lines of war could send.
Tickets for the Moscow-Belgrade flights operated by Air Serbia, the only European airline alongside Turkish Airlines to maintain flights to Russia despite a European Union flight embargo, sold out quickly for the next few days. The price of flights from Moscow to Istanbul or Dubai increased in minutes before skyrocketing again, reaching as high as 9,200 euros ($9,119) for a one-way economy class flight.
Putin’s decree stipulates that the Ministry of Defense determines the number of people called up for active duty. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a television interview that 300,000 reservists with relevant combat and service experience would initially be mobilized.
Russia has seen a significant exodus of citizens since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine almost seven months ago. During Putin’s address to the nation on Wednesday, in which he announced the partial mobilization of reservists, he also issued a veiled nuclear threat to Russia’s enemies in the West.
Reports of the spread of panic among Russians soon flooded social media. Anti-war groups said the limited plane tickets from Russia reached huge prices due to high demand and quickly ran out. Russian-language social networks were flooded with advice on how to avoid mobilization or leave the country.
Some posts have claimed that people have already been turned away from Russia’s land border with Georgia and that the Russian state railway company’s website has collapsed because too many people were looking for ways out of the country.
Monitoring group OVD-Info said over 800 Russians were arrested during anti-war protests in 37 Russian cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Demonstrators in Moscow chanted “No to war!” and “Live to our children!”
Russian officials tried to reassure the public, stressing that the conscription would affect a limited number of people who meet certain criteria. However, conflicting statements and a lack of details helped fuel the panic.
Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee Andrei Kartapolov said that as a result of this mobilization there will be no additional restrictions on reservists leaving Russia. However, he also advised people who might be eligible for conscription not to “travel to holiday resorts in Turkey”.
“Spend your vacation in the resorts of Crimea or in the (southern) Krasnodar Territory,” Russian media quoted Kartapolov as saying.
A Serbia-based group called Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Serbs Together Against the War tweeted that no flights from Russia to Belgrade would be available until mid-October. According to the group from Belgrade, flights to Turkey, Georgia or Armenia were also sold out.
“All Russians who wanted to go to war have already left,” the group said. “Nobody else wants to go there!”
A Russian man named Sergey said he prepared for a Russian mobilization scenario and quickly brought his 17-year-old son from Russia.
“The tickets didn’t cost too much because I was probably fast enough. And we got across the border safely,” he said, arriving at the airport in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Wednesday.
His son Nikolai said, “I haven’t received a letter from the recruiting office yet,” but was still researching possible exceptions, “so we left.” They declined to give their last names.
Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, has become a popular destination for Russians during the war. Up to 50,000 Russians have fled to Serbia since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and many have opened shops, particularly in the IT sector.
Russians do not need a visa to enter Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. Even allies like Belarus and China have not imposed sanctions on Russia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who often boasts of his friendly relations with Putin, said the Moscow-Belgrade ticket price reached €9,000 “on the black market” because of “mobilization and some other things”.
He also said that “despite the advances of the Ukrainian army, Putin will not capitulate,” adding that the West “expected a complete defeat of Russia,” but that mobilization will make it more difficult.
A Wednesday flight from Moscow to Belgrade was packed with young Russian men who said they could not speak to reporters because they feared negative effects on the families they were leaving behind. A Russian woman posing as Yulia said she too was afraid “my government and police” would see what she said.
“But I want to say, ‘Free Ukraine.’ Please someone stop Putin,” she said.
AP contributors Jovana Gec, Dasha Litvinova, and Julia Rubin contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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