Thousands of Russians head for Finland amid Putin’s Ukraine mobilization push

When 27-year-old Nikita saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announce military mobilization during a visit to his uncle in St. Petersburg, he decided to leave his native 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 only for freedom, Russia [free] of Putin, democracy in Russia,” he said, and burst into tears. He did not want to give his last name.

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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.

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“I’m leaving Russia”

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

“I’m leaving Russia,” said Alexander, 21, who went to France.

A person holds a Russian passport at the Vaalimaa border crossing between Russia and Finland on Friday. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)

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 entering the previous day was more than double the week before.

According to the border guards, around 7,000 people entered the country from Russia on Thursday.

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.”

A snapshot taken Thursday at the Nuijamaa border checkpoint in Lappeenranta, Finland, shows a long line of cars waiting to cross the border from Russia. (Lauri Heino/Lehtikuva/The Associated Press)

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, [saving our] Life matters.”

Few ways out

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.

WATCH l Heated scenes in Dagestan, Russia, over the mobilization decree:

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Videos are emerging showing what Russia’s massive troop mobilization looks like, with men, mostly from poorer neighborhoods, rounded up to fight in Ukraine. Tensions and doubts are mounting inside Russia, and people are fleeing in droves.

At Vaalimaa, the busiest border crossing, cars lined up for up to 400 meters on Friday, a longer queue 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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