Traffic jams and desperation at the border as Russians flee Putin’s ‘partial mobilization’

For Ivan, a man who said it was him an officer in Russia’s reserve and left his country for Belarus on Thursday, the motivation was clear: “I don’t support what’s going on, so I just decided I have to go immediately,” he told CNN.

“I felt like the doors were closing and if I don’t go right away, I might not be able to go later,” Ivan said, adding he’s thinking of a close friend at home with two young children who, in contrast, is he was unable to pack up and walk.

Alexey, a 29-year-old who arrived in Georgia by bus from Russia on Thursday, told CNN the decision was partly due to his roots.

“(Half) of my family is Ukrainian … I’m not in reserve for this wave of mobilizations now, but I think if this continues all men will be qualified,” he said.

Cars queue to enter the Brusnichnoye checkpoint on the Russian-Finnish border in the Leningrad region of Russia on September 22.
Putin said Wednesday that 300,000 reservists would be drafted as Moscow seeks to replenish depleted forces after a successful counteroffensive from Kyiv this month. The move is intended to change the scope of the Russian invasion from an offensive largely volunteer-led to one that will involve a larger portion of its population.

The announcement caused a flurry among some Russians and social media chatter on platforms like Telegram exploded with people desperately trying to figure out how to get seats in vehicles heading to the borders, and some even discussing to ride a bike.

According to video recordings, long traffic queues formed at land border crossings in several countries. Images on Kazakh media websites appeared to show vehicles being held back near the Russian-Kazakh border. In one released by Kazakh media agency Tengri News, a person can be heard saying their vehicle has been “standing still for 10 hours” in Russia’s Saratov region as they attempt to cross into Kazakhstan.

“Infinite cars. all run Everyone is fleeing Russia,” the person can be heard in the video. CNN cannot independently verify the videos.

On Friday in the arrivals hall of Istanbul Airport, 18-year-old student Daniel told CNN about his plans to wait out in Turkey. He flew to Turkey on Friday for a pre-booked holiday, but since the mobilization announcement he has had to grapple with a new life in the country.

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“We are young, we can learn and build a new life for ourselves. We want to make ourselves useful. Now it’s vacation and wait and see,” he said of his plans with his girlfriend. “Being a student I’m not technically mobilized, but it can change. And we know our government is lying to us. We’re just meat to them,” Daniel said.

Software engineer Roman told CNN he hastily bought his ticket to Turkey minutes after Putin’s mobilization speech. He plans to go to Portugal, where he was granted a visa.

“War is terrible. I am firmly against this war. Everyone I know is against it. My friends, my family, nobody wants this war. Only politics wants this war,” he said, adding that his wife had to stay in Russia because she doesn’t have a Portuguese visa.

“The only plan is to survive. I’m just scared,” he added.

Another Russian, who asked not to be named, described the war as useless and cruel. “It shouldn’t have started in the first place. And I feel sorry for the Ukrainians – I sympathize with them.” The divorcee flies to Israel on Saturday without his two children, who are still in Russia.

“I hope to bring them to me once I’m settled,” he said. “I’ll try to undress her because Russia is certainly not the place for her.”

On Thursday, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee released a statement saying the borders were “under special control” but were functioning normally amid an “increase in the number of foreign nationals” entering the country. The number of passenger cars entering Kazakhstan from Russia has increased by 20% since Sept. 21, the country’s State Finance Committee said in a separate statement.

According to the Finnish border guard, traffic on Finland’s eastern border with Russia intensified overnight. Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament earlier in the day her government is ready to take measures to “put an end” to Russian tourism and transit through Finland, according to Finnish public broadcaster Yle.

Many of those leaving appeared to be men. Women are not part of the Russian conscription.

Travel agency websites also showed a dramatic increase in demand for flights to places where visas are not required for Russians. Flight sales websites indicate that direct flights to such countries were sold out at least through Friday, while anecdotal reports suggested people were struggling to find ways to go well beyond that period.

At least two Russians who left the country, one by land and one by air, told CNN that leaving men would be questioned by Russian authorities, including whether they had any military training and other questions about Russia and Ukraine.

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“It was like normal passport control, but every man in the queue was stopped and asked additional questions. They put a bunch of us in a room and mostly asked questions about (our) military (training),” said Vadim, a Russian who arrived in Georgia by plane, told CNN.

Mobilization begins

Within Russia’s borders, the mobilization that some wanted to escape seemed already underway.

Social media videos showed the first phase of partial mobilization in several Russian regions, particularly in the Caucasus and the Far East, far from the prosperous metropolitan areas of Russia.

In the Russian Far East city of Neryungi, families said goodbye to a large group of men as they boarded buses, a community video channel showed. Many people are visibly emotional in the video, including a woman crying and hugging her husband goodbye as he reaches out of the bus window to take his daughter’s hand.

Russian families say goodbye as men leave for military service in Neryungri, Sakha Republic, Russia.

Another shows a group of about 100 newly mobilized soldiers waiting next to a transport plane at Magadan Airport in Russia’s Far East. Telegram videos showed another mobilized group of men allegedly awaiting transport at Amginskiy Uliss in the Yakutiya region, a vast Siberian territory.

Much closer to the Ukrainian border, a crowd gathered near the town of Belgorod to bid farewell to a group of newly mobilized men. As they get on a bus, a boy yells “Bye, Daddy!” and starts crying. CNN was unable to independently verify the videos.

In other scenes circulating on social media, tension surrounding conscription was high.

According to a video, a violent argument broke out at a recruitment office in Dagestan in the Caucasus. One woman said her son had been fighting since February. Told by a man that she shouldn’t have sent him, she replied, “Your grandfather fought so you could live,” to which the man replied, “It was war then, now it’s politics.”

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defiance and imprisonment

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the Russians on Thursday to protest against the partial military mobilization.

Thousands of Russian soldiers “have died in this war in six months. Tens of thousands are wounded and maimed. Do you want more? No? Then protest. Zelenskyy said in his daily video address to his country.

Referring to anti-war protests that erupted across Russia on Wednesday, the Ukrainian leader said: “(Russian people) understand that they have been betrayed.”

But dissent is usually quickly crushed in Russia, and the authorities have further curtailed free speech after the invasion of Ukraine.

Police quickly cracked down on Wednesday’s demonstrations, which were mostly small-scale protests. According to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, more than 1,300 people have been arrested by authorities in at least 38 cities.

Some of those protesters were immediately drafted into the military after their arrest, according to group spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova, who told CNN by phone on Wednesday that some of the arrested protesters were being drafted into at least four police stations in Moscow.

Earlier this week, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service, raising the prison sentence to up to 15 years for violations of military duties — such as desertion and refusal to serve, according to state news agency TASS.

Ivan, the reservist who spoke to CNN after leaving this week, described the sense of hopelessness many in Russia have felt following recent events.

“It feels bad because a lot of my friends, a lot of people, don’t support the war and feel threatened by what’s going on and there’s no democratic way to really stop this, not even to explain your protest.” , he said.

CNN’s Gul Tuysuz, Yulia Kesaieva, Lauren Kent, Sugam Pokharel, and Anastasia Graham Yooll contributed to this report.

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