Hundreds of Thousands of Russians Flee Conscription

Russia’s ‘partial mobilisation’ is the first time the country has officially mobilised since WWII. The mobilisation announcement has led to a mass exodus, with hundreds of thousands of Russians attempting to flee the country to evade conscription.

Just hours after partial mobilisation was announced on September 21st, plane tickets from Moscow to cities like Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, were sold out. These are major centres in countries Russians can access without a visa – many of which are former Soviet states.

In fact, in the week after the announcement, sales of one-way plane tickets sold from Russia rose 27% compared to the week before. Forbes Russia, citing a Kremlin source, reported that by October 4th, the number of people fleeing could be as high as 700,000.

Central Asian Nations Receive the Bulk of Refugees

Kazakhstan is one of the most popular destinations of the exodus – it shares the world’s second-largest land border with Russia and is open to Russians with no visa or passport necessary. Over 200,000 Russian citizens have reportedly sought shelter there.

Other Central Asian nations have seen similar influxes – like Tajikistan and Azerbaijan – but only Kazakhstan has explicitly denounced Putin’s war.

A few weeks ago, Kazakh leadership announced it wouldn’t recognise Moscow’s sham ‘referendums’ held in occupied Ukrainian regions (which all overwhelmingly supported annexation by Russia – shocking!). Kazakhstan has also confirmed it will not extradite Russians wanted by conscription officers.

Unfortunately, not every country has been so accommodating.

European countries, like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, started rejecting Russians holding tourist visas issued by any EU Schengen state two days before the mobilisation officially began. Finland followed suit by September 30, and announced a “significant restriction of the entry of Russian citizens and the issuance of visas based on the serious damage to Finland’s international position.”

The difficulty of fleeing a war you’re being forced to participate in has pushed some Russians to extremes.

Desperation Pushes Refugees to Extreme Routes

Last week, two Russians fled by boat to a remote Alaskan island. On the 27th of September eight yachtsmen sailed from the far eastern city of Vladivostok to South Korea – a journey which took them five days, as they had to circumvent North Korean waters. One man interviewed by the Guardian, Ilya, cycled more than 240 kilometres from the Arctic city of Murmansk to the Norwegian border.

Many are fleeing via Georgia, with roads packed to a standstill and queues tens of kilometres long at the border.

“At 26, I do not want to be carried home in a zinc-lined [coffin] or stain [my] hands with somebody’s blood because of the war of one person that wants to build an empire,” said Vsevolod, who had to abandon his car to cross into Georgia on foot after four days of driving. Russian authorities have reportedly established a makeshift enlistment office at the Verkhny Lars crossing into Georgia.

Russians fleeing conscription into Putin’s unlawful war are covered by the 1951 refugee convention. If they refuse to fight, they face jail sentences of up to ten years.

Despite this, officials like the Estonian foreign minister maintain that “A refusal to fulfil one’s civic duty in Russia or a desire to do so does not constitute sufficient grounds for being granted asylum in another country”.

“We expect Russians to stay and resist the authoritarian regime,” critiques Nicole Stybnarova, of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, “even though we do not ask refugees from North Korea or Iraq why they did not become dissidents.

The choice not to recognise Russians as refugees is a political one.”

Cover image: Russians crossing the border into Georgia on foot.

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