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What’s happening on Russia’s borders as people flee Putin’s order

The announcement of Russia’s first mass mobilisation since World War Two – calling up troops for its war in Ukraine – has triggered a rush for its borders, causing concerns in neighbouring nations.

Long queues have been seen at crossings out of Russia, into countries bordering the length and breadth of the huge nation.

Officially, Moscow says 300,000 troops are needed, with priority given to people with recent military experience.

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But two newspapers based outside Russia have reported the target is to mobilise at least one million and there has been anger as many who have not served in the forces or are outside of drafting age have already been called on to fight.

It has been rumoured the majority of those mobilised will be outside Russia’s heartland regions of Moscow and St Petersburg, so as to reduce the political risk to the Kremlin.

The exact number of people who have left Russia since President Vladimir Putin announced what he called a “partial mobilisation” last Wednesday is unclear but signs are emerging of a significant exodus.

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These are the countries affected:

Finland

Almost 17,000 Russians have crossed the border into Finland already since the announcement last Wednesday, with the number making the journey at the weekend 80% higher than a week earlier.

The number crossing has slowed, but it remains busier than usual.

Some of those who made the crossing over the weekend told reporters they had travelled for three hours by car from Russia’s second-largest city St Petersburg.

They said they were leaving out of fear of being drafted.

Finland’s government said on Friday it will stop all Russians from entering on tourist visas within the coming days, although exceptions may still apply on humanitarian grounds.

The country was until recently declared neutral, having fought past wars with Moscow over its borders, but is now embarking on joining NATO in response to the war in Ukraine.

Georgia

At one point on Sunday, the estimated wait to enter Georgia from Russia was 48 hours, with more than 3,000 vehicles queuing to cross the frontier, Russian state media reported, citing local officials.

Around 40,000 Russians had already arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi since Moscow invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

One family that made it to Georgia, Dmitry Kuriliyunok, his wife Irina and young daughter, drove across Russia from Krasnodar to Mineralnye Vody in the North Caucasus and then hired a local driver to take them through border checkpoints to Tbilisi, a journey of several days.

When interviewed by reporters, he said: “We are completely against this war. For us, like for others, it’s scary. To die and to kill others, and for what? Therefore, we decided to flee.”

Russia fought a war in 2008 with Georgia over control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia remains hostile to the Kremlin.

In the Russian region of North Ossetia, on the northern side of the Caucasus mountains that separate Georgia from its neighbour, the interior ministry told people not to try to leave the country.

A queue of cars is seen at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the Russia-Georgia border, September 21, 2022, in this still image obtained from a video. RFE/RL's Georgian Service/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT
Image:
A queue of cars is seen at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the Russia-Georgia border last week

Belarus

Perhaps surprisingly, considering Minsk’s support for the war in Ukraine, there were reports that some people left Russia by entering Belarus.

It was perhaps not the safest route out, however, as the Nasha Niva newspaper reported Belarusian security services were told to track down Russians fleeing the draft by combing through hotels and rental accommodation and report them to Russian authorities.

On Monday, Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, one of the few close allies Mr Putin has on the world stage, made an unannounced visit to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks with the Russian president.

Mr Putin said they would be discussing security and the economy, adding: “We still have a fairly large range of problems that we need to discuss.”

At the United Nations General Assembly at the weekend, Belarus offered clear support for its neighbour, with foreign minister Vladimir Makei saying “it was precisely the West that made this conflict inevitable”.

Kazakhstan

Border crossings into the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan were also among those that saw people queuing for hours to leave Russia.

Despite being a close partner of Moscow, due to their historical ties, the Astana government said it won’t recognise the possible annexation of Ukraine’s eastern regions if Russia uses the results of referendums held there as a pretext to do so.

The West says voting in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is a violation of international law that is designed to give Moscow an excuse to illegitimately grab parts of Ukraine.

Kazakh government spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said: “As for the holding of referendums… Kazakhstan proceeds from the principles of territorial integrity of states, their sovereign equivalence and peaceful coexistence.”

Mongolia

There has been an outcry among ethnic minorities in remote, poor areas of Siberia, where large proportions of Russia’s professional armed forces have been drawn from in the past.

It has resulted in many heading to the border with Mongolia.

On Saturday, former Mongolian president Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the current head of the World Mongol Federation, said anyone fleeing the draft would receive a warm welcome in his country.

He called on Mr Putin to end the war, saying: “The Buryat Mongols, Tuva Mongols, and Kalmyk Mongols have… been used as nothing more than cannon fodder.

“Today you are fleeing brutality, cruelty, and likely death. Tomorrow you will start freeing your country from dictatorship.”

On Friday, the governor of Russia’s Buryatia region admitted that some had received papers in error and said those who had not served in the army or who had medical exemptions would not be called up.

The region is on the Mongolian border and home to an ethnic Mongol minority.

Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, another former Soviet central Asian republic, the top religious authority urged Uzbeks not to get involved in the conflict in Ukraine, saying to do so was against the Islamic faith.

It came after Russia offered fast-track citizenship to foreigners who join its army.

Large numbers of Uzbek men spend sometimes many years of their lives working in Russia to help their families at home.

Like the other central Asian ex-Soviet states, the country is also home to a substantial ethnic Russian minority – a legacy of the Soviet-era policy of transporting people around the vast country to work.

Uzbekistan’s Muslim Board said members of some “terrorist organisations” were recruiting Muslims to fight in the Ukraine conflict under the pretext of “jihad” or holy war.

They said it was only permissible for a Muslim to participate in military action if they were defending their homeland.

Uzbek state prosecutors have also said that citizens fighting in foreign wars will face criminal prosecution under Uzbek law.

Meanwhile, the processing of payments made using a Russian card payment system has been suspended in Uzbekistan.

The country’s UZCARD organisation, which allows Uzbeks to pay for goods and services and withdraw cash, said it would not allow payments to be made using the Mir card system, which is Russia’s alternative to Visa and MasterCard.

UZCARD said the decision had nothing to do with sanctions but that “technical maintenance procedures are being carried out”.

Russia has promoted Mir as an alternative to Visa and MasterCard, which decided they would no longer work with Russian networks due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Last week, the US issued sanctions against the chief executive of Mir operator NSPK, Vladimir Komlev. Shortly after, Turkish banks Denizbank and Isbank stopped allowing payments using the Mir system.

Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland

Besides Finland, four other EU countries share a land border with Russia – two surrounding the exclave of Kaliningrad and the others adjoining the mainland.

All four countries recently decided to turn away Russian tourists, limiting the chances for fleeing Russians to use them as a route out.

The EU had already banned direct flights between its 27 member states and Russia and recently agreed to limit the issuing of Schengen visas, allowing free movement across much of Europe, to Russian citizens.

Some European officials view Russians fleeing the country as a potential security risk, due to the possibility they could be spies or military agents.

They also hope that by keeping their borders closed, it will add to the pressure on Mr Putin at home.

The foreign minister of Latvia, Edgars Rinkevics, said on Thursday that many of those fleeing “were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors”.

Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Serbia

Dozens of flights have been taking Russians to countries for which they don’t need a visa to enter.

Many of the seats on the planes have been sold at sky-high prices, jacked up as demand has surged in recent days.

Among those arriving in Turkey was 41-year-old Yevgeny, who said he was heading to Israel.

He told the AP news agency: “I’m against this war, and I’m not going to be a part of it. I’m not going to be a murderer. I’m not going to kill people.”

Germany

Not all European countries are unwilling to receive Russian emigres, however.

German government officials said they would help Russian men who have refused to fight and have called for a European solution.

Germany’s interior ministry said anyone who “bravely” stands up to Mr Putin’s regime and puts “themselves in great danger can apply for asylum in Germany on the grounds of political persecution”.

A spokesman for the ministry, Maximilian Kall, said deserters and those refusing to be drafted would receive refugee status in Germany if they are at risk, though every case would be examined individually.

Getting to Germany, which has no land border with Russia, may be difficult, however.

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