By Ivan Watson, Masho Lomashvili, Simone McCarthy, Tim Lister and Uliana Pavlova, CNN
Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” of citizens for his war in Ukraine has already set in motion sweeping changes for many Russians, as drafted men bid their families emotional goodbyes, while others attempt to flee, scrambling to make it across land border crossings or buy air tickets out.
For many of those leaving, the reason is the same: to avoid being drafted into Putin’s brutal and faltering assault on neighboring Ukraine. But the circumstances surrounding their decisions — and the difficulties of leaving home — are deeply personal to each.
For Ivan, a man who said he’s an officer in Russia’s reserves and left his country for Belarus on Thursday, the motivation was clear: “I don’t support what’s going on, so I just decided that I had to leave right away,” he told CNN.
“I felt like the doors are closing and if I didn’t leave immediately, I might not be able to leave later,” Ivan said, adding he was thinking of a close friend back home with two little children who, unlike him, was unable to pack up and go.
Alexey, a 29-year-old who arrived in Georgia from Russia via bus on Thursday, told CNN the decision was due in part to his roots.
“(Half of) my family is Ukrainian … I am not in reserves now, for this wave of mobilization, but I think if this goes on, all the men will be qualified,” he said.
Putin declared on Wednesday that 300,000 reservists would be drafted, as Moscow seeks to replenish depleted forces after a successful counter-offensive from Kyiv this month. The move is set to change the scope of Russia’s invasion from an offensive fought largely by volunteers to one that embroils a larger swath of its population.
The announcement unleashed a scramble for some Russians, with social media chatter on platforms like Telegram exploding with people frantically trying to figure out how to get seats in vehicles headed to the borders, with some even discussing going on bicycle.
Long lines of traffic formed at land border crossings into several countries, according to video footage. Images on Kazakh media websites appeared to show vehicles backed up near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. In one, posted by Kazakh media outlet Tengri News, a person can be heard saying their vehicle has been “at a standstill for 10 hours” in Russia’s Saratov region, as they try to make their way to Kazakhstan.
“Endless cars. Everyone is running. Everyone is on the run from Russia,” the person in the video can be heard saying. CNN cannot independently verify the videos.
At the arrivals hall of Istanbul Airport on Friday, 18-year-old student Daniel told CNN of his plans to wait it out in Turkey. He flew into Turkey on Friday for what was meant to be a pre-booked holiday, but since the mobilization announcement, he has had to contend with a new life in the country.
“We are young, we can learn and build a new life. We want to be useful. For now it is vacation and wait,” he said about his plans with his girlfriend. “Since I am a student, technically I am not mobilized, but it can change. And we know our government lies to us. We are just meat for them,” Daniel said.
Software engineer Roman told CNN that he hastily bought his ticket to Turkey minutes after Putin’s mobilization speech. He plans on going to Portugal, where he has been granted a visa.
“War is terrible. I am strongly against this war. Everyone I know is against it. My friends, my family, nobody wants this war. Only politics want this war,” he said, adding that his wife has had to stay in Russia as she does not have a Portuguese visa.
“The only plan is to survive. I’m just scared,” he added.
Another Russian citizen, who declined to be named, described the war as useless and cruel, “it should never have started in the first place. And I’m sorry for the Ukrainians — I sympathize with them.” The divorcee will fly on Saturday to Israel without his two children, who are still in Russia.
“I’m hoping to bring them to me when I am settled,” he said. “I will try to move them out because Russia is certainly not the place for them.”
On Thursday, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee released a statement saying the borders were “under special control” but operating normally amid an “increase in the number of foreign citizens” entering the country. The number of passenger vehicles entering Kazakhstan from Russia had increased 20% since September 21, the country’s State Revenue Committee said in a separate statement.
On Finland’s eastern border with Russia, traffic intensified overnight on Thursday, according to the Finnish border guard. Earlier that day, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told Parliament her government was ready to take action 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 Russia’s conscription.
Travel agency websites also showed a dramatic increase in the demand for flights to places where Russians do not need a visa. Flight sale websites indicate direct flights to such countries sold out through Friday at least, while anecdotal reports indicated people were having trouble finding ways to leave far past that time frame.
At least two Russians who left the country, one via land and one via air, told CNN that departing men were being questioned by Russian authorities, with queries including whether they had had military training and others about Russia and Ukraine.
“It was like a regular passport control, but every man at the queue was stopped and asked additional questions. They took a bunch of us to a room and asked questions mainly about (our) military (training),” Vadim, a Russian who arrived in Georgia via air, told CNN.
Inside Russia’s borders the mobilization that some were aiming to escape appeared to already be underway.
Social media videos showed the first phase of the partial mobilization in several Russian regions, especially in the Caucasus and the Far East, far from Russia’s wealthy metropolitan areas.
In the Russian Far East city of Neryungi, families said goodbye to a large group of men, as they boarded buses, as seen in footage posted in a community video channel. Many people are visibly emotional in the video, including a woman crying and hugging her husband goodbye, while he reaches for his daughter’s hand from the bus window.
Another shows a group of about 100 newly mobilized soldiers waiting at Magadan Airport in the Russian Far East, next to a transport aircraft. Telegram videos showed another mobilized group of men awaiting transport, purportedly in Amginskiy Uliss in the region of Yakutiya, a vast Siberian territory.
Much nearer the Ukrainian border, a crowd was gathered near the city of Belgorod to see off a batch of newly mobilized men. As they get on a bus, a boy shouts out “Bye, Daddy!” and starts crying. CNN has not been able to independently verify the videos.
In other scenes circulating on social media, tensions around the conscription ran high.
In Dagestan in the Caucasus, a furious argument broke out at one enlistment office, according to one video. A woman said her son had been fighting since February. Told by a man that she should not have sent him, she replied: “Your grandfather fought so that you could live,” to which the man responded: “Back then it was war, right now it is politics.”
Defiance and detention
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday called on Russians to protest against the partial military mobilization.
Thousands of Russian soldiers “died in this war in six months. Tens of thousands are wounded and maimed. Want more? No? Then protest. Fight back. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for you to survive,” Zelensky said in his daily video address to his country.
Addressing anti-war protests that broke out across Russia on Wednesday, the Ukrainian leader said: “(Russian people) understand that they have been cheated.”
But dissent is typically swiftly crushed in Russia and authorities have placed further constraints on free speech following the invasion of Ukraine.
Police swiftly cracked down on Wednesday’s demonstrations, which were mostly small-scale protests. More than 1,300 people were detained by authorities in at least 38 cities, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
Some of those protesters were immediately drafted into the military following their arrests, according to the group’s spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova, who told CNN by phone on Wednesday that at at least four police stations in Moscow some of the arrested protesters were being conscripted.
Earlier this week, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service, setting the jail term to up to 15 years for violation of military service duties — such as desertion and evasion from service, according to state news agency TASS.
Ivan, the reservist who spoke to CNN after leaving the country this week, described the feeling of hopelessness felt by many in Russia in the wake of recent events.
“It feels bad because a lot of my friends, a lot of people don’t support the war and they feel threatened by what is going on, and there is no democratic way to really stop this, to even declare your protest,” he said.
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CNN’s Gul Tuysuz, Yulia Kesaieva, Lauren Kent, Sugam Pokharel, and Anastasia Graham Yooll contributed to this report.