Putin’s Draft Order Sends 200,000 Russians Fleeing to the Border

(Bloomberg) -- At least 200,000 Russians left the country after President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization order in an exodus that’s causing turmoil at the borders and stirring fears in neighboring states about potential instability.

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While Russia hasn’t released official data, statistics from Georgia, Kazakhstan and the European Union showed the scale of the departures. The total is likely an underestimate as other nearby countries popular with Russians including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey haven’t disclosed arrival figures.

On a mountain highway at the border with Georgia, thousands of vehicles formed lines stretching for miles as Russian men eligible for the call-up flocked to escape to the Caucasus state that Putin’s army invaded in 2008. The situation is “apocalyptic, it’s like in the movies,” said Vladimir, a 30-year-old Muscovite who walked into Georgia’s Larsi with his youngest child, fearing the border would be closed to potential draftees, as his wife and older child stayed with their car in the traffic jams.

After driving with friends for more than 30 hours from Moscow to reach the Russian border with Kazakhstan in central Asia, 46-year-old Ilya, who asked not to disclose his last name, said they arrived to find about 150 cars ahead of them. With officials processing only about eight vehicles an hour, he eventually walked across the border, he said.

Putin’s mobilization order last week shocked millions of Russians who’d previously been largely shielded from the realities of the Kremlin’s seven-month-long war in Ukraine. While Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said it would affect only 300,000 out of 25 million reservists, the call-up sparked a rush to leave the country as reports piled up of men being drafted who were officially exempt.

Data from police and border officials showed 98,000 Russians entered Kazakhstan and 53,000 crossed into Georgia since Sept. 21 when Putin announced the call-up, while about 100,000 left the two countries for other destinations. The European Union reported Tuesday that 66,000 Russians entered the bloc in the past week, up 30% on a week earlier, with most crossing the land borders into Finland and Estonia. About 41,000 Russian nationals left the EU for Russia in the same period, its border agency said in a statement.

Officials in Russia’s North Ossetia region on Wednesday barred access to the road leading to the Georgian border except for cars registered to local residents or that were returning to Georgia, according to the state-run Tass news service. It earlier reported that nearly 5,000 vehicles were lined up at the border and that conscription officers were handing out draft papers at the checkpoint.

Pictures of large crowds of men at Moscow’s major airports appeared on social media amid a spike in demand for flights to countries where Russians can enter visa-free. Travel websites were offering economy tickets for about $3,000 for flights Thursday from Moscow to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and Georgia’s Tbilisi. Tickets to Moscow from Yerevan were going for about $240.

The panic intensified as rumors swirled that the Kremlin may close the borders for conscription-age men after annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine following staged referendums that ended Tuesday. Authorities in Moscow won’t issue passports to men who’ve received call-up papers, a government information portal reported Wednesday.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Tuesday he planned talks with Russia about the surge in migrants “to resolve this problem in the interests of our country.” Most Russians entering Kazakhstan “are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation,” he said in comments posted by his press service. “We must take care of them and ensure their safety.”

Opposition groups in Kazakhstan and Georgia railed against the influx, denouncing Russians as former colonizers who represented a potential security risk. In Georgia, many drew comparisons on social media between columns of Russian tanks that crossed the border in the 2008 war, which resulted in Moscow’s troops remaining in two breakaway territories, and the current rush of men seeking to avoid conscription into that army. Georgia, like Ukraine, aspires to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move Russia opposes.

The sudden increase in demand for accommodation is pushing up hotel and rental apartment prices, which have doubled in some places, adding to tensions with locals who find themselves priced out of the market. Still, many have offered a helping hand to those who felt compelled to leave Russia.

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In northern Kazakhstan, an area with a large Russian population that pro-Kremlin nationalists have long coveted, movie theater manager Dillara Mukhambetova said she saw hundreds of new arrivals wandering the streets in the rain in the city of Uralsk unable to find anywhere to stay late Saturday.

“I decided to open the movie theater so people would have somewhere safe to shelter,” she said. “On the first night, more than 200 people slept in the theater.”

Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said the numbers crossing the border at Larsi more than doubled to 11,000 on Monday from the previous day, though he said he saw nothing “alarming” about this in televised comments on Mtavari TV. Opposition activists were less sanguine.

“This is nothing but annexation without the tanks,” Giorgi Vashadze, an opposition member of Georgia’s parliament, said of the Russians arriving in the country of 4 million. “This simply can’t go on.”

Victor, a 23-year-old IT worker from Moscow, said his mother urged him to walk into Georgia to avoid the risk of being drafted, while she remained in the car in the line at the border.

“I left Russia once when the war began” but later returned, he said. “I regret coming back and will never do it again.”

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