Sold out flights. Border crossings backed up for kilometers. For Russians fleeing President Vladimir Putin’s partial military mobilization, it’s not so easy to get out.
Georgia remains one of the few exits left, with long lines of cars stretching for kilometers at the only crossing from Russia into Georgia at Verkhny Lars-Zemo Larsi. (Unconfirmed reports on September 26 suggested that Russia may be moving to close the crossing to most Russian men.)
“We got in today. There are three of us in the family, including my husband (34 years old). They did not ask anything either on our side or on the Georgian side [of the border],” said one Russian in a Telegram chat devoted to the Verkhny Lars-Zemo Larsi border crossing. “The wait is very long! We got in line at 17:00 in the evening and we entered Georgia at 11:00 [the next day]. Stock up on water and food.”
But many Georgians apparently have little sympathy. “You are only worried about not being killed in Ukraine. You had seven months to speak out against the war, but until they knocked on your door, you supported Putin,” one person posted in the chat group.
Shortly after Putin’s address on September 21, Russian media quickly reported a sharp spike in demand for plane tickets abroad amid an apparent scramble to leave despite exorbitant prices for flights.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the West has punished Russia with sanctions and isolation. The EU has closed its airspace to Russian flights and only Finland remains open to Russians with a tourist visa, something Helsinki is mulling whether to scrap.
All flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent, and Baku scheduled for September 21 and 22 were sold out, the Russian business paper RBC reported that very day. Russia’s borders to the east, south, and west, have been swamped with cars and trucks trying to get out of the country.
Wave Of Protests
The announcement has also triggered a wave of protests across Russia, with hundreds arrested. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 300,000 Russians would be mobilized, but reports have emerged that the Kremlin is hoping to dragoon more than 1 million people to fight in Ukraine.
Putin’s mobilization order comes amid serious Russian setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine amid a counteroffensive by Kyiv’s forces launched at the start of September.
At the Verkhny Lars-Zemo Larsi border point, many are crossing by car and truck, but also on foot and scooters.
Getting past the Russian border guards is no easy task, according to a Russian who made the journey successfully. “Regarding the border, it depends on the person who you get at passport control. I wasn’t asked anything. But in the next window, [an official] was coming up with lots of questions and insulting [travelers], accusing them of leaving the homeland at a tough time. They didn’t let a few people go on to Georgia — according to my observation, every 20th person was sent back,” an unidentified Russian wrote in the Telegram chat.
Others note that males are being grilled by Russian border guards about their military service status: “We crossed the border at 14:00. Five people were in the car: 55, 19, 23, 35, and 45 years old. Military service applies to everyone. It takes about 20 minutes for a man to be cleared. Questions: first name, last name, father’s name. 2. Place and date of birth. 3. Did you serve [in the military] or not and details about the military service document…. If you were informed about the mobilization. There may have been more questions. We all passed and got through.”
According to comments in the chat group where there are tens of thousands of questions, Russian men at the border are also facing questions about their patriotism. “‘Why are you leaving? Aren’t you a reserve officer? The country is in trouble. When will you return?’ But [the Russian border guards] didn’t create any problems. They let us go,” one Russian wrote.
Defense Minister Shoigu said on September 21 that only those with relevant combat and service experience would be mobilized and not conscripts and students.
However, reports quickly emerged of the Kremlin casting a wider net, with ethnic minorities appearing to be targeted for mobilization.
Telegram users were also offering practical advice and services to help shorten the wait at the Georgian-Russian border.
“You arrived at the border by taxi and you don’t know what to do now? Buy a bicycle, moped, skateboard from us and calmly cross the border. You can PM (private message) me for details,” one enterprising Russian offered.
Some Georgians have offered to help Russians, including car rides and shelter.
Before Putin’s announcement, Georgia had already served as a sanctuary for Russians exiting their homeland since the full invasion of Ukraine began in late February.
While Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia have witnessed demonstrations in support of Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s invasion, the government has taken a more cautious approach.
When many European countries introduced sanctions against Russia, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili refused to impose curbs on the country’s northern neighbor, angering many Georgians.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, whose post is mostly ceremonial, has voiced strong backing for Ukraine, saying Georgia has a sense of solidarity since it was invaded by Russia in 2008.
And while the border-crossing Telegram group suggests some Georgians may be ready to help Russians fleeing Putin’s mobilization, others appear to have little sympathy.
“There is no need to come to Georgia! Go to your Belarus! No need to come to us, no!” one person wrote, referring to Moscow’s loyal neighbor whose internationally isolated leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has given his backing to Putin.
Another wrote: “The cowardly Russians are running away.”