Military-age men fled Russia in droves on Friday, filling planes and causing traffic jams at border crossings to avoid being arrested for fighting in Ukraine after the Kremlin partially mobilized military.
Queues stretching 10 kilometers (6 miles) formed on a road leading to the southern border with Georgia, according to Yandex Maps, a Russian online mapping service.
Lines of cars were so long at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their vehicles and continued on foot – much like some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.
Meanwhile, dozens of flights from Russia – with tickets sold at exorbitant prices – have carried men to international destinations such as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Serbia, where Russians do not don’t need a visa.
Among those who reached Turkey was a 41-year-old man who landed in Istanbul with a suitcase and a backpack and plans to start a new life in Israel.
“I am against this war and I will not be part of it. I will not be a murderer. I’m not going to kill people,” said the man, who identified himself only as Yevgeny to avoid possible reprisals against his family back in Russia.
He called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”.
Yevgeny decided to flee after Putin announced a partial military call-up on Wednesday. The total number of reservists involved could reach 300,000.
Some Russian men have also fled to neighboring Belarus, Russia’s close ally. But it carried risks.
The Nasha Niva newspaper, one of the oldest independent newspapers in Belarus, reported that the Belarusian security services had been ordered to hunt down Russians fleeing conscription, find them in hotels and rented apartments and report to the Russian authorities.
The exodus took place as a Kremlin-orchestrated referendum began to seek to make occupied parts of Ukraine part of Russia. Kyiv and the West condemned it as a rigged election whose outcome was predetermined by Moscow.
German government officials expressed a desire to help Russian men deserting military service and called for a European solution.
“Those who bravely oppose Putin’s regime and thus put themselves in great danger can apply for asylum in Germany on the grounds of political persecution,” said German Interior Minister Spokeswoman Nancy Faeser.
Spokesman Maximilian Kall said deserters and those who refuse to be drafted would be granted refugee status in Germany if they risked severe repression, although each case would be considered individually.
But they would have to go to Germany first, which has no land border with Russia, and like other countries in the European Union, it has become much more difficult for Russians to travel.
President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The EU banned direct flights between its 27 member states and Russia after the attack on Ukraine, and recently agreed to limit the issuance of Schengen visas, which allow free movement across much of Europe .
Four of the five EU countries that border Russia – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland – have also recently decided to refuse Russian tourists.
Some European officials see fleeing Russians as potential security risks. They hope that by not opening their borders, it will increase the pressure against Putin at home.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Thursday that many of those fleeing were “agreeing to kill Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors.
The only EU country that still accepts Russians with Schengen visas is Finland, which has a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia.
Finnish border guards said on Friday the number of people entering from Russia had risen sharply, with media reporting a 107% increase from last week.
At Vaalimaa, one of the busiest border crossing points, the queue of waiting cars stretched for half a kilometer (a third of a mile), the Finnish border guard said.
Finnish television channel MTV conducted interviews with Russian men who had just entered Finland at the Virolahti border crossing, including a man named Yuri from Moscow who said no “sensible person” wanted go to war.
A Russian from St. Petersburg, Andrei Balakirov, said he was mentally ready to leave Russia for six months, but postponed it until mobilization.
“I think that’s a really bad thing,” he said.
Valery, a man from Samara who was heading for Spain, agreed, calling the mobilization a “great tragedy”.
“It’s hard to describe what’s going on. I feel sorry for those who are forced to fight against their will. I’ve heard stories of people being given these orders right on the street – scary.
Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Berlin; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed.