Fewer Russians cross border to flee despite military call-up
TALLINN, ESTONIA -- Fewer Russians have crossed into neighbouring countries in recent days, according to local authorities, despite persistent anxiety over the partial mobilization the Kremlin launched less than two weeks ago to bolster its forces fighting in Ukraine.
The mass exodus of Russian men -- alone or with their families or friends -- began Sept. 21, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial call-up of reservists. In Russia, the vast majority of men under age 65 are registered as reservists, so airline tickets to destinations abroad sold out within hours. Shortly after that, long lines of cars formed on roads leading to Russia's borders.
Over 194,000 Russians had entered Kazakhstan, Georgia and Finland by Tuesday. It wasn't possible to discern how many of them fled the military call-up and how many traveled for other reasons, but the numbers were much higher than those before the call-up.
According to officials from all three countries, by the end of the week the influx had decreased. It was not clear if this was related to the temporary military recruitment centers that Russian authorities hastily set up along land borders or to the policy of turning men away from the borders, citing mobilization laws.
Finland on Friday barred Russians with tourist visas from entering the country, and only 1,688 Russians were able to cross by land into the Nordic country that day, compared to 5,262 on Thursday and over 8,000 each day the previous weekend, according to the Finnish Border Guard.
Georgia saw fewer Russians entering, too: only 6,109 between Thursday and Friday, compared to 9,642 between Wednesday and Thursday, the country's Interior Ministry reported.
The decrease of the flow of Russians to Georgia, which together with Kazakhstan comprised two most popular destinations for those crossing by land, also may have to do with restrictions. On Wednesday, officials in Russia's southern region of North Ossetia, where the only land crossing checkpoint to Georgia is located, restricted cars from other regions from entering in an effort to stem the exodus.
But officials in Kazakhstan noted a decrease in numbers as well, even though no official restrictions have been enforced on either side of its border with Russia.
The Kazakh Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov on Saturday pointed to a "persistent downward trend" in the number of Russians entering the country: only 22,500 entered on Thursday, and even fewer -- 14,100 -- crossed into Kazakhstan on Friday. It wasn't immediately clear what caused the numbers to drop.
The Kremlin has said it plans to call-up some 300,000 people, but Russian media reported that the number could be as high as 1.2 million, a claim that Russian officials have denied.
Russia's Defense Ministry has promised to only draft those who have combat or service experience, but according to multiple media reports and human rights advocates, men who don't fit the criteria are also being rounded up, including protesters.
The official decree on mobilization, signed by Putin, is concise and vague, fueling fears of a broader draft.
In an apparent effort to calm the population, Putin told Russia's Security Council on Thursday that some mistakes had been made in the mobilization and said Russian men mistakenly called up for service should be sent back home.
Other efforts to tamp down the national panic included promises of high pay and social benefits to those mobilized.
Russian authorities have also started turning some men away from the border, citing mobilization laws that prohibited leaving the country to certain categories of men. They also set up several draft offices at border checkpoints, threatening to serve call-up papers to those seeking to leave.