Russians flee the draft as the reality of the war in Ukraine hits home

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization” in the Ukraine war has triggered mass protests throughout the country and launched an exodus of Russian citizens fearing the draft.

Many who previously supported Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine are now having second thoughts.

But with the price of airline tickets skyrocketing and flights to the few destinations still available to Russians fully booked, hundreds of thousands have fled across land borders into Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where visas aren’t required for Russian citizens.

Traffic jams are stretching for many kilometres and it’s taking as long as 48 hours to reach border posts. When they finally arrive, Russian citizens are experiencing very different receptions in these three neighbouring countries.

Cars line up to cross the border into Kazakhstan, about 400 kilometres south of Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Sept. 27, 2022.
(AP Photo)

In eastern Siberia near Lake Baikal, the Buryat Republic bordering Mongolia is home to many ethnic Mongols. Along with other non-Russian peoples from the Caucasus and elsewhere, Mongols have been sent to the war front in disproportionate numbers.

Many feel it’s not their war, and former Mongolian president Tsakhia Elbegdor has condemned Russia for using Buryats and other ethnic minorities as “cannon fodder.”

Elbegdor, who is currently head of the World Mongol Federation, promised a warm welcome to Russian citizens fleeing the war, especially ethnic Mongols.

Kazakhstan is welcoming

In Kazakhstan, where nearly 100,000 Russians have entered the country since Sept. 21, free food, cigarettes and SIM cards are being offered to arriving Russian citizens.

With hotels and apartments either full or unaffordable, draft evaders are being offered accommodation in alternate spaces such as cinemas.

A man with grey hair and glasses in a suit stands before a podium speaking.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, president of Kazakhstan, addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations on Sept. 20, 2022.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a longtime ally of Putin’s, has criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine and promised to “take care of and ensure the safety” of Russian citizens fleeing the country.

Kazakhstan, which has a sizeable Russian minority, has good reason to be nervous about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, since the pretext of “protecting ethnic Russians” could be also used to attack Kazakhstan in the future.

Opportunism at the Georgian border

The situation in the Caucasus region is different. The border crossing at Verkhny Lars between the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania and Georgia is a scene of both panic and opportunism.

The line of vehicles waiting to enter Georgia stretches for more than 30 kilometres, all the way back to the Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz. This slow-moving caravan has provided a range of business opportunities for enterprising locals, civilians and law enforcement officers alike.

Coffee and sandwich vendors have been doing a thriving business moving up and down the line. Scooters and bicycles, able to breeze past the immobilized traffic, are being rented out at a premium.

Two smiling young men ride bicycles.
Two young Russian men ride bicycles after crossing the border into Georgia on Sept. 27, 2022.
(AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze)

Those near the head of the line are using social media to sell space in their cars to others further back for as much as $1,000. Traffic police, meanwhile, have been stopping motorists on their way to the border and demanding bribes to allow them to continue on their way.

The Georgians, for their part, have presented some of the new arrivals with forms to sign stating that they oppose the war in Ukraine and that Russia has, since 2008, illegally occupied the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Read more:
South Ossetia: The case for international recognition

Sent back to Russia

Anyone who refuses to sign is sent back into Russia. On Sept. 26, the Russian Interior Ministry sent tanks and troops to guard the border out of fear that mobs might try to circumvent the border post. The following day, plans were announced to set up a “recruitment centre” to serve draft papers to men attempting to leave the country.

Many are passing the long hours inching towards the border on their mobile phones, asking for tips on getting across and posting their experiences on social media.

It’s advised to display a “Z” sticker, symbolizing support for the war in Ukraine, on cars while still on Russian territory, but remove it before reaching the Georgian border post, otherwise Georgian officials will refuse entry.

There’s also wealth of information on getting across the United States border from Mexico — assuming anyone makes it that far — and having the correct skin colour is said to guarantee preferred treatment for asylum applications.

The scene in Russia

Of course, most Russian citizens do not have the means to flee abroad and must stay to face their destiny. Many are resigned to this, and in time-honoured Russian fashion, accept their fate with black humour.

“I’ll go to the front,” an acquaintance of mine recently joked. “It will give me a break from my wife.”

A video circulating on Telegram shows a group of laughing drunks on the verge of being bussed off for mobilization. “We’ll go wherever we’re needed,” slurs one, waving a half-empty bottle of vodka.

Another clip shows a group of enthusiastic young men dancing in front of a recruitment centre, followed by a sober scene from their barracks where they complain that the rifles they’ve been issued are as rusted and unusable as the broken bedsprings and shredded mattresses of their cots.

A balding man gestures while speaking, a flag red, blue and gold flag behind him.
Putin gestures as he attends a meeting on agricultural issues via videoconference from the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sept. 27, 2022.
(Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Immediately upon issuing his mobilization decree, Putin disappeared on a one-week vacation, leaving his lieutenants to deal with mass protest demonstrations throughout the country and the logistical nightmare of mustering 300,000 new recruits.

The conditions meant to determine who was eligible for the draft were widely ignored, and it was reported that new conscripts are being sent directly to the front, without training, supplies or functioning equipment.

Conscripts are being told at orientation to bring their own sleeping bags, to fetch first-aid kits from their cars and to ask their wives, girlfriends and mothers for tampons for staunching bullet wounds. They are also advised to bring their own winter clothing, cooking utensils and food.

Russians voting with their feet

The replacement on Sept. 24 of logistics chief Gen. Dmitry Bulgakov by Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev — who is implicated in war crimes committed during the Russian occupation of Bucha — is unlikely to improve the situation, because Russia’s military is plagued by corruption and false reporting at all levels.

Russia’s latest “troop surge” seems doomed to fail, similar to how American surges failed in Iraq and Afghanistan — and U.S. troops were far better prepared and equipped.

The risk is that every failure motivates Putin to resort to more desperate measures, and brings the world closer to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

A large majority of Russian citizens supported Putin’s war as long as others were fighting it, but now that the general population is implicated, many are voting with their feet.

Ordinary Russians have received their wake-up call regarding the actual situation on the ground in Ukraine. Decision-makers at the upper echelons of Russian society may soon receive theirs as well.

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