ISTANBUL (AP) – Military-age men fled Russia in droves Friday, filling planes and causing traffic jams at border crossings to avoid being mustered up for combat in Ukraine after the Kremlin’s partial military mobilization.
Queues stretching over 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 – as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.
Meanwhile, dozens of flights from Russia – with tickets sold at sky-high prices – carried men to international destinations such as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Serbia, where Russians do not need visas.
Among those who reached Turkey was a 41-year-old who landed in Istanbul with a suitcase and a backpack and plans to start a new life in Israel.
“I’m against this war and I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want to be a murderer. I’m not going to kill people,” said the man, who identified himself only as Yevgeny to avoid potential retaliation against his family that was left behind in Russia.
He referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal”.
Yevgeny decided to flee after Putin announced a partial military call-up on Wednesday. The total number of reservists involved may be as high as 300,000.
Some Russian men also fled to neighboring Belarus, Russia’s close ally. But that involved risk.
The newspaper Nasha Niva, one of the oldest independent newspapers in Belarus, reported that Belarusian security services were ordered to track down Russians fleeing the draft, find them in hotels and rented apartments, and report them to Russian authorities.
The exodus unfolded as a Kremlin-orchestrated referendum went ahead in an attempt to make occupied regions of Ukraine part of Russia. Kyiv and the West condemned it as a sham election whose outcome was predetermined by Moscow.
German government officials expressed a desire to help Russian men deserting military service, and they called for a European solution.
“Those who bravely stand up to Putin’s regime and thus put themselves in great danger can apply for asylum in Germany due to political persecution,” said the spokesman for German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser.
The spokesman, Maximilian Kall, said deserters and those who refuse to be drafted will be given refugee status in Germany if they are at risk of serious repression, although each case is investigated individually.
But first they had to get to Germany, which has no land border with Russia and, like other EU countries, it has become much more difficult for Russians to travel to.
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 out of five EU countries bordering Russia – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland – also recently decided to turn away Russian tourists.
Some European officials view fleeing Russians as potential security risks. They hope that by not opening their borders, it will increase pressure on Putin at home.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Thursday that many of those who fled “are fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them conscientious objectors.”
The one EU country that still accepts Russians on Schengen visas is Finland, which has a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia.
Finnish border guards said on Friday that the number of people entering from Russia has risen sharply, with media reporting a 107% increase compared to last week.
At Vaalimaa, one of the busiest crossings on the border, the line of waiting cars stretched over half a kilometer (a third of a mile), the Finnish border guard said.
Finnish broadcaster MTV carried interviews with Russian men who had just crossed into Finland at the Virolahti border crossing, including a man named Yuri from Moscow who said no “sane person” wants to go to war.
A Russian man from St. Petersburg, Andrei Balakirov, said he had been mentally prepared to leave Russia for six months, but postponed it until the mobilization.
“I think it’s a really bad thing,” he said.
Valery, a man from Samara who was on his way to Spain, agreed, calling the mobilization “a great tragedy.”
“It is difficult to describe what is happening. I pity those who are forced to fight against their will. I’ve heard stories of people getting these orders right off 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.