By Jake Cordell and Essi Lehto
TBILISI/VAALIMAA, Finland (Reuters) -Some Russian men headed swiftly to the borders on Thursday after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilisation, with traffic at frontier crossings with Finland and Georgia surging and prices for air tickets from Moscow rocketing.
Putin on Wednesday ordered Russia’s first mobilisation since World War Two and backed a plan to annex swathes of Ukraine, warning the West he was not bluffing when he said he’d be ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.
Prices for air tickets out of Moscow soared above $5,000 for one-way tickets to the nearest foreign locations, with most air tickets sold out completely for coming days.
Social media groups popped up with advice on how to get out of Russia while one news site in Russian gave a list of “where to run away right now from Russia.” There were long tailbacks at border crossings with Georgia.
“War is horrible,” Sergei, a Russian who declined to give his surname, told Reuters as he arrived in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. “It’s okay to be afraid of war and of death and such things.”
One Russian man who gave his name as Alex told Reuters in Istanbul that he had left Russia partly due to the mobilisation.
“The partial mobilisation is one of the reasons why I am here,” he said. “A very poor step it seems to be, and it can lead to lots of problems to lots of Russians.”
He said he felt that not many Russians would want to be sent to fight.
Another Russian, who gave his name only as Vasily, arrived in Istanbul with his wife, teenage daughter and six suitcases.
“The mobilization was inevitable because there was a shortage of human resources. I am not worried because I’m already 59 years old and my son lives abroad,” he said.
CROSSINGS BUSIER THAN USUAL
A truck driver who crossed the Russian-Kazakh border on Thursday near the Kazakh city of Oral told Reuters he saw unusually heavy traffic from the Russian side. He asked not to be identified, fearing that might complicate his future travel.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that reports of an exodus of draft-age men were exaggerated. Asked about reports that men detained at anti-war protests were being given draft papers, Peskov said it was not against the law.
Some 10,000 volunteers have turned up to enlist for Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine without waiting for call-up papers issued under a partial mobilisation, Russian news agencies reported, citing the Russian General Staff.
Russian state-owned pollsters say that more than 70% of Russians support what the Kremlin calls the “special military operation”, though polling leaked in July showed an even split between those who wanted to fighting to stop or continue.
The war in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands, unleashed an inflationary wave through the global economy and triggered deepening confrontation with the West.
A tourism industry source told Reuters that there was desperation as people sought to find air tickets out of Russia.
“This is panic demand from people who are afraid they won’t be able to leave the country later – people are buying tickets not caring where they fly to,” the source said.
Finland said on Thursday it was considering barring most Russians from entering as traffic across the border from its eastern neighbour increased after Putin’s order.
Prime Minister Sanna Marin said the government was assessing risks posed by individuals travelling through Finland, and was considering ways to sharply reduce Russian transit.
Traffic arriving at the border “intensified” overnight and remained elevated into daytime hours on Thursday, the Finnish Border Guard said.
BETTER THAN ‘A FUNERAL’
“The number clearly has picked up,” the Finnish border guard’s head of international affairs, Matti Pitkaniitty, told Reuters, adding the situation was under control.
At 1730 local time (1530 GMT) at the Vaalimaa crossing, three hours’ drive from Russia’s St Petersburg, traffic continued to flow, according to a Reuters witness, with cars stretching over four lanes, each for some 150 metres.
Russia’s Aeroflot said it would refund people who were unable to fly as planned because they had received a call-up.
Russian police detained more than 1,300 people in Russia on Wednesday at protests against mobilisation, a rights group said.
Despite the reported arrests, the anti-war protest movement Vesna (Spring) urged more protests across Russia on Saturday.
“In order for the protest to end with the fall of the regime, the number of protesters must grow. We need to get more and more people out, and for this we need your help. Otherwise, nothing will work,” it said on its Telegram channel.
“In the end, getting a fine or a few days of arrest is better than getting a funeral.”
(Additional reporting by Mehmet Emin Caliskan, Bulent Usta, David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul, Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, Writing by Caleb Davis and Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Mark Heinrich, Frank Jack Daniel, William Maclean)