'I don’t want to be a pawn in Putin’s deadly game': Russians flee mobilisation

Our Observer "Kirk", one of thousands of Russians fleeing their country to avoid fighting in Ukraine, took this photograph at Russia's border with Georgia on 28 September, 2022. To bypass lines of cars and evade a ban on crossing on foot, he paid $600 for a used bicycle and cycled the last 20 km.
Our Observer "Kirk", one of thousands of Russians fleeing their country to avoid fighting in Ukraine, took this photograph at Russia's border with Georgia on 28 September, 2022. To bypass lines of cars and evade a ban on crossing on foot, he paid $600 for a used bicycle and cycled the last 20 km. © Telegram

The announcement of Russia's first mass mobilisation since World War Two - calling up troops for its war in Ukraine - has seen thousands fleeing for its borders to escape the draft. Our Observer is one of tens of thousands of Russians to have fled to neighbouring Georgia. Footage shared on social media shows huge lines forming at Russia’s borders, as people escape by car, bicycle and even on foot.


While the Kremlin said the mobilisation would only affect fit adult men with combat experience, reports have been coming in of men being drafted who are officially exempt, sparking the rush to escape the country. 

One man from Buryatia, a mountainous region in eastern Siberia, told the independent Russian news site The Insider that recruitment officers are “combing through villages”. He said that “men are being taken away, regardless of their criteria. There are 400 people in our village, and they took 20 men”. Meanwhile, in a video shared on social media (below), a Russian man said that he was being shipped to the frontline in a matter of days with no military training.

Since the announcement of the draft on 21 September, at least 10,000 people have crossed into Georgia every day - double the amount before the annoucement, according to local authorities. The traffic jam leading to Verkhny Lars, a border crossing into Georgia from Russia’s North Ossetia region, stretched back about 20 km. The queue was so long it could be seen from space.

Our Observer Kirk (not his real name) served in the Russian army in 2010-2011 as a junior sergeant. He decided to flee to Georgia because he didn’t want to be “forced into one man’s criminal war”. “I am not a murderer and have no intention of killing innocent people. I don’t want to die because of one crazy man’s ideas, I don’t want to be a pawn in his deadly game”, he told us. 

'The situation at the border was similar to a humanitarian disaster'

It took Kirk four days and three plane journeys to get from Kaliningrad, a Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland, to Vladikavkaz, 30 km from Russia’s Verkhny Lars border with Georgia. The journey cost him 2000 dollars. 

The traffic jam went on forever. There were thousands of people [at the Verkhny Lars border]. I knew it would take me too long to get to the border by car, so I bought a bicycle  from someone for 600 dollars to get to the checkpoint faster.

I cycled for around 20 kilometres. I had 6 litres of water and a couple of bags of nuts with me. I gave two bottles of water to people in need. A lot of people who were travelling by car were stuck in traffic jams for about 4 days, so they were in dire need of water and food.

In some areas, Russian authorities tried to stem the flow, barring some men from leaving and citing mobilisation laws, but the practice did not seem widespread. 

Police in North Ossetia said a makeshift enlistment office will be set up at the Verkhny Lars crossing, and local officials confirmed to the state news agency Tass that Russian men are being served call-up summonses at crossing into Georgia. Kirk managed to escape before such measures were enforced. 

When I arrived at the Russian checkpoint, I queued for about 6 hours, then I made my way to the checkpoint to get my documents stamped. I passed the Georgian border guards. It was obvious that they were trying to work faster to let people through. It took me a total of about 12 hours to get through, but I was lucky; many people had to wait for days. The situation at the border is similar to a humanitarian disaster.

At the time, they could not ban me from fleeing under the law, but I have heard that some men were banned from leaving anyway. People believe the borders will soon be shut completely, which is why so many Russians are trying to get out while they can.

The Russian region of North Ossetia declared a state of “high alert” and said that food, water, warming stations and other aid should be brought in for those who have spent days in queues. Volunteers on the Georgian side of the border have brought water, blankets and other help.

I am very grateful to Georgia and all Georgians for the welcome they afforded us. When I arrived, I was met by a friend of mine who had been living here for a while.

Since arriving in Georgia, I have been able to access a lot of information about what is happening in Ukraine that was blocked when I was in Russia. I used to access other media outlets when I was at home with VPN services, but authorities have increasingly been blocking them.

However, not all Georgians are sympathetic towards Russians arriving in their country. On Wednesday 28 September, protesters gathered at the border, calling for authorities to stop the influx of Russians. The Georgian pro-Western party Droa, who organised the protest, said the numbers arriving pose a threat to the country’s national security and its economy. 

'Luckily, I managed to escape when I did'

In a last-ditch effort to recruit those fleeing Putin’s mobilisation order, the Russian military has set up draft offices at border crossings. Independent Russian news outlets reported a mobile recruitment centre near the Russian Verkhny Lars border with Georgia  in the form of a black van with “military enlistment office” written on it. Another makeshift draft office was reported along Russia’s northern border, at a crossing with Finland.

Our observer told us:

Recruitment points are placed on the border as there is a lack of coordination among the army and border guards. Authorities are trying to reduce the flow of people fleeing the country and to identify those who are already subject to conscription. Luckily, I managed to escape when I did.

Another challenge is getting past Russians who shame those trying to escape. In this video shared on Telegram, a local in North Ossetia can be heard talking to a Russian trying to escape: “Why are you leaving your country? Are you liable for military service? Show me your passport!” 

Tens of thousands more have left via other neighbouring countries, including Kazakhstan, Finland and Mongolia. 

The tweet reads: “On the border with Kazakhstan, Russians waiting their turn to cross the border are living in tents, cooking food on fryers. Russia is experiencing a veritable biblical exodus these days - Russians fleeing from the Kremlin's Pharaoh, who wants to destroy them all.”

Destinations reachable by air - such as Istanbul, Belgrade or Dubai - saw ticket prices skyrocket immediately after the military call-up was announced, with some destinations sold out completely.

Tweet reads: "Minutes after Putin's speech on 21 September, there are no more seats available for direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Tbilisi or Yerevan."

On 24 September, Putin signed a decree that toughens penalties for voluntary surrender to enemy forces, desertion and refusal to fight. Those offences can now carry sentences of up to 10 years in prison.