Traffic Jams and Desperation at the Border as Russians Flee Putin’s ‘Partial Mobilization’


Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” of citizens for his war in Ukraine has already set in motion sweeping changes for many Russians, as drafted men say emotional goodbyes to their families while others try to flee, scramble to make it across border crossings or air to buy tickets from.

For many of those leaving, the reason is the same: to avoid being drafted into Putin’s brutal and staggering attack on neighboring Ukraine. But the circumstances surrounding their decisions – and the hardships of leaving home – are deeply personal for each.

For Ivan, a man who said he is an officer in Russia’s reserves and left his country for Belarus on Thursday, the motivation was clear: “I didn’t support what was happening, so I just decided I had to leave,” he told CNN.

“I felt the doors were closing and if I didn’t leave now, I might not be able to leave later,” Ivan said, adding that he remembered a close friend at home with two small children who, unlike him, was can’t pack and go.

Alexey, a 29-year-old who arrived in Georgia from Russia via bus on Thursday, told CNN that the decision was partly due to his roots.

“(Half of) my family is Ukrainian … I’m not in reserves now, for this wave of mobilization, but I think if this continues, all men will be qualified,” he said.

Putin announced on Wednesday that 300,000 reservists would be drafted in as Moscow seeks to replenish depleted forces following a successful counteroffensive by Kiev this month. The move is set to change the scope of Russia’s invasion from an offensive fought largely by volunteers to one that includes a larger swath of its population.

The announcement sparked a furor for some Russians, with social media chatter on platforms such as Telegram exploding with people frantically trying to figure out how to get seats in cars to the borders, with some even discussing to go by bike.

Long lines of traffic formed at land border crossings in several countries, according to video footage. Images on Kazakh media websites appeared to show vehicles backed up near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. In one, posted by Kazakh media outlet Tengri News, a person can be heard saying their car is “stuck for 10 hours” in Russia’s Saratov region as they try to make their way to Kazakhstan.

“Endless cars. Everyone is running. Everyone is on the run from Russia,” the person can be heard saying in the video. CNN cannot independently verify the videos.

On Thursday, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee released a statement saying the borders were “under special control” but operating normally amid an “increase in the number of foreign citizens” entering the country. The number of passenger cars entering Kazakhstan from Russia has increased by 20% since September 21, the country’s State Revenue Committee said in a separate statement.

On the eastern border of Finland with Russia, according to the Finnish border guard, there was an increase during the night on Thursday evening. Earlier that day, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament that her government was ready to take action to “put an end” to Russian tourism and transit through Finland, according to Finnish public broadcaster Yle.

Many of those leaving turned out to be men. Women are not part of Russia’s conscription.

Travel agency websites also showed a dramatic increase in demand for flights to places where Russians do not need a visa. Flight sales websites indicated that direct flights to such countries were sold out until at least Friday, while anecdotal reports indicated that people were having trouble finding ways to leave well past that time frame.

At least two Russians who left the country, one by land and one by air, told CNN that departing men were questioned by Russian authorities, with questions including whether they had military training and others about Russia and Ukraine.

“It was like a normal passport control, but every man in the queue was stopped and asked additional questions. They took a bunch of us into a room and asked questions mainly about (our) military (training),” said Vadim, a Russian who arrived in Georgia by air, according to CNN.

Within the borders of Russia, the mobilization to evade some of the targets seems to be already underway.

Social media videos showed the first phase of the partial mobilization in several Russian regions, especially in the Caucasus and the Far East, far from Russia’s wealthy metropolitan areas.

In the Russian Far Eastern city of Neryungi, families said goodbye to a large group of men as they boarded buses, as seen in footage posted to a community video channel. Many people are visibly emotional in the video, including a woman crying and hugging her husband goodbye as he reaches out his daughter’s hand from the bus window.

Russian families say goodbye as men leave for military service in Neryungri, Sacha Republic, Russia.

Another shows a group of about 100 newly mobilized soldiers waiting at Magadan Airport in the Russian Far East, next to a transport plane. Telegram videos showed another mobilized group of men awaiting transport, believed to be in Amginskiy Uliss in the Yakutiya region, a vast Siberian area.

Much closer to the Ukrainian border, a crowd gathered near the city of Belgorod to see a batch of newly mobilized men. As they board a bus, a boy shouts “Bye, Daddy!” and starts crying. CNN has not been able to independently verify the videos.

In other scenes circulating on social media, tensions over conscription ran high.

In Dagestan in the Caucasus, a heated argument broke out at a registration desk, according to one video. A woman said her son had been fighting since February. Told by a man that she shouldn’t send him, she replied, “Your grandfather fought for you to live,” to which the man replied, “Then it was war, now it’s politics.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday called on the Russians to protest against the partial military mobilization.

Thousands of Russian soldiers “died in this war in six months. Tens of thousands are injured and wounded. Want more? No? Then protest. Fight back. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for you to survive,” Zelensky said in his daily video address to his country.

Addressing anti-war protests that erupted across Russia on Wednesday, the Ukrainian leader said: “(Russian people) understand that they have been deceived.”

But dissent is typically quickly crushed in Russia and authorities have placed further restrictions on free speech following the invasion of Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the police cracked down on the demonstrations, which were mostly small-scale protests. More than 1,300 people were detained by authorities in at least 38 cities, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info.

Some of those protesters were immediately drafted into the army after their arrests, according to the group’s spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova, who told CNN by phone Wednesday that at least four police stations in Moscow had some of the arrested protesters summoned.

Earlier this week, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service, raising prison terms of up to 15 years for violations of military service – such as desertion and evasion of service, according to state news agency TASS.

Ivan, the reservist who spoke to CNN after leaving the country this week, described the sense of hopelessness felt by many in Russia in the wake of recent events.

“It feels bad because a lot of my friends, a lot of people don’t support the war and they feel threatened by what’s going on, and there’s no democratic way to really stop this, to even protest explain,” he said.