Russians rush to book one-way flights amid partial reserve call-up

Scores of Russians rushed to book one-way tickets out of the country while they still could on Wednesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of military reservists for the war in Ukraine.

Flights filled quickly and ticket prices for the remaining routes soared, apparently spurred on by fears that Russia’s borders might be closing soon, or by a broader conscription that would see many Russian men of military age on the front lines of the Soviet Union could send war.

Tickets for the Moscow-Belgrade flights operated by Air Serbia, the only European airline alongside Turkish Airlines to maintain flights to Russia despite a European Union flight embargo, were sold out for the next few days. The price of flights from Moscow to Istanbul or Dubai rose in minutes before skyrocketing again, reaching as high as 9,200 euros (12,200 Cdn) for a one-way economy class fare.

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Putin’s decree stipulates that the Ministry of Defense determines the number of people called up for active duty. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a television interview that 300,000 reservists with relevant combat and service experience would initially be mobilized.

CLOCK | Putin mobilizes 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine:

Russia mobilizes 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine

In a televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said partial mobilization was necessary for the next phase of his war with Ukraine. He also accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail.”

Strong exodus of citizens

Russia has seen a significant exodus of citizens since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine almost seven months ago. During the early morning address to the nation, in which the President announced the partial mobilization of reservists, he also issued a veiled nuclear threat to Russia’s enemies in the West.

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Reports of the spread of panic among Russians soon flooded social media. Anti-war groups said the limited plane tickets from Russia reached huge prices due to high demand and quickly ran out.

Some posts have claimed that people have already been turned away from Russia’s land border with Georgia and that the Russian state railway company’s website has collapsed because too many people were looking for ways out of the country.

Russian-language social networks were also flooded with advice on how to avoid mobilization or leave the country.

In Russia, small anti-war protests were held in 37 Russian cities on Wednesday, according to monitoring group OVD-Info, which said more than 800 protesters were arrested.

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In an apparent attempt to calm the panic, the chairman of the defense committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Andrei Kartapolov, said authorities would not impose additional restrictions on reservists leaving Russia, according to Russian media reports.

A Serbia-based group – Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Serbs together against the war – tweeted that no flights from Russia to Belgrade were available until mid-October. According to the group from Belgrade, flights to Turkey, Georgia or Armenia were also sold out.

“All the Russians who wanted to go to war have already left,” the group said. “No one else wants to go there!”

A mural depicting mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group and reading ‘Wagner Group – Russian Knights’ on a wall in Belgrade, Serbia, is pictured on Tuesday. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

A Russian man named Sergey said he prepared for a Russian mobilization scenario and quickly whisked his 17-year-old son out of the country.

“The tickets didn’t cost much because I was probably fast enough. And we got over the border well,” he said, arriving at the airport in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Wednesday.

His son Nikolai said: “I haven’t received a letter from the recruitment office yet”, but was still researching possible exceptions, “so we left”. They declined to give their last names.

Belgrade is a popular destination

Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, has become a popular destination for Russians during the war. Up to 50,000 Russians have fled to Serbia since Russia invaded Ukraine and opened many shops, especially in the IT sector.

Russians do not need a visa to enter Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. Allies like Belarus and China have also not imposed sanctions.

A Wednesday flight from Moscow to Belgrade was packed with young Russian men who said they could not speak to reporters because they feared negative effects on the families they were leaving behind.

An elderly Russian woman posing as Yulia said she too was afraid “my government and police” would see what she said.

“But I want to say: ‘Free Ukraine’. Please someone stop Putin,” she said.

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