Traffic jams and desperation at the border as the Russians flee from Putin’s “partial mobilization”

For Ivan, a man who said yes an officer in the Russian reserves and left his country for Belarus on Thursday, the motivation was clear: “I don’t support what’s going on, so I decided I had to leave right away,” he told CNN.

“I felt the doors were closing and if I didn’t leave right away, I might not be able to leave later,” said Ivan, adding that he was thinking of a close friend at home with two small children who, unlike of him, she was unable to pack up and leave.

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

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

Cars line up to enter the Brusnichnoye checkpoint on the Russian-Finnish border in Russia's Leningrad region on 22 September.
Putin said Wednesday that 300,000 reservists would be enlisted as Moscow seeks to replenish depleted forces following a successful counter-offensive from Kiev this month. The move is set to change the scale of the Russian invasion from an offensive fought largely by volunteers to one involving a wider swath of its population.

The announcement sparked a rush for some Russians, with social media chatter on platforms like Telegram exploding with people frantically trying to figure out how to get seats in border-bound vehicles, with some even discussing cycling.

Long lines of traffic have formed at land border crossings in several countries, according to video footage. The images on Kazakh media websites appeared to show vehicles reversing near the Russian-Kazakhstan border. In one, published by the Kazakh media Tengri News, a person can be heard saying that their vehicle has been “stopped for 10 hours” in the Russian region of Saratov, while trying to reach Kazakhstan.

“Infinite cars. Everyone is running. Everyone is fleeing Russia,” the person in the video is heard saying. CNN cannot independently verify videos.

On Friday, in the arrivals hall of Istanbul airport, 18-year-old student Daniel told CNN about his plans to wait in Turkey. On Friday he flew to Turkey for what was supposed to be a booked holiday, but since the announcement of the mobilization he had to deal with a new life in the country.

“We are young, we can learn and build a new life. We want to be useful. For now it’s vacation and wait,” he said of his plans with his girlfriend. “Since I’m a student, technically I’m not mobilized, but it can change. And we know our government lies to us. We are just meat to them,” Daniel said.

Software engineer Roman told CNN he hastily bought his ticket to Turkey minutes after Putin’s mobilization speech. He plans to go to Portugal, where he has been granted a visa.

“War is terrible. I am strongly against this war. Everyone I know is against it. My friends, my family, nobody wants this war. Only politics wants this war,” he said, adding that his wife had to stay in Russia as he does not have a Portuguese visa.

“The only plan is to survive. I’m just scared,” he added.

Another Russian citizen, who refused to be named, described the war as useless and cruel, “it should never have started in the first place. And I’m sorry for the Ukrainians, I sympathize with them.” The divorced man will fly to Israel on Saturday without his two children, who are still in Russia.

“I hope to bring them to me when I’m settled,” he said. “I will try to move them because Russia is certainly not the place for them.”

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

On Thursday, on Finland’s eastern border with Russia, traffic intensified overnight, according to the Finnish border guard. Earlier that day, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told Parliament that his government was ready to take action to “end” Russian tourism and transit through Finland, according to Finnish public broadcaster Yle.

Many of those who left appeared to be men. Women are not part of the Russian draft.

Travel agency websites have also shown a dramatic increase in demand for flights to places where Russians don’t need a visa. Flight sales websites indicate that direct flights to those countries are sold out until at least Friday, while anecdotal reports indicated that people were having a hard time finding ways to leave far beyond that time frame.

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

“It was like normal passport control, but every man in the queue was stopped and asked further questions. They took a group of us to a room and asked questions mainly about (our) army (training),” Vadim, a Russian who arrived in Georgia by air, he told CNN.

The mobilization begins

Within Russia’s borders, the mobilization that some aimed to flee seemed to be already underway.

Social media videos showed the first phase of partial mobilization in several Russian regions, particularly in the Caucasus and the Far East, away from rich Russian metropolitan areas.

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

Russian families greet each other as the men leave for military service in Neryungri, Sakha 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, presumably at Amginskiy Uliss in the Yakutiya region, a vast Siberian territory.

Much closer to the Ukrainian border, a crowd gathered near the town of Belgorod to greet a group of newly mobilized men. As they get on a bus, a boy yells “Hi, Dad!” and he starts to cry. CNN was unable to independently verify the videos.

In other scenes circulating on social media, the tension around conscription was high.

In Dagestan, Caucasus, a furious argument broke out at an enlistment office, according to a video. One woman said her son had been fighting since February. She affirmed by a man that she shouldn’t have sent him, she replied: “Your grandfather fought for you to live”, to which the man replied: “Then it was war, now it’s politics”.

Challenge and detention

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 wounded and maimed. Want more? No? Then protest. React. Escape. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for survival.” Zelensky said in his daily video speech to the country about him.

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

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

Police quickly cracked down on Wednesday’s demonstrations, which were mostly small-scale protests. According to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, more than 1,300 people have been detained by the authorities in at least 38 cities.

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

Earlier this week, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service, setting a prison term of up to 15 years for violating military service duties, such as desertion and evasion from service, according to state news agency TASS.

Ivan, the reservist who spoke on CNN after leaving the country this week, described the feeling of despair many in Russia felt in the wake of recent events.

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

Gul Tuysuz, Yulia Kesaieva, Lauren Kent, Sugam Pokharel, and CNN’s Anastasia Graham Yooll contributed to this report.