‘I’m leaving Russia’: young men run away from draft, to ban entry to Finland

VAALIMAA, Finland, Sep 23 (Reuters) – When Nikita, 27, saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing a military mobilization while visiting his uncle in St. Petersburg, he decided to leave his homeland.

Two days later, he was crossing the border into Finland.

Minutes after stepping into the Nordic country, the sound engineer said, “It’s just crazy. All my friends are (in danger).”

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He had fled Russia after the invasion of Ukraine for Turkey on 24 February and went back for a brief visit to collect some papers. He is now planning to return to Turkey.

“It’s just madness. I’m just for freedom, Russia (free) from Putin, democracy in Russia,” he said tearfully. He declined to reveal his last name.

Nikita was one of a dozen young men Reuters spoke to at the Valima border crossing in southeastern Finland, their numbers rising in the days since Putin announced the call of 300,000 military reservists.

They were traveling on tourist visas, but said they were either not coming back or were considering not.

“I’m leaving Russia,” said 21-year-old Alexander, who was on his way to France.

Traffic on the border with Russia in Finland was heavy on Friday. But the Finnish government, wary of becoming a major transit nation, plans to bar all Russians from entering on tourist visas in the coming days, Foreign Minister Pekka Havisto said at a news conference in New York.

“All tourist travel will be stopped,” Havisto said.

Exceptions may still apply to humanitarian grounds, but escaping military enlistment was unlikely to become grounds for asylum, he said.

The Finnish border guard said the number of Russians entering the previous day was more than double the amount arriving a week earlier.

According to border guards, about 7,000 people arrived from Russia on Thursday, of whom about 6,000 were Russians.

Max, a 21-year-old Russian student who declined to give his last name, said he was on his way to Finland to catch a flight to Germany to visit relatives.

“Technically, I’m a student, so I shouldn’t be afraid of being drafted, but we’ve seen things change very quickly, so I think there’s a chance,” he told Reuters. “I just wanted to be safe.”

A Russian couple, 29-year-old Slava and 35-year-old Evgeny, also left due to the uncertainty of being called into the army at some point.

He said he had decided to leave after Putin announced a partial mobilization on Wednesday. They had left their dog Moby with friends. His family cried at his departure, he said.

“At the current level, we are not in demand, but we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” Slava told Reuters. “We don’t support what’s happening right now. We don’t want to be a part of it.”

“It was a difficult decision (to leave). We have plans, we have careers. The best scenario is to go back. On the other hand, (our savings) life is essential.”

The Finnish land border crossing remains one of the few entry points into Europe for Russians after several countries closed physical borders and their airspace to Russian aircraft in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At Walima, the busiest crossing point, cars queued up to 400 meters (440 yards) on Friday, a longer queue than the day before, a border official said.

“Compared to Friday last week, we have more traffic,” Ilyas Line, deputy head of Walima station, told Reuters. “We expect traffic to be busy over the weekend.”

Those arriving by car or bus leave their vehicles and check their paperwork before continuing their journey. The border guards searched some vehicles.

The lines were “longer than usual” even at the second-largest Nujama Crossing.

After Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Finland opted to keep its border with Russia open, although it has cut the number of consular appointments available to Russian travelers seeking visas.

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Reporting by Essie Lehto in Valima and Anna Ringström in Stockholm; Written by Stine Jacobsen and Gvaladis Foche; Editing by Terje Solsvik, Angus McSwan and Jonathan Otis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principals.

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