Panicking Over Putin's Military Call-up, Young Men Scramble to Leave Russia

Social media has been overflowing with Russians panicking over the draft, with flights filling up and ticket prices soaring as draft-age men flee Russia

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
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A man poses for a picture with Russian service members next to a mobile recruitment center for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don, Russia September 17, 2022.
A man poses for a picture with Russian service members next to a mobile recruitment center for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don, Russia September 17, 2022.Credit: SERGEY PIVOVAROV/ REUTERS
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

Wednesday’s presidential decree ordering a partial call-up of Russian reservists has merely increased the panic in the country. Even before then, rumors of a possible call-up had spurred many Russians, mainly parents of draft-age young men, to frantically seek ways to get their children out of the country.

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Simon (not his real name), a 32-year old Russian Jew who received Israeli citizenship last May, is planning to move to Israel indefinitely in the coming weeks. "I always thought having a second citizenship when you live in Russia is a good idea, but now I think it's a good idea to live elsewhere for at least some time, and maybe settle down in the future. My wife and I were lucky to book the tickets in El Al a few days ago, when it was much cheaper", he told Haaretz. The couple paid slightly more than 1000$ per ticket, whereas now the prices have doubled, and there are no available tickets for El Al flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv until the end of October. Simon added that many people he knows have already left for either Israel.

Alexander (not his real name), a 50-year-old Moscow resident, said his 21-year-old son plans to move to Kazakhstan.

“He’s considered only partially fit for service because of his health situation, but we want to send him anyway,” Alexander said. “I don’t know if they’ll let him cross the border, but I hope they will. Now he’s taking all the references from his job and hoping to find work in Kazakhstan. I’m skeptical and asked him to wait, but my wife insists that he go.”

Some of his son’s friends have already been called up and sent to the Ukrainian border, Alexander added.

Until the war began, his son worked at a branch of McDonald’s, and he stayed on after the American company left Russia and a Russian chain took over its business. “His career was advancing; he had become an assistant manager,” Alexander said. “But all that was wiped out in a moment. Now he’s hoping to move quickly. I’m surprised by his optimism.”

“I’m frustrated at the Russians, because none of them are rising up for their children’s sake,” he added. “But I’m the same way myself. I can’t go out now carrying a sign, because I’d apparently be arrested, fined and thrown in jail for a few days.”

Yet one organization – Vesna, a group of young people opposed to the war in Ukraine whose Telegram channel has almost 50,000 followers – has announced that it will hold demonstrations against the draft in several Russian cities Wednesday evening.

Newlyweds pose for a picture with Russian service members next to a mobile recruitment center for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don, Russia September 17, 2022.Credit: SERGEY PIVOVAROV/ REUTERS

Social media has been overflowing with Russians panicking over the draft since Tuesday night. Journalist Ksenia Sobchak posted a screenshot on Tuesday of a Google statistic showing that searches for the phrase “deferring military service” had skyrocketed.

Media reports said the prices of plane tickets to countries where Russia still runs regular flights, like Armenia, had soared to twice their previous level or even more. Aviasales, a search engine specializing in flights to and from Russia, posted a half-joking comment on its Twitter account Tuesday night – “Don’t let us distract you. Search for tickets.”

Police officers detain a man in Moscow on September 21, 2022, following calls to protest against partial mobilisation announced by President Vladimir Putin.Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - AFP

“Our feed is trembling with fear, so is the media; the future has become even more unpredictable,” the mother of one young man wrote on Facebook Tuesday evening. Her son is slated to go to Israel in early October via the Jewish Agency’s Masa program, and she wondered whether she should move up his flight lest “the borders close” – i.e., lest Russia bar draft-age men from leaving after it officially announced the call-up. But by Wednesday morning, soaring ticket prices and the shrinking supply of available seats had convinced her to stick with the original plan.

“My husband managed to speak by phone with an official from the enlistment office,” she wrote. “He told him that anyone who has a ticket will be able to leave the country in peace. And in any case, he said not to worry, because my son’s draft category isn’t slated to be called up in the near future.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin makes an address announcing a partial mobilization for his war in Ukraine.Credit: SPUTNIK/ Reuters

An agent who works with olim and potential olim from Russia and helps them deal with Israeli banks and bureaucracy told Haaretz on condition of anonymity that his phone “is being torn apart since last night.” “Part of the people are worried about leaving Russia and take the children out, and part of them, those who already have Israeli citizenship, are worried about saving what’s left of their money.” But a lawyer and anti-draft activist said that at least for now, dodging the draft isn’t a criminal offense in Russia. Rather, it’s an administrative offense punishable only by a fine.

“The oppressive laws passed by parliament yesterday relate only to military personnel, not to civilians who haven’t yet been drafted,” he said, referring to laws that significantly increased the punishments for both desertion and voluntary surrender.

“Legal experts are arguing over whether people who have already passed the medical board at the enlistment office and received an order sending them to a unit can be held criminally liable,” he added. “But if you haven’t completed the process at the enlistment office, you can expect nothing but a fine of up to 3,000 rubles for not complying with a call-up order.”

The lawyer also said that under the Russian constitution, civilian service can be substituted for military service if a draftee says his beliefs don’t permit military service.

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