Opposition to Ukraine war weakens as young Russians flee conscription

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Opposition to Ukraine war weakens as young Russians flee conscription and far-right nationalists grow stronger

YEREVAN, Armenia — When he bought his plane ticket, Evgeny didn’t plan to be out of Russia for more than a few weeks.

“I was just coming for a vacation, honestly,” said the 29-year-old nutritionist from Moscow, fresh off his landing in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. “But now I really don’t know if I’ll go back. I don’t want to go back to a country that is doing this.”

The “this” in question is military mobilization, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21 to support his ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The response from Russian society has smacked of desperation; estimates of Russians who have fled their country since range from 200,000 to more than 700,000. They have gone overland to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and to Finland in the north; they have flown — those who have the wherewithal — to the few countries that still offer flights and visa-free travel for Russian citizens. In perhaps the most remarkable example, two Russians arrived in westernmost Alaska last week, having crossed the Bering Strait to avoid the call-up.

One of the primary destinations has been Armenia, a former Soviet republic and for the last 30 years an independent nation in the Caucasus. As one of the few countries to maintain flights to Russia following the invasion, Armenia was the first destination for many Russians escaping after the war began on Feb. 24. Now, it is hosting a fresh wave of immigrants.

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Evgeny left before receiving a call-up notice. He told Grid that Russian recruitment officers had reached many of his friends. He, and the other immigrants quoted here, spoke on the condition of partial anonymity.

“Of course, I know people who have [received summons],” he said. “Everyone is terrified of getting these — they feel like it’s a death sentence. No one expects those who receive one [and are sent to Ukraine] to return,” Evgeny said.

Evgeny himself took a flight from Moscow to Yerevan on Sept. 23. He said the situation at the border control was particularly tense.

“There were a lot of questions at passport control,” Evgeny said. “They asked me about my military service, if I’d received a draft notice, why I’m leaving Russia, what I plan to do abroad. Everyone in line was stiff, praying they don’t suddenly grab him. I shouldn’t be called up in any case — I have such a status that I’m only to be drafted in the event of a full-scale war — but that doesn’t stop [the recruitment officers] these days.”

Ultimately, he got through, joining an exodus — to Armenia and elsewhere — that shows no signs of ebbing.

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When the “special operation” became a “war”

For many Russians, especially in the capital, the war had been something abstract for months: discussed on state TV, but with little effect on their daily lives. It was a “special military operation,” in Putin’s phrase, and not a “war.” That changed with the mobilization announcement. Now, young men — and even not-so-young men — were receiving draft notices all over the country. Now, Russians were searching online for news from Ukraine. Or they were searching for a way out.

“Even in Moscow, they are now drafting people,” Evgeny said. “I know the ‘motherland’ is not in danger, as [the government] said. The motherland has nothing to do with the president saving his own ass.”

Vitaly and Masha are another young couple who have just arrived from Moscow, suitcases packed to the brim.

“We’re going to Cyprus after this,” said Vitaly. “We were already worried about what’s happening in Russia and decided to leave — we bought our ticket on the 15th.” The mobilization announcement came six days later. Vitaly is 31 years old, has completed his compulsory military service and would have been a candidate for a tour in Ukraine.

“Now, we see that this was definitely the right decision,” he said.

Their journey out was filled with signs of tension and the ongoing crackdown.

“We took a taxi from St. Petersburg to Moscow for our flight,” Vitaly said. “We saw the riot police vans driving into [St. Petersburg] in columns. I was terrified at the border control — we all thought they’d stop us and suddenly hand us the summons. I didn’t see it happen to anyone, but the situation changes every hour — I could have been one of the last to make it out.”

Vitaly is a software engineer originally from Russia’s Far East, a region where videos suggest that mobilization has been particularly intense. Masha is a St. Petersburg native.

“My relatives [in the Far East] tell me about the huge numbers of buses collecting men called up for service,” Vitaly said. “It seems they are conscripting the whole region.”

Despite the difficulties Vitaly and his fellow countrymen have faced in escaping Russia — the European Union has scrapped its 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia, and the Baltic states have barred Russians entirely — he said he feels no resentment against those countries. Only shame.


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“I can’t blame these countries like the Baltics who aren’t letting [Russians] in,” Vitaly said. “They have suffered enough [from Russia] over the years.”

The urgency many felt about leaving Russia has been clear from the wild spikes in airfares. Although prices are running $3,000 or more, nearly all flights from Russia in the last two weeks have sold out.

For Alexei, a 22-year-old IT worker in Moscow, getting out was the only choice.

“I first left Russia in February,” he said. Alexei went to Thailand, spent six months there, and came home. “I don’t want this war, I don’t support it,” he said. “I thought it could be safe to return to Russia, but clearly, that was a mistake. [The situation] is absolutely tragic.”

Inside Russia, a profound change

Many of the new arrivals in Armenia say that the mood in Russia toward the war — and the government that ordered it — is changing rapidly.

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“Nobody I know supports the war,” Alexei said. “Not one person. When [Putin] announced mobilization, everything changed. Everyone realized that now, the war is coming to them. All the discussions on [the social media app] Telegram, around the dinner table, every family and every single person was in shock. Suddenly we’re being drafted like it’s World War II, and for what?”

Yet overcoming the influence of years of nonstop propaganda — especially for the older generation of Russians that watch state TV the most — is not easy.

Dasha, a 27-year-old from Moscow who has come with her husband to Yerevan, said that her parents did not support them leaving Russia.

“My parents are smart people; they have advanced degrees,” she said. “But they think that we should support our country in hard times, even if the president is the cause of that hardness. Even now, they don’t think that we should change something in our country.”

The exodus of many liberally minded anti-war individuals and moderates from Russia leaves behind those who support ever more brutal military action against Ukraine. And their influence is growing: On Monday, Putin ordered dozens of missile strikes against civilian targets across Ukraine, the kind of move long demanded by those opposing him from the right. The reaction was jubilation from the militant hard-liners whose support for the war has been a critical bastion for Putin.

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“With my family, it’s hard,” said Alexei. “My father wants to leave, my mother wants to leave, but they can’t just start over somewhere new like I can. My grandparents — best not to talk about them. They think I’m a coward for failing to ‘defend the motherland’ — I can’t even talk to them anymore.”

Nikita, a 35-year-old consultant from Moscow, came to Armenia on Sept. 23. Recently, he returned home to collect his wife and young child, and bring them here. “I managed to bring a part of my family with me, at least,” he said. “My older relatives just sit there and watch the TV. They believe the president. I can’t tell if they’re just scared or if they’re truly zombies.”

What would it take to return home?

Many of the recent arrivals in Armenia say that more than anything, they want to return to Russia one day. But not to a Russia ruled by Putin.

“I never wanted to leave Russia in the first place,” said Nikita. “But none of us are safe there while this madman is in power. He will destroy the whole country just to keep his chair.”

Vitaly, the software engineer, feels the same way.

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“I miss Russia every day I’m away,” he said. “But I can’t be back there now. The situation is horrible, and it only gets worse. I just hope it somehow gets better soon — my parents are old, they’re getting ill, and it kills me to leave them there.”

In a recent interview with Grid, Vera Krichevskaya, a co-founder of the now-exiled independent Russian media organization TV Rain, said that “on Sept. 21, many Russians learned what had happened on Feb. 24.” It was a reference to the impact that Putin’s mobilization order has had.

Alexei, the IT worker in Yerevan, would agree.

“Now this ‘Z’ is worth more than human life,” he said, referring to the main symbol of Russia’s war. “Everyone has now understood that [the government] can come for him and throw him into the front lines. The TV can’t hide that.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Neil Hauer
    Neil Hauer

    Special Contributor

    Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist covering the former Soviet Union. Based in Armenia, he has reported on both the 2020 Karabakh War and the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine from the ground. His work has appeared in CNN, CBC, the New Yorker, Guardian, Al Jazeera and elsewhere.