Since President Putins announcement of military mobilization, many young Russian men have been flying to Turkey. The country is a popular haven because it does not participate in Western sanctions, and has always kept the borders open for Russians. More than a week after the start of the Russian mobilization campaign, thousands of Russians have probably already fled to Turkey to avoid being called on to go to the front in Ukraine.
Immediately after Putins historic speech, there was a run on airline tickets to Turkish cities. Prices quickly rose to 20,000 dollars for a one-way ticket to Moscow-Istanbul. Despite the high price, there was no free seat within a few days.
Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines has deployed larger aircraft to meet the huge demand and tickets are available again. The one-way ticket price for next week is now between 1300 and 2800 euros.
More than a hundred planes from Russia
More than a hundred flights from Russia land in Turkish cities every day. Its hard to tell how many of the passengers want to avoid the military call. “But you can assume that most of the men on those flights wont go back,” says Eva Rapoport of the Russian aid organization The Ark, which operates from Istanbul and helps fleeing Russians.
“We also hear stories of people who are now on vacation in Turkey and are not taking their return flight. There are pictures of planes going back to Russia with lots of empty seats. People just dont use their return tickets.”
The organization is flooded with requests for help, both from people who are still in Russia and from people who have just arrived in Turkey. The organizations Telegram Group saw its membership double.
Rapoport: “There are now 130,000 people in our chat groups asking about escape routes, accommodation, and other practical matters. Our waiting list for emergency shelter is long, we certainly cant help everyone”. Not everyone needs help: many Russians bring savings, book hotel rooms and try to rent apartments.
We spoke to Andrey, Roman and Maxim, who fled Russia and are now in Istanbul:
Shortly after the start of the war, political dissidents, activists and journalists came to cities such as Istanbul and Antalya, now they are men from all walks of life, according to Rapoport.
“The people who fled to Turkey in March were clearly anti-Putin, they were Russians who were active in anti-government protests. Now its just about anyone who is male and over 18 years old. There are people who have little travel experience and have never been abroad”.
Her organization offers places to sleep for those who are in urgent need. This is happening in Istanbul and in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where many Russians also flee to escape mobilization. Soon, De Ark will also start shelter in Kazakhstan. The organization runs entirely on donations.
The Ark takes a clear anti-war position, employees hand out buttons that say “Stop the war!” and a drawing of a dove pooping on the Kremlin. Most Russians who knock on the door for help are against the war, says Rapoport. But she takes into account that Putins supporters are also leaving abroad. “People who would rather not die for Putin anyway. If such a person comes to us for help, we will not refuse him. But he does come to the bottom of the waiting list. And our waiting list is very long.”
The Turkish government still has a neutral position when it comes to the war in Ukraine. President Erdogan expresses support for Ukraine, but also keeps the door open to the Kremlin. Turkey brokered the grain deal, and in a prisoner exchange last week.
There are also concerns about the Turkish open-door policy, because wealthy Russians in the country can easily avoid sanctions. Turkey was also criticized for using the Russian payment system MIR, which allowed Russian tourists to vacation without a problem.
The United States has warned Turkish companies that trading with Russia could result in secondary sanctions. Meanwhile, the Turkish government has announced that it will stop accepting MIR payments.
The Kremlin also admitted last Monday that the mobilization is not going smoothly. New recruits film the circumstances: