Tension was in the air as a long trail of cars lined up near the Petkuhovo checkpoint on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan late Friday night.
Andrei Alekseev, a 27-year-old engineer from the city of Yekaterinburg, was among many men in the queue who were fleeing Russia in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization orders.
Cars had to go through Russian and Kazakh border checks, both of which lasted about two hours.
Alekseev woke up to the news of Putin’s mobilization order on Wednesday morning and he knew he had to flee Russia. He met up with his friends that night to discuss their next steps and decided to avoid taking any risks and to leave Russia with no plan in mind.
On Saturday, Putin signed the law on military service, setting a jail term of up to 10 years for evading military duty due to mobilization, and up to 15 years in prison for wartime desertion.
The legal amendments also introduce concepts of “mobilization, martial law and wartime” to the Russian Criminal Code. Putin also signed a decree granting university students a deferment from mobilization.
“At the border, all the men were asked whether they served in the army and what is their military service category,” Alekseev told CNN.
“I felt that the border guards were very understanding, however, I had friends who crossed the border to Kazakhstan at a different checkpoint and they were met with grueling questions, it took them seven hours to cross,” he told CNN.
Suffering heavy losses in Ukraine this month amid Ukraine’s counter-offensive, Putin raised the stakes this week with the draft and his backing for referendums in the occupied territories in Ukraine.
The decree signed by Putin appears to allow for wider mobilization than he suggested in the speech that aired on Wednesday. According to the address, 300,000 reservists would be drafted to the front, breaking his promises earlier in the war that there would be no mobilization. However, the decree itself puts no cap on how many people can be mobilized.
“Mobilization is called ‘partial,’ but no parameters of this partiality, neither geographical, nor in terms of criteria, are specified,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, wrote on her social media page.
“According to this text, anyone can be drafted, except for workers of the military-industrial complex.”
Men aged 18 to 60 across Russia are now facing mobilization as reservists to fight Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine.
Once Alekseev and his wife crossed into Kazahstan, they found that all of the hotels in the border towns were booked, so the couple drove to Astana, the country’s capital, where they are now looking for an apartment.
“Three days ago, I did not think that I would be in Kazakhstan and looking for an apartment here. We are planning to stay for two months, then maybe go to Uzbekistan to renew the period of stay, I will look for work at international companies,” he told CNN.
Kirill Ponomarev, 23, who also fled Russia via a Kazakhstan border, said he struggled to book a ticket. The night before Putin’s address he was looking up tickets out of Russia.
“For some reason, I couldn’t buy a ticket, the night before while waiting for Putin’s speech. And then I fell asleep without buying a ticket, when I woke up, ticket prices jumped,” Ponomarev told CNN.
Men rushed to the borders exchanging tips on Telegram channels and among friends. One-way flights out of Russia sold out within hours of the mobilization announcement.
Four of the five EU countries bordering Russia have banned entry for Russians on tourist visas, while queues to cross land borders out of Russia to the former Soviet countries Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia take over 24 hours to cross.
The Kremlin mocked Russians’ reactions by calling it a “hysterical and overly-emotional reaction.”
Meanwhile, protests broke out across Russia on Wednesday and brutal detentions followed with reports of detained protesters being handed draft letters at police stations. According to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, more than 1,300 people were detained by authorities in at least 43 cities across Russia.
While all men aged below 60 in Russia now share the fear of getting drafted, Putin’s mobilization disproportionately affects poorer, more ethnically diverse regions of Russia, according to Alexandra Garmazhapova, president of the Free Buryatia Foundation, who spoke to CNN.
“In Buryatia, mobilization is not partial, everyone is mobilized. Summons come to students, pensioners, fathers of many children, people with disabilities,” she told CNN.
Garmazhapova, whose organization provides legal help to mobilised men and their relatives, says every day she hears multiple stories of people being drafted without any regard to age, military history or health conditions.
“Yesterday afternoon, a taxi driver went to refuel the car, and when he was standing at a gas station, a bus passed by with the recruits,” she told CNN.
“The bus stopped abruptly when they saw him and they stuffed him into this bus. They didn’t give him any things to take, nothing. His car was left at this gas station, then relatives took it away,” she said.
Those men who stayed behind in Russia, now take extra caution when leaving their house. Kirill, a 27-year-old IT professional from St. Petersburg who declined to give his surname, said he is starting to think about moving after most of his friends have already received draft letters.
“I adore St. Petersburg but I am starting to have thoughts about moving. Today, I lived another day and tomorrow it might not be safe for me to get into a taxi without a risk of getting drafted,” Kirill told CNN.
“For now, I am keeping an eye on the situation and how it develops. For me, going to war or going to prison are ‘bad options, so hopefully, I can avoid both,” he said.
Kirill, who is half-Ukrainian, said he cannot imagine going to war and killing Ukrainians. “I will not be able to explain my actions to relatives who are in Ukraine. We talk every day,” he said.
Some men were lucky to find out the news of mobilization orders from abroad. Ilya, 35, was on vacation with his family in Turkey when he received a text from his co-workers in Kurgan, a city in the Urals region of Russia, that his office had received a draft letter for him.
His wife and child returned to Russia while he stayed behind in Turkey. “I don’t want war, I don’t want to die for someone else’s ambitions, I don’t want to prove anything to anyone, it was a difficult decision to not return to Russia, very difficult, I don’t know when I can now see my family, my loved ones,” Ilya told CNN.
Ilya served in the Russian army years ago, so is considered to be in the reserve. “I am at a loss and do not know what to do, how to provide for my family being so far from them. I’m deep in debt because of such sudden forced decisions, and I’m just morally exhausted,” he said.
Since the start of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, economic sanctions on Russia made any international transactions close to impossible. Ilya said he wants to be reunited with his family.