In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of partial mobilisation on Wednesday, thousands of young Russian men decided that the time had come to flee. Google searches for ways to leave Russia (as well as for ‘how to break your own arm’, another way out of military service) spiked. Flights sold out, and long lines of cars formed at usually-sleepy border crossings into Georgia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan – as well as the more conventional transit point to Finland.
But for most would-be refugees, escape from Putin’s Russia and possible involuntary service in Ukraine remains an impossible dream. Just a handful of countries – among them Turkey, Georgia and Armenia – accept Russians without visas, and they are already overflowing with refugees from the Putin regime. The visa section of the US embassy in Moscow has been closed since 2018 when the Russian government banned its nationals from working there as support staff.
Over the summer Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland tried to lobby the EU to stop issuing visitor visas (which they emotively dubbed ‘tourist’ visas) altogether. Brussels resisted a blanket ban – but in August made obtaining a Schengen visa for the EU far harder for Russians. The Balts and Poles closed their borders to Russian visitors anyway. ‘It is unacceptable that people who support the war can freely travel around the world, into Lithuania, the EU,’ Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said. And though she claimed that exceptions would be made on ‘humanitarian’ grounds and for proven anti-Putin activists, in reality no such thing as a ‘humanitarian’ Schengen visa exists. In any case, a large proportion of opposition activists are unable to leave Russia because they have pending court fines (processed deliberately slowly), are already in jail, or have failed to register at their local draft offices.
The moral hazard of the Baltic states’ position was proved when Putin made his mobilisation speech just two days after the border closures.