It was getting dark outside Yerevan Airport when I arrived, but there were still a dozen flights from Russia yet to land. Groups of young men in their twenties and thirties were milling around the terminal building, stacking suitcases onto trolleys, changing money and working out what to do next. Armenia is one of the few countries they can still fly to since much of the western world closed its skies to Russian planes; it is almost alone in not requiring them to have visas.
‘I’m just here for a holiday,’ one weary traveller carrying four heavy bags insists, ‘everything is fine in Moscow.’ Others are more up front about their reasons for leaving. Last week President Vladimir Putin signed a mobilisation order that will see tens of thousands of ordinary citizens drafted into the army and sent to fight his increasingly catastrophic war in Ukraine. ‘I booked my ticket the moment he finished speaking,’ says Yuri, a 28-year-old working for a biomedical technology firm. ‘It cost me more than $500, but I can’t afford to wait. I’ve already received a conscription notice.’
Twenty-two-year-old Ruslan paid more than double that for his ticket. ‘I don’t want to fight in the war,’ he says, ‘I just want to live a normal life.’ In February, as Putin gave the green light for the tanks to start rolling, the IT consultant packed up his things and flew to Yerevan fearing economic chaos. However, hearing reports things were carrying on as normal back home, he returned after a month. ‘This time it is different. Since the mobilisation, even those who supported the government are in shock.’
Over the weekend, crowds gathered at airports across Russia as those potentially eligible for military service did everything they could to avoid being called up.