On a bright morning in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, a young Russian fleeing Moscow’s first military operation since World War II had a straight answer as to why he had left: “I don’t want to kill people.”
He is among thousands of Russians who have poured across the land border into Mongolia over the past week since President Vladimir Putin issued a mobilization order for the war in Ukraine.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the vast nation and sparked an international exodus, with tens of thousands leaving the country since mobilization.
Finland, Norway, Turkey and Georgia have also reported increases in Russian arrivals in recent days, as has Mongolia.
“It was very difficult to leave everything – home, home, my relatives – but it’s better than killing people,” the man, in his 20s, told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said he decided to go to Mongolia because it seemed easily accessible.
“I grabbed my papers and bags and ran,” he said.
He said there is a vast network of online groups helping Russian men evade conscription, with travel advice constantly changing as draft evaders overcome the challenges of fleeing their country in the shortest possible time.
– ‘I can’t trust them’ –
Fears that Moscow may close the borders have hastened many Russians’ decision to flee, although the Kremlin said on Monday no decision had been made to close the borders.
The head of just one checkpoint in the Mongolian border town of Altanbulag told AFP on Sunday that more than 3,000 Russians, most of them men, have entered the country since the draft was announced.
An AFP reporter also saw lines of people with Russian passports outside the crossing immigration counter.
Many of those who entered Mongolia have now made their way to Ulaanbaatar, a more than 350-kilometer drive from the nearest border crossing.
“At first I thought I knew what was happening,” said another young Russian about the Ukraine war.
“But after the actions of a certain government – when they contradicted what they had previously said – I realized I couldn’t trust them.”
He said he plans to stay in Mongolia for a month.
Many of his friends could not leave Russia because they did not have passports, he said, adding he hoped his relatives would not be threatened.
Opponents of the war in Russia were jailed or denounced in state media, making public opposition very dangerous.
The Mongolian government has taken a neutral stance on the invasion that Russia launched in February.
The former Soviet satellite nation has used its ties with Russia to hedge against growing Chinese influence in recent decades and shares a 3,500-kilometer border with Russia.
But last week, former President Tsakhia Elbegdorj urged Putin to end the conflict.
He said ethnic Mongolians in Russia had been used as “cannon fodder” and killed by the thousands in Ukraine.