Since President Putin’s announcement of military mobilization, many young Russian men have flown to Turkey. The country is a sought-after haven because it does not comply with Western sanctions and has always kept its borders open to Russians. More than a week after the start of the Russian mobilization campaign, thousands of Russians are believed to have fled to Turkey to avoid being called up to the front in Ukraine.
Immediately after Putin’s historic speech, flights to Turkish cities were arranged. Prices soon rose to $20,000 for a single Moscow-Istanbul ticket. Despite the high price, there was no available space to be found within a few days.
Turkish Airlines has now deployed larger aircraft to meet the huge demand and tickets are available again. The price for a one-way ticket for next week now fluctuates between 1300 and 2800 euros.
More than a hundred flights from Russia
More than 100 flights from Russia land in Turkish cities every day. It is difficult to say how many of the passengers want to avoid the military call-up. “But you can assume that most of the men who are on those planes will not go back,” says Eva Rapoport of the Russian aid organization De Ark, which operates from Istanbul and helps refugee Russians.
“We are also hearing stories of people now on holiday in Turkey not taking their return flights. There are pictures of flights going back to Russia with a lot of empty seats. People are just not using their return tickets.”
The organization has been flooded with requests for help, both from people still in Russia and from people who have just arrived in Turkey. The organization’s Telegram group saw its membership double.
Rapoport: “There are now 130,000 people in our chat groups with questions about escape routes, accommodation and other practical matters. Our waiting list for emergency shelter is long, we certainly cannot help everyone”. Not everyone needs help: many Russians take savings, book hotel rooms and try to rent apartments.
We spoke with Andrey, Roman and Maxim, who fled Russia and are now in Istanbul:
Roma, Andrey and Max decide to flee Russia: ‘This is a one-way ticket for us’
While political dissidents, activists and journalists mainly came to cities like Istanbul and Antalya right after the war, they are now men from all walks of life, according to Rapaport.
“The people who fled to Turkey in March were very clearly anti-Putin, they were Russians who were active in anti-government protests. Now almost all of them are men and over 18. There are people among them. who has little travel experience and has never been abroad”.
Her organization offers sleeping places to those in urgent need. It is happening in Istanbul and in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where many Russians are also fleeing to escape mobilization. De Ark will soon also start a shelter in Kazakhstan. The organization runs solely on donations.
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Arken takes a clear anti-war stance, employees hand out buttons with the text ‘Stop the war!’ and a drawing of a pigeon pecking at the Kremlin. Most Russians who knock for help oppose the war, Rapoport says. But she takes into account that Putin’s supporters also go abroad. “People who would rather not die for Putin. If someone like that comes to us for help, we will not turn him away. But he will be at the bottom of the waiting list. And our waiting list is very long.”
The Turkish government still maintains 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 a prisoner swap last week.
There are also concerns about Turkey’s open-door policy, as wealthy Russians in the country can easily evade sanctions. Turkey was also criticized for its use of the Russian payment system MIR, which allowed Russian tourists to go on holiday without any problems.
The US has warned Turkish companies that trade with Russia could lead to 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:
Recruit: ‘We ain’t got nothing’