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‘I am leaving Russia’: young men flee draft, Finland to restrict entry

VAALIMAA, Finland, Sept. 23 (Reuters) – When 27-year-old Nikita saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announce a military mobilization while visiting his uncle in St Petersburg, he decided to leave his homeland.

Two days later he crossed the border into Finland.

“It’s just insane. All my friends (are) in danger,” said the sound engineer, minutes after entering the Scandinavian country.

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He had fled Russia for the first time after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 for Turkey and had returned for a short visit to get some papers. He now plans to return to Turkey.

“It’s just crazy. I’m just for freedom, Russia (free) from Putin, democracy in Russia,” he said, bursting into tears. He refused to give his last name.

Nikita was one of 12 young men Reuters spoke to at the Vaalimaa border crossing in southeastern Finland, and their numbers have grown in the days since Putin announced the call for 300,000 military reservists.

They traveled on tourist visas but said they either wouldn’t come back or didn’t plan to.

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“I’m leaving Russia,” said Alexander, 21, who went to France.

Traffic to Finland across the border with Russia was busy on Friday. But the Finnish government, wary of becoming a major transit nation, plans to ban all Russians from tourist visas in the coming days, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told a news conference in New York.

“All tourist trips will be halted,” Haavisto said.

Exceptions may still apply on humanitarian grounds, but avoiding military service was probably not grounds for asylum, he said.

The Finnish Border Guard said the number of Russians who had arrived the previous day was more than double the number who had arrived the week before.

About 7,000 people entered from Russia on Thursday, some 6,000 of them Russian, according to border guards.

Max, a 21-year-old Russian student who refused to give his last name, said he was going to Finland to catch a flight to Germany to visit relatives.

“Technically I’m a student so I shouldn’t be afraid of being called up, but we’ve seen things change very quickly so I assume there’s a chance,” he told Reuters. “I just wanted to be safe.”

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A Russian couple, 29-year-old Slava and 35-year-old Evgeniy, also left because of the uncertainty of one day being drafted into the army.

They had decided to leave the moment Putin announced the partial mobilization on Wednesday, they said. They had left their dog Moby with friends. Their families cried when they left, they said.

“At the current stage we are not much in demand, but we do not know what will happen tomorrow,” Slava told Reuters. “We don’t support what’s happening now. We don’t want to be a part of it.”

“It was a difficult decision (to leave). We have plans, we have careers. The best scenario is to go back. On the other hand, (saving our) lives is essential.”

Finnish land border crossings remain one of the few entry points into Europe for Russians after a series of countries closed both physical borders and their airspace to Russian aircraft in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At Vaalimaa, the busiest border crossing, cars queued up to 400 meters on Friday, a longer queue than the day before, a border official said.

“Compared to last Friday, we have more traffic,” Vaalimaa station deputy head Elias Laine told Reuters. “We expect traffic to remain busy over the weekend.”

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Those arriving by car or bus left their vehicle to have their paperwork checked before continuing their journey. Border guards searched several vehicles.

Lines were also “longer than usual” at the second largest Nuijamaa crossing.

Finland has chosen to keep its border with Russia open after the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, although it has reduced the number of consular appointments for Russian travelers applying for visas.

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Reporting by Essi Lehto in Vaalimaa and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; writing by Stine Jacobsen and Gwladys Fouche; adaptation by Terje Solsvik, Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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