MOSCOW (Reuters) – As Russian troops slowly advanced on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on Thursday, some people back in Moscow were attempting to flee to destinations abroad that have not banned flights from Russia, stomaching soaring prices in the rush to escape.
The Kremlin dismissed speculation that Russian authorities plan to introduce martial law following the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special operation”, or that they will stop men of fighting age leaving Russia, but some did not want to risk staying.
One Russian man, who moved back to Moscow from western Europe around a year ago, said he had bought a flight to Istanbul for the weekend, adding that living in Moscow may no longer be possible.
“I’m afraid that mobilisation will be introduced tomorrow and I won’t be able to fly out,” said the 29-year-old, requesting anonymity like others cited in this article.
“In my worst nightmares I couldn’t have dreamt of such hell when I was coming back a year ago.”
Another man, aged 38, said he had managed to buy an expensive ticket to fly to the Middle East at the weekend.
“I don’t want to fight in this war. We’ve heard lots of rumours and I don’t trust the Kremlin when it says they aren’t true,” he said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second week on Thursday with Ukrainian cities surrounded and under bombardment. Hundreds of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed and Russia has been plunged into an isolation never before experienced by an economy of such size.
The cost of plane tickets has leapt since Russia closed its airspace to airlines from the European Union and many other countries in a tit-for-tat response to sanctions imposed by the West, severely limiting Russians’ ability to travel.
The unprecedented Western sanctions on Moscow have already sent prices rising and started hitting the lives of ordinary Russians, while those who protest have been swiftly arrested.
Some 7,669 people have been detained at anti-war protests since the invasion began on Feb. 24, according to the OVD-Info protest-monitoring group.
After giving her cat to her family to look after, a 29-year-old woman flew to Israel on Sunday before prices rose even further, worried that things in Moscow can only get worse.
“I am ashamed that I haven’t stayed in Russia, that I am not fighting to the end, not protesting in the streets,” she said.
“But if you go out against the war, they arrest you, and there is this law on state treason.”
Russia’s state prosecutor’s office on Feb. 27 issued a reminder that anyone providing financial or other assistance to a foreign state or international organisation aimed against Russia’s security could be convicted of treason and face a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Others faced bureaucratic hurdles. Russians require visas to enter most European countries, and a modest queue had formed at the Italian visa application centre in Moscow, which was still accepting requests by appointment only, with the nearest available slots over a week away.
“I will make an appointment for March 11, although what may happen in the near future is scary and uncertain,” said one 40-year-old Russian woman.
“I want to have a visa ready. I think they will let me in with a PCR test (against COVID) and then I’ll sort something out,” she added.
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has not been approved by the EU, meaning many Russians without a shot recognised in the West may be denied entry on health grounds.
It was not just Russians trying to flee. A Filipino woman who works as a nanny in Moscow was also applying for a visa.
“I desperately want to get a visa, I’m scared here,” she said.
(Reporting by Reuters in Moscow; Editing by Gareth Jones)