Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilisation on Wednesday, 21 September, which could see close to 300,000 people called on to fight, a large number of Russians were found taking one-way flights out of the country.
Flights filled up quickly even as prices of tickets skyrocketed amid fears of a possible broader call-up that may send many Russian men, who can fight, to the frontline of the war.
According to Aviasales ticket aggregator, one-way tickets out of Moscow to Istanbul, for Saturday started at $4,735 per ticket. Before the mobilisation announcement, tickets were priced close to $350.
‘How To Leave Russia?’: Citizens Asks Google
Google searches for “How to leave Russia” spiked in the country during the time leading to Putin’s address , with searches peaking a few moments before Putin’s address. Speculation was rife after Russian lawmakers passed legislation around "martial law" and "mobilisation.”
Addressing the spike in Google searches, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence tweeted, “The Russians were given 12 hours of rest, so Google could answer all the questions, including the question of what is the average life expectancy of a Russian soldier in Ukraine."
Meanwhile Google Trends data showed that the terms “Flight to Turkey” and “Flight to Dubai” spiked in Russia following the announcement.
Google Trends data also showed a steep rise in Russians searching for “Aviasales,” a leading flight sales engine in Russia. The numbers increased four-fold, with majority searches coming from Moscow and St Petersburg.
Who’s Flying the Russians and Where Are They Going?
A question that has been floated since the dramatic increase in one-way flights, is that amid airspace restrictions and a decrease in flight options for Russians, where are these flights going?
Since the closure of European Union (EU) airspace to Russian aircrafts, and the subsequent reciprocal can of EU aircrafts in Russian airspace, Russian travellers found limited flight options.
Data shows that by a wide margin, the most popular destination, and in some cases transit point, is Turkey. In 2022, out of 75,000 international departures, 25 percent flights flew to Turkey.
When it came to airline operators, Turkish Airlines was operating over 300 weekly departures from Russia during the summer, with Azur Air being the only other airline to operate more than 100 weekly take-offs.
Due to the war, Russian airlines lost most of their ability to operate internationally, mostly due to the fact that they are subject to sanctions and repossession as most aircrafts are leased from foreign parties.
However, Russian airline operators turned to domestically developed regional airliner, Superjet, which has now taken on an outsized role to fly internationally for Russian airlines.
Men Flee to the Borders
While the Kremlin has said that reports of military-age men fleeing are exaggerated, BBC reported that on the Russia-Georgia border, mile-long queues of vehicles have formed, attempting to flee the country by land.
The BBC report added that some people, heading into neighbouring countries, used bicycles to bypass the line of cars and evade a ban on crossing on foot.
Georgia is one of the few neighbouring countries that allows entry to Russians without needing to apply for a visa. Moreover, even though Finland, which shares a 1,300 km border with Russia does require a visa, AP reported widespread increases in overnight traffic.
Putin’s military call up also sparked protests in major Russian cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg, and resulted in close to 1300 arrests.
The announcement comes as Moscow-held regions of Ukraine prepare to vote on becoming part of Russia in referendums that Kyiv and its allies have called an unlawful land grab.
(With inputs from BBC and AP)