A new bill signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin that allows authorities to issue electronic notices to draftees and reservists is sparking fears of a new wave of mobilization for Moscow’s war in Ukraine and prompting fresh conversations among Russians about leaving the country.
When the Kremlin announced a partial mobilization of reservists in September as part of a drive to call up some 300,000 new personnel to fight in Ukraine, the decision led to a mass exodus of military-age Russian men and their families. Hundreds of thousands of Russians left to neighboring countries and other locations that had few entry requirements and allowed them to live and work for extended periods of time in order to avoid the draft.
But as anxiety over another mobilization wave looms more than seven months later, Russians looking to avoid getting caught up in the war in Ukraine are facing a more difficult path ahead, including policies that could make it harder to leave the country and visa changes in many destinations that will limit Russians’ ability to stay abroad for longer periods.
“The universal advice is to leave as soon as possible,” Ivan Pavlov, head of the human rights group First Department, told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, adding that the new law could give military planners a mechanism for quickly beefing up their ranks in preparation for a new Ukrainian attack.
The new April 14 law modifies Russia’s military service rules that previously required the in-person delivery of notices to conscripts and reservists who are called up for duty. Now, the notices issued by local military conscription offices will also be sent electronically and be considered valid from the moment they are put on a state portal for electronic services, known as Gosuslugi. The law will also set up an electronic registry of all people required to serve and collect their personal data while creating a public list of all those who have been summoned for military service.
Unlike in September, however, fleeing abroad is not as straightforward of a process as before, with the list of possible countries to receive Russian citizens shrinking.
Popular destinations like Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Argentina have changed their laws and made it more difficult to establish residency and cut down the period that Russians can remain without a visa. Elsewhere, many European Union countries close to Russia — such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland — have also restricted issuing visas and entry to its citizens.
‘Not Welcome’ Anymore
How the new law works in practice remains to be seen. Russian officials deny another mobilization drive is planned and have said the database for electronic conscription notices is unlikely to be fully operational until the fall.
But the law’s swift enactment — and its specifics — are also already fueling fears that the Kremlin is preparing another wave of mobilization after it has suffered heavy battlefield losses and is believed to be facing manpower shortages in Ukraine.
Under the new law, recipients who fail to show up for service after getting a summons would be prohibited from leaving Russia and have their drivers’ licenses suspended and could be barred from selling their apartments and other assets. Similarly, activists and legal experts say Russian border guards could now use the online registry to further restrict travel for anyone looking to avoid military service.
That potentially limited timeline, coupled with added challenges to leaving the country, is weighing on those inside Russia looking for an exit and those who have already left and are struggling with the bureaucratic and financial constraints of remaining abroad.
Daria, a 35-year old from Omsk who arrived in Turkey with her boyfriend in October, told RFE/RL’s Siberia Realities that they face limited possibilities moving forward and are worried about the new law.
Like many Russians who spoke to RFE/RL, Daria asked for her last name to be withheld to avoid repercussions back in Russia. She says she and her boyfriend first left Russia following the mobilization announcement by car to Kazakhstan and then arrived in Turkey in early October, but quickly faced difficulties establishing residency in the country after entering on tourist visas.
Turkey became a leading destination for Russians looking to flee the country following Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine due to the affordable cost of living and a straightforward legal process that would grant a tourist residence permit for a period of six months to two years if an applicant was able to show a corresponding lease on a property in the country. The lease could be extended and a residence permit of up to another two years could be issued. After five years of residency, preparations for a citizenship application could then be initiated.
But Turkish authorities began tightening the screws already in March 2022 by adding restrictions on which kinds of rental properties could grant a residence permit, which were expanded again in July. By the end of 2022, a growing number of Russians began to have their applications rejected.
Precise statistics on the number of rejections — as well as the total number of Russians who have fled to Turkey to avoid military service — are difficult to ascertain. However, the moderators of a Telegram channel for Russian speakers navigating the process in the country — which has nearly 10,000 members — say that the number of rejections is growing, with 237 rejections out of 371 applicants among group members alone in January.
Daria says the Turkish authorities are often vague about the parameters for which applications are approved and the process, which often includes translations and notarization, can be costly.
She says remote work in Turkey has begun to strain her finances and after their application was rejected they were given a short time period to leave the country and have since returned to Russia.
“It was scary, [and] now everyone is waiting for the second wave [of mobilization],” she said. “The law [seemed] to change every five minutes there, and we foreigners are definitely not welcome in Turkey anymore.”
For those rejected in Turkey, countries like Thailand, Vietnam, as well as Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Serbia have been alternative destinations, but room for Russians fleeing has been shrinking there as well.
A total of 2.9 million Russian citizens entered Kazakhstan in 2022, although that figure also includes families and those with personal connections across the two countries’ lengthy border.
Denis, who asked to have his last name withheld to prevent reprisals, said he and his girlfriend chose the country in a panic in September as he was looking to leave Russia and chose Kazakhstan because it was relatively close to his home city of Novosibirsk in Siberia.
Kazakhstan’s policy at the time allowed Russians to do a “visa run” every 90 days to a neighboring country and then reset the period upon re-entry. But Kazakh authorities changed the law in January to close this loophole, and now citizens of countries that are part of the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Russia, are only allowed to stay in Kazakhstan for no more than 90 days within a single 180-day period.
Like many other Russians in Kazakhstan who fled and are fearful of returning to face another round of mobilization, Denis faces two choices: leave or apply for a temporary residence permit.
While Kazakh wages are lower than those in large Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, a growing number of Russians have chosen to stay and work in the Central Asian country for local employers. In 2022, according to official government figures, the number of Russians in Kazakhstan on work permits rose to 63,000 people, more than double the figure for 2021.
Denis and his girlfriend are currently exploring other destinations but are not sure what options will be possible for them.
“For the future, we came to the conclusion that you need to move away from Russia, to truly free countries,” he said. “The world is big, and it does not end in Kazakhstan.”