An estimated 200,000 have tried to flee the country in the last two weeks
In May, I rode the refugee train to Romania from the Ukrainian border with a young couple who had waded through a river to get out. Arseniy, 33, had been due to get married before the bombs started falling and, despite an order banning military-age men from leaving the country, he knew he didn’t want to fight. As we pulled into Bucharest, a line of humanitarian workers were waiting on the platform with everything from bottled water to offers of emergency accommodation.
Six months on and the desperate Russians now fleeing their country can expect little if any of the same support. After President Vladimir Putin signed a mobilisation order drafting ordinary citizens to fight his increasingly catastrophic war in Ukraine last week, an estimated 200,000 have done whatever it takes to escape the country.
At the southern border with Georgia, huge crowds of young men have slept outside in the icy mountain air for three or four nights, desperate to cross over, while Kazakhstan alone has already accepted 100,000 in a fortnight. In Armenia, where Russians can travel even without a passport, plane after plane is landing from Moscow and passengers are paying more than a thousand dollars apiece for tickets. Clutching suitcases, dogs and children, nobody is there to meet them when they land.
When Putin declared war in February, a wave of Russian emigres headed for the Caucasus, Turkey and the EU. By and large, they were the kind of educated, middle-class professionals who could work remotely or find new jobs in the West. The latest wave, however, aren’t so much relocating as fleeing for their lives. On the streets of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, groups of teenage boys from backwater towns mill around aimlessly, many having turned up with nothing but two backpacks and their birthday money. “I quit my job in a cafe and got on a flight,” 19-year-old Artyom tells me, “but I don’t know what I’ll do now.”
At the same time, rents in their destinations of choice have skyrocketed – every hostel room in Tbilisi has been booked up, while landlords in Yerevan have doubled already-inflated rates for apartments to London or Manhattan levels. Without work or secure housing, burning through their savings and often unable to move large sums of money out of Russian accounts due to sanctions, the situation is increasingly unsustainable for the new arrivals.
And yet, the predicament has so far attracted little sympathy from Western policymakers, who have been more focused on efforts to close the borders to those leaving. With their country the aggressor in a genocidal war that has set Europe ablaze, Russians are not seen as deserving refugees. But the potential impact of hundreds of thousands of unemployed, destitute people determined not to go back home could easily become a catastrophe.
“In the first few months, we were getting thousands of Ukrainians coming through the railway station,” says Caitlin, a coordinator for a humanitarian charity that helps vulnerable refugees in Romania. “Now, there’s a steady stream going back as it gets safer. Instead, it’s Russians who know they might never be able to return to their country.”