Large numbers of Russians rushed to book one-way tickets out of the country while they still could Wednesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of military reservists for the war in Ukraine.
Flights filled up quickly and the prices of tickets for remaining connections sky-rocketed, apparently driven by fears that Russia’s borders could soon close or of a broader call-up that might send many Russian men of fighting age to the war’s front lines.
Google Trends data showed a spike in searches for Aviasales, which is Russia’s most popular flight-booking site.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul in Türkiye and Yerevan in Armenia, both destinations that allow Russians to enter without a visa, were sold out on Wednesday, according to Aviasales data.
Flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya via Turkish Airlines (THY) were either all booked or unavailable until Sunday.
The carrier is going to increase passenger capacity out of Russia for Thursday and Friday, a spokesperson told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) on Wednesday. Additional flights are among the options if demand continues at this rate, the Turkish Airlines official added.
Tickets for the Moscow-Belgrade flights operated by Air Serbia, the only European carrier besides Turkish Airlines to maintain flights to Russia, were also sold out for the next several days.
Some routes with stopovers, including those from Moscow to Tbilisi, were also unavailable, while the cheapest flights from the capital to Dubai were costing more than 300,000 rubles ($5,000) – about five times the average monthly wage.
Typical one-way fares to Türkiye shot up to more than 80,000 rubles ($1,321), compared with a little over 22,000 rubles a week ago. Prices reached as high as 173,000 rubles on the Turkish Airlines website.
Likewise, budget carrier Pegasus’ tickets from Moscow to Istanbul, among other cities, were sold out through Saturday. Pegasus is also increasing its passenger capacity, a spokesperson told dpa.
The head of Russia’s tourism agency said no restrictions have been imposed on traveling abroad so far. Aeroflot, the country’s flag-carrying airline, said it was not limiting ticket sales.
Putin’s decree stipulates that the number of people called to active duty will be determined by the Defense Ministry. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised interview that 300,000 reservists with relevant combat and service experience initially would be mobilized.
The Kremlin declined to comment on whether the borders would be closed to those subject to the mobilization order and asked people to be patient as the law is clarified.
Russia has seen a marked exodus of citizens since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine almost seven months ago. During the early morning address to the nation in which the president announced the partial mobilization of reservists, he also issued a veiled nuclear threat to Russia’s enemies in the West.
Reports of panic spreading among Russians soon flooded social networks. Anti-war groups said the limited airplane tickets out of Russia reached enormous prices due to high demand and swiftly became unavailable.
Some postings alleged people already had been turned back from Russia’s land border with Georgia and that the website of the state Russian railway company collapsed because too many people were checking for ways out of the country.
Social networks in Russian also surged with advice on how to avoid the mobilization or leave the country.
In an apparent attempt to calm the panic, the head of the defense committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, Andrei Kartapolov, said authorities would not place additional restrictions on reservists leaving Russia, according to Russian media reports.
A group based in Serbia, Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Serbs Together Against War, tweeted that there were no available flights to Belgrade from Russia until mid-October. Flights to Türkiye, Georgia or Armenia also sold out, according to the Belgrade-based group.
“All the Russians who wanted to go to war already went,” the group said. “No one else wants to go there!”
Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, has become a popular destination for Russians during the war. Up to 50,000 Russians have fled to Serbia since Russia invaded Ukraine and many opened businesses, especially in the IT sector.