Heartbreaking photos have captured friends and relatives saying goodbye to Russian reservists drafted during Moscow’s partial mobilisation to bolster its army in Ukraine.
It came as Georgia and Kazakhstan said on Tuesday that tens of thousands of Russians had flooded into their countries from neighbouring Russia since the announcement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week announced the call-up of thousands of reservists, sparking protests across the country and a rush among Russian men for the borders.
Fyodor – who, like other people AFP spoke to, asked not to provide his full name – said he had fled to Russia’s border with Kazakhstan spooked by reports that even the infirm and elderly were being called up to fight.
“There is full chaos [in Russia],” the 24-year-old said. “We don’t understand what will happen.”
He decided to leave for Kazakhstan on Saturday morning “as a precautionary measure” to “take a head start, just in case”.
On Tuesday, Kazakhstan said around 98,000 Russians had entered the country since mobilisation was announced.
It took Fyodor about 48 hours, including a five-kilometre walk to the border and a six-hour queue, before he reached the northern Kazakh city of Oral.
“It was raining, it was cold, but six hours of wait … well, that was still reasonable given the circumstances,” he said.
Vladislav, a 25-year-old bartender, found shelter in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Monday evening.
In Russia, he said, “I could go to work or to do the groceries and never come back – I don’t want to die.
“A week ago, I could not imagine I’d be in Kazakhstan,” he told AFP, adding that he “wanted to thank the Kazakh people for welcoming him so nicely”.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Tuesday his country would ensure the safety of Russians fleeing “a hopeless situation”.
“This is a political and humanitarian issue,” Mr Tokayev added. “The territorial integrity of states must be unshakeable.”
Kazakhstan has condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and called for respect of territorial integrity, as Russia held annexation referendums in four Ukrainian regions.
“In our immediate vicinity a major war is underway. We must remember this, thinking above all about our security,” he added.
Russians also flocked to the Black Sea nation of Georgia.
On Tuesday, Georgia said the number of Russians arriving each day has nearly doubled since the draft was announced.
“Four to five days ago 5000-6000 [Russians] were arriving in Georgia daily. The number has grown to some 10,000 per day,” Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri told journalists.
Georgia and its neighbour Armenia, which do not require visas for Russians, have been major destinations for Russians fleeing since the war began on February 24.
Over the first four months of the war, nearly 50,000 Russians fled to Georgia and another 40,000 to Armenia.
On Tuesday, the local interior ministry in a Russian region that borders Georgia said there was a tailback of around 5500 cars waiting to cross the Georgian border, calling the situation “extremely tense”.
The ministry added that a mobile draft office will be set up at the border in the “near future”.
Victory in ‘sham’ votes
It came as Kremlin-installed authorities in four Ukrainian regions under Russian control claimed victory on Tuesday in annexation votes, drawing global outrage, as Moscow warned it could use nuclear weapons to defend the territories.
Ukraine and its allies have denounced the so-called referendums as a sham, saying the West would never recognise the results of the ballots that have dramatically ratcheted up the stakes of Russia’s seven-month invasion.
Pro-Russian authorities in Zaporizhzhia said 93.11 per cent of voters backed joining Russia, according to preliminary results on Tuesday evening.
In Kherson, another Moscow-occupied region in southern Ukraine, officials said more than 87.05 per cent of electors supported the move after all the ballots were counted.
In the eastern Lugansk region controlled by pro-Russia separatists, local authorities said more than 98.42 per cent voted in favour of annexation, according to local authorities.
And officials in the Moscow-held Donetsk region claimed victory as well, with the local poll body saying 99.23 per cent of the vote was for annexation.
“Saving people in the territories where this referendum is taking place … is the focus of the attention of our entire society and of the entire country,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier during a televised meeting with officials.
His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the votes would have “radical” legal implications and that the so-called referendums “will also have consequences for security”, referring to Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory.
‘Nothing to talk about’
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed on Tuesday that Kyiv would defend its citizens in Moscow-held regions and rejected the referendums as a “farce”. And he said the votes mean Kyiv will not negotiate with Moscow.
“There is nothing to talk about with [the] current Russian president,” Mr Zelensky said.
Russian forces this month have suffered serious setbacks in Ukraine’s east and south, which observers say pushed Mr Putin to rush ahead with the vote to cement Moscow’s authority there.
Mr Putin said Russia would use any and all available means to defend its territory, implying that after annexation, Moscow could deploy strategic nuclear weapons to repulse Ukrainian attempts to retake the territory.
“I want to remind you – the deaf who hear only themselves: Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” former leader Dmitry Medvedev – a Putin ally who is now deputy chairman of Russia’s security council — said on social media on Tuesday.
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the United States was taking the reiterated threat “seriously” but had seen nothing to cause Washington to change its nuclear posture.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that “Russia must know that the nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
The four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine announced they would hold the elections just days before voting began last Friday.
Together, they form a crucial land connection for the Kremlin between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and is otherwise only connected to the mainland by bridge.
US slams ‘diabolical scheme’
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed the West would never recognise Russian annexations of the territories, threatening Moscow with “additional swift and severe costs” for its “diabolical scheme”.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, in Kyiv for a surprise visit to meet Mr Zelensky, called the polls a “masquerade” that would trigger further Western sanctions.
At the United Nations, top official Rosemary DiCarlo told a meeting of the Security Council the body “remains fully committed” to Ukraine’s territorial integrity “within its internationally recognised borders”.
There is no chance of the Security Council – where Russia holds a veto – reaching a united stance on the annexation move.
Nevertheless, the United States intends to submit a resolution urging member states “not to recognise any altered status of Ukraine and obligating Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine,” said US envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Moscow’s closest major ally since the Ukraine invasion, Beijing, has yet to overtly condemn the offensive, but it told the Security Council on Tuesday that the “territorial integrity of all countries should be respected”.
The so-called referendums follow a pattern that Moscow utilised in Crimea after nationwide street demonstrations saw Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president ousted.
As in Crimea, the outcome was viewed by observers as a foregone conclusion.
Election officials brought ballot boxes door-to-door, in many cases accompanied by armed Russian forces.
Ukrainian forces meanwhile have pursued their counteroffensive in the east.
The governor of the eastern Kharkiv region announced on Tuesday its forces had recaptured Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, “one of the largest logistical and railway junctions” in the region and not privy to this week’s vote.
Polling stations were open in Crimea for people who fled fighting after the Russian invasion in February.
“With my voice I want to try to make a small contribution to stopping the war,” 63-year-old Galina Korsakova from Donetsk told AFP.
“I really want to go home.”