Fleeing Russians worry border will ‘close forever’


Fearing the border may close “forever” after President Vladimir Putin‘s mobilisation order for the war in Ukraine, Russians are rushing to flee across Finland‘s Vaalimaa crossing.

But their exodus has grown more precarious after Helsinki on Thursday announced it would close its border from midnight to Russians holding European tourism visas for the Schengen zone.

“I just made it through, I don’t know how the others will get through. It’s sad, sad,” Andrei Stepanov, a 49-year-old Russian told AFP of Finland’s new restrictions.

“I feel sorry for the others, they’re already like in prison there. Now it’s even worse”, said Stepanov, originally from the Russian city of Samara, near the Kazakh border.

Valery Klepkin, a 43-year-old from Karelia with a lieutenant grade in Russia‘s military, crossed the border on Thursday with a tourism visa. He said he couldn’t comprehend Finland’s decision.

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“We are not dangerous, I don’t understand what kind of threat we may pose”, he told AFP.

“We are running away from war, we are against this war. And by running away here, we are not going to the front”.

Aleksander Veselov, a 64-year-old from Saint Petersburg, said the Finnish decision would make the situation even worse for Russians back home.

“We already were behind the Iron Curtain, now the curtain will be even thicker. It’s horribly unpleasant”, he lamented.

Asked about the numerous Russians fleeing, Finnish Interior Minister Krista Mikkonen said she expected asylum applications to increase and each case would be processed individually.

– ‘Many are afraid’ – Since Putin announced the mobilisation order a week ago, the number of Russians crossing Finland’s 1,300-kilometres (800-mile) eastern border has almost doubled, averaging around 7,000 or 8,000 per day, most of them through Vaalimaa, though numbers appeared to slow on Wednesday.

Viktor Zakharov, a 35-year-old scientist from Saint Petersburg, drove his car over the border with his partner and their three children, planning to head to Israel after visiting friends in Finland.

He says he has five friends who have left Russia since the mobilisation, and fears he could have been drafted despite having no military background.

“I think now it doesn’t matter what status you have. If you are not fit today, you can be tomorrow and be in the army”, he told AFP.

Despite having made it into Finland, “the feeling of freedom has not come yet because of the sleepless nights and the packing,” he said, as he handed pieces of candy to his children.

Oleg, a 36-year-old bar owner from Moscow, said the military call-up was “a first sign that something worse might happen.”

“Many people are afraid,” he said, after crossing to the Finnish side.

He said he feared the border would “close forever” and Russians would “live in a totalitarian state where they can’t do anything at all”.

“I live in a country which sinks a little more every day,” he said, sighing.

Finland said on Monday that more Russians entered the country over the weekend than any other weekend so far this year — around 17,000.

State employee Vadim arrived by bus. He left his mother in charge of looking after his apartment in Moscow, and hopes to return soon.

“I have heard about many cases of young men… not being able to cross because of the mobilisation,” he said.

“I can’t say I’m happy”, he told AFP on Wednesday, a day before the Finnish announcement.

“But at least it’s ok, I’m here”.

– ‘Illegal border crossings‘? – The Finnish border guard said earlier this week it was preparing for “difficult developments” as the situation evolved.

“It is possible that when travel is restricted, attempts at illegal border crossings will increase,” a spokesman said.

In July, Finland passed new amendments to its Border Guard Act to facilitate the construction of sturdier fences on the Nordic country’s eastern border with Russia.

As it stands, Finland’s borders are secured primarily with light wooden fences, mainly designed to stop livestock from wandering to the wrong side.

The Finnish border guard believes it will be necessary to build 130-260 kilometres of barriers in high-risk areas.

“The physical barrier itself is indispensable in a large-scale entry situation, acting as a barrier and an element of diversion for potential crowds,” the border guard said in a statement.

The fence still requires a political decision.

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