Exhausted Russians arrive in Georgia to avoid becoming ‘cannon fodder’ in Putin’s war

Russians fleeing their country have described it as a "lifesaving decision". Credit: ITV News

Slumped against windows, hunched over suitcases, sitting next to the bikes that carried them to Georgia over the border, the Russians are exhausted. Predominantly young men, they have fled Russia to avoid being called up for Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Their path out is via the only road leading from southern Russia to Georgia through the Caucasus Mountains. They sit smoking in small groups, some next to their abandoned transport, contemplating their new lives after their president ordered 300,000 reservists be mobilised; triggering an exodus of thousands of people from Russia who do not want to fight. “They will just hand you a gun and you will be cannon fodder,” 28-year-old Alexander told ITV News shortly after crossing into Georgia from Russia.

Thousands of Russians are leaving their country to avoid being dragged into the war in Ukraine. Credit: ITV News
People have brought their pets with them, including Muchaha the cat (pictured) from Moscow. Credit: ITV News

“Mobilisation is very difficult for us because we don’t want to go to war and kill people but we can go to jail if we don’t do what Putin says,” another traveller named Fakhad said shortly after leaving. This border is the line many Russians hoped they would never have to cross. Forced to choose between war and peace, freedom or imprisonment, at this border post high in the Caucasus Mountains many Russians say they felt they had no choice but to leave. “This is a lifesaving decision,” Fakhad said. Largely untouched by the war in Ukraine, life for most Russians has, until now, continued as normal. That has now changed. For months Vladimir Putin’s military has forced Ukrainians out of their homes. Now many Russians feel the same is being done to them. Gathering up the belongings they could carry, many of the Russians who made it to Georgia abandoned their cars and walked for hours along queues of traffic.

Many travellers fear they may never be able to return home. Credit: ITV News
Many Russians abandoned their cars near the border and walked for miles past long lines of traffic. Credit: ITV News
Long traffic jams have been forming near the border amid a mass exodus. Credit: ITV News

Some carried their dogs, their cats and their children along the long winding road through the snow-capped mountains. Some told ITV News they had to pay hundreds of pounds to pass roadblocks organised by unidentified groups of people, making money, they said, out of their compatriots’ misery. “I flew to southern Russia and walked along a 25km queue to the border with my things. Then I found a car with some others and I crossed with them. The whole thing from leaving the airport to arriving here took 40 hours,” Nikita said. “I don’t know a lot about this country and I want to learn more but first I need to sleep because I’m not really thinking straight.”

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At the Georgian border post, many Russians collapsed in relief, finally feeling the tiredness they had held back for days as the realisation of what they had done sank in.

“I don’t know when I can go back,” Fahad said. “I may never go back. I’ve lost my home.” Although thousands of Russians have streamed over the border with Georgia since President Putin announced a "partial mobilisation", there are still millions more who remain in Russia who support his war. “People almost came to blows in the queue,” one man told ITV News. “There were provocateurs there who said ‘you’re traitors, you should defend the motherland.’” Nikita added: “Unfortunately in Russia people have been beaten over the head with propaganda for many, many years and this has convinced people everything will be fine and that God is with the Russians."

"We don’t want to go to war and kill people but we can go to jail if we don’t do what Putin says,” one traveller told ITV News. Credit: ITV News
Many Russians said they felt they had no choice but to leave. Credit: ITV News
Some have left family members behind and know they may have to start a new life abroad. Credit: ITV News

“This is lies and I don’t agree with it but most of the people I know do. There is panic but not among everyone.” While some Russians successfully make it across the border, there are reports of others being questioned for hours.

Some are reportedly turned back and allegedly told to go straight from the border checkpoint to the military commissioning office to get their call up papers. Desperate to get out, one man told ITV News that when he was turned away, he just tried again, hoping for a different answer. Fortunately for him, he said he got one. For almost all the Russians here, the crossing is bittersweet. The small grey and glass border post in the foothills of the mountains is a place of freedom but also of loss. “I’ve left my family, my child, my wife,” Alexander said shortly after arriving in Georgia.

“This is really hard for me. I can’t even imagine what I’m going to do now,” he said, his voice breaking.

“I understand that if they recognise me as a deserter in Russia, then I cannot return there. I will have to start my life again.” Unlike in Ukraine where men of fighting age are banned from leaving the country, thousands of Russians have decided to get out before they fear it is too late. Armoured personnel carriers have been filmed reportedly heading towards the Russian border post.

Rumours are flying among Russians on both sides that it is only a matter of days before the border is shut completely to the men trying to flee. “There are towns in Russia of 60 thousand people where there are 400 new graves,” Evgeny told ITV News at the border crossing, his hoodie pulled over his head, his face illuminated in the dark by the lights of cars heading away from the border.

“I told my friends, ‘we have to leave now.’”

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