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Ukraine war: Russians snap up Moscow-Istanbul flights as people flee conscription

Fearful of being conscripted to fight in Ukraine, people are booking up flights to countries like Turkey where Russians can get visas on arrival
Plane arriving from Istanbul parks at the Basel - Mulhouse Euroairport in Saint Louis, eastern France, on August 4, 2020. (AFP)
Plane arriving from Istanbul parks at the Basel - Mulhouse Euroairport in Saint Louis, eastern France, on August 4, 2020. (AFP)
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Ankara

Russians fearful of being conscripted by the Russian military's partial mobilisation, announced by President Vladimir Putin, have purchased all direct flights between Moscow and Istanbul for the next three days. 

Turkish Airlines don’t have available seats for a direct flight until Sunday and the cheapest flight is 81,000 roubles ($1,340). At the time of publication, Pegasus, a low-cost Turkish airliner, only had one available flight, on Saturday, with a price of $1,599. 

Russian national airline Aeroflot also has no available seats until Sunday, and the cheapest direct flight is $1,217. Indirect flights are routed via awkward destinations, and are going for $2,500. 

All economy seats have gone, leaving only business class available for customers.

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine flagging, and Ukrainian forces staging a breakthrough counteroffensive in recent weeks, President Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists, triggering fear that some men who are qualified to serve won’t be allowed to leave the country. 

Authorities said only experienced soldiers were going to be called up immediately.

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Reuters reported that Google Trends data showed a sudden rise in searches for Aviasales, which is Russia’s most popular website for purchasing flights. 

Local Russian media reports suggested flights from Moscow to the Armenian capital Yerevan also sold out on Wednesday. Russians are able to get visas on arrival in Turkey and Armenia.

Some routes with connecting flights, including to Tbilisi, are also sold out. 

Thousands of Russians have headed to Turkey since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February. The majority have moved to Istanbul and southern Turkey, purchasing houses and sometimes trying to obtain Turkish citizenship. 

Turkey walks a careful line on the Ukraine war. Even though Ankara closed the Bosporus strait to the Black Sea and declared the Russian assault an “illegal and unjust war”, it still enjoys good ties with Moscow and has not joined the US, UK and EU in imposing sanctions.

Data from the Turkish statistics agency indicates nearly 4,900 Russians purchased houses in Turkey between February and June 2022, a major shift compared to previous years.

The Russian flow into Turkey has alarmed the US government, which dispatched Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo to Ankara in June. There, he warned Turkish authorities and businesses not to become a conduit for “illicit financing”.

In recent days, some Turkish banks have stopped accepting the Mir card payment system, which is a Russian version of Visa and Mastercard. Russians have also complained of payments with Mir being rejected by Turkish hotels.