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Zelenskyy calls for 'sabotage' as thousands of Russians flee after mobilization call

“We can’t predict anything,” one Russian told NBC News after traveling to Kyrgyzstan with her husband. “But we know for sure that in war there are no winners, only losers.”
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As thousands of Russians try to flee the country to escape the partial mobilization of civilians into the military, Ukraine’s president late Friday urged those who are conscripted to “sabotage any enemy activity.”

Addressing Ukrainians in Russian-occupied regions, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address that his countrymen should “hide” from mobilization and “avoid summons” of military commanders.

“If you get into the Russian army, then sabotage any enemy activity, interfere with any Russian operations, give us all important information about the occupiers: their bases, headquarters, ammunition depots,” he added.

His comments came three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said shortly afterward that he aimed to add about 300,000 troops, although presidential decree keeps the door open for a broader call-up.

The first mobilization of reservists in Russia since World War II comes after Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive broke through Russian lines outside Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city. They then drove farther into the contested Russian proxy-controlled Donbas region, forcing the Kremlin’s units to fall back quickly, losing soldiers and military hardware. 

Within hours, images and videos began to appear on social media of people scrambling to escape to neighboring countries including Turkey and Georgia and the cost of flights departing from Moscow skyrocketed, soaring above $5,000, according to Reuters.

Long lines of traffic also built up along the borders of countries like Belarus, Georgia and Armenia.

Russians arrive at Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, Armenia, on Tuesday.Karen Minasyan / AFP via Getty Images

One woman, 23, said she booked seats on a flight to Kyrgyzstan with her husband, 24, an hour after Putin made his mobilization announcement. NBC News agreed not to name the couple because they fear repercussions by Russian authorities for speaking to foreign media.

The woman said they agreed in February, after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, that their “last straw was military mobilization.”

Within hours of booking their flights, she said prices rose to almost double the amount she paid, adding that they told airport officials the purpose of their visit was tourism.

With flights now at a premium, she said most of her friends “are planning to leave country by train now.”

The majority of her family supported the couple's decision, she said, adding that her relatives “feel nervous and miss us but they know that it is the right way.”

They planned to stay “at least until the end of mobilization,” she said. “We can’t predict anything,” she added. "But we know for sure that in war there are no winners, only losers.”

Others express similar views including, Maxim Khatuntsev. After crossing into Georgia, he told The Associated Press that he did "not very much like," what Russia was doing in Ukraine.

“The matter is not that we are afraid, the matter is our dislike of this situation,” he said, adding, “I have many relatives in Ukraine, and I do not like this at all.”

Ira Lobanovskaya founded an online project called “Guide to the Free World” to help Russians opposed to the war to relocate. She said she saw a massive spike in people rushing to the site for information on how to leave the country since the mobilization announcement.

Around 1.5 million people visited the site on Thursday alone, Lobanovskaya, a Russian citizen herself, told NBC News by telephone from the Turkish city of Istanbul, earlier this week. That was the same number that visited for the whole of March, she said.

“The worst scenario has come true,” said Lobanovskaya, 33. “The mobilization has happened. People have realized that a war is happening — a war that affects every person in Russia.”

Inside Russia, videos have emerged of arguments between military recruiters and conscripts, as well as members of the public.

Russian riot police detain demonstrators during a protest
Riot police detain demonstrators during a protest against mobilization in Moscow on Tuesday.AP

Across the country's 11 time zones, men have also been filmed hugging their weeping family members before being rounded up for service

Across the border in Ukraine, voting is underway in controversial referendums on whether to join Russia, in four regions occupied by its forces or fighters from Moscow-backed separatist regions.

The polls in occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions have already been condemned as a sham by Kyiv and its Western allies, including the United States.

President Joe Biden said in a statement on Friday that Russia’s referendums are a “a false pretext to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law, including the United Nations Charter.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also told reporters Friday that the U.S. was prepared to impose further economic sanctions on Russia, if Moscow attempts to annex more Ukrainian territory.