On September 21 2022, “Russia traffic jam” became a trending topic on Twitter, largely due to the virality of a tweet purportedly showing massive gridlock at the border shared by Russia and Finland.
Alongside a clip that appeared to originate on TikTok or Instagram, user Sotiri Dimpinoudis wrote:
#Breaking: just in – The traffic jam at the border with #Russia/#Finland has pilled up to 35KM and is rising by the hour, it is the only border who is still open for Russian civilians with shengen visas, after #Putin announced he will send 300.000 new troops to #Ukraine.
A separate r/worldnews submission similarly described to an exodus from Russia:
Discussions about mobilization and efforts among Russians to leave the country encompassed a chain of events.
What is Mobilization in Russia? What Did Putin Do?
Several news outlets covered Putin’s mobilization order, and on September 21 2022, Reuters explained:
President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday [September 21 2022] ordered Russia’s first mobilisation since World War Two after suffering a major battlefield reversal in Ukraine, an attempt to turn the military tide in what he has cast as a defining East-West clash.
The mobilisation is, for now, being officially described as a partial one that will steadily draw in 300,000 reservists from across the world’s largest country over a period of months, rather than a full call-up that would rely on what Russia’s defence minister says is a vast reserve force of 25 million people.
Men and women aged from 18 to 60 years old can theoretically be called up as reservists according to Russian legislation, depending on their rank.
An Associated Press article published on the same day indicated that Putin’s order led to widespread protests:
In his seven-minute nationally televised address, Putin also warned the West that he isn’t bluffing over using everything at his disposal to protect Russia — an apparent reference to his nuclear arsenal. He has previously told the West not to back Russia against the wall and has rebuked NATO countries for supplying weapons to Ukraine.
The Kremlin has struggled to replenish its troops in Ukraine, reaching out for volunteers. There have even been reports of widespread recruitment in prisons.
The total number of reservists to be called up could be as high as 300,000, officials said. However, Putin’s decree authorizing the partial mobilization, which took effect immediately, offered few details, raising suspicions that the draft could be broadened at any moment … Despite Russia’s harsh laws against criticizing the military and the war, there were protests across the country. Several hundred people were arrested in 30 cities, including 200 in St. Petersburg and 150 in Moscow, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.
An Associated Press crew in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a protest in the capital.
In essence, Russia’s “mobilization” was something like a military draft for specific groups of people.
Attempts to Flee Russia
Posts and stories detailed claims that flights out of Russia were rapidly filled up, making it difficult for eligible Russians to avoid conscriptio; “Russia traffic jam” registered “Breakout” levels of search interest on Google Trends.
On the afternoon of September 21 2022, Reuters published “Flights out of Russia sell out after Putin orders partial call-up,” reporting:
One-way flights out of Russia were rocketing in price and selling out fast on Wednesday [September 21 2022] after President Vladimir Putin ordered the immediate call-up of 300,000 reservists … Google Trends data showed a spike in searches for Aviasales, Russia’s most popular flight-booking site.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul in Turkey and Yerevan in Armenia, both destinations that allow Russians to enter without a visa, were sold out on Wednesday [September 21 2022], according to Aviasales data.
NPR also examined bookings for one-way trips out of Russia, adding that “a marked exodus of citizens” began after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022:
Tickets for the Moscow-Belgrade flights operated by Air Serbia, the only European carrier besides Turkish Airlines to maintain flights to Russia despite a European Union flight embargo, sold out for the next several days [after September 21 2022]. The price for flights from Moscow to Istanbul or Dubai increased within minutes before jumping again, reaching as high as 9,200 euros ($9,119) for a one-way economy class fare.
Russia has seen a marked exodus of citizens since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine almost seven months ago [in February 2022]. During the early morning address to the nation in which the president announced the partial mobilization of reservists, he also issued a veiled nuclear threat to Russia’s enemies in the West.
Reports of panic spreading among Russians soon flooded social networks. Anti-war groups said the limited airplane tickets out of Russia reached enormous prices due to high demand and swiftly became unavailable.
Russia’s ‘Traffic Jam at the Finnish Border’
In just under six hours, a video attached to the viral tweet about a traffic jam at the Russia-Finland border racked up well over a million views and thousands of shares.
Viewers seemed to infer that the events in the clip aligned sufficiently with ongoing news about efforts by Russians to leave the country. Replies and comments questioning its veracity were less common:
NOTE: There is a video that alleges to show the Finnish border and a line of cars fleeing from Russia. A few people have said the video is not from today and/or not what it appears to be. I don't have time to look into today–if you see a fact-check for it please link in a reply.
— E Rosalie (@NovelSci) September 21, 2022
Just after 12 pm Eastern time, Finland’s verified @rajavartijat account (“Finnish Border Guard”) disputed the viral video’s labeling, tweeting:
Situation at Finland's borders has not changed with the announcement of Russian moilization. There are videos circulating on social media, at least some of which have already been filmed before and now taken out of context. There is incorrect information in circulation.
— Rajavartiolaitos (@rajavartijat) September 21, 2022
On September 22 2022, EuroNews debunked the claim, saying that the video showing a 35-kilometer line at the border was legitimate, but from a few weeks previously — in other words, not a response to Russia’s “mobilization” announcement:
One such video of the Vaalimaa border post in southeastern Finland gathered more than 2.5 million views on Twitter.
However, an online investigation reveals the footage was first shared online on 19 September, two days before Putin’s mobilisation call.
The owner of the video, who posted the clip on both YouTube and TikTok, also states that it was filmed “two weeks earlier” at the end of August and that the congestion was “normal” for autumn border crossings.
A live feed of Russia-Finland border traffic can be viewed here.
Update: On September 27 2022, ABC News tweeted footage (captured by a drone) that showed a large queue at the border of Russia and Georgia as “huge numbers of Russians” sought to flee the country amid major fears that they would be conscripted:
Drone footage shows a massive line of traffic at the border between Russia and Georgia as huge numbers of Russians seek to flee the country amid fears they will be drafted to fight in the war in Ukraine. https://t.co/JIZ8uyYWEh pic.twitter.com/HNM6qZ3MBM
— ABC News (@ABC) September 27, 2022
A viral video (“Russia traffic jam”) was shared to Twitter on the morning of September 21 2022, not long after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered mobilization of Russian citizens in relation to the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The clip spread quickly alongside news about Putin’s mobilization order. A few hours after the clip appeared, Finland’s Border Guard (@rajavartijat) tweeted that the “situation at Finland’s borders has not changed with the announcement of Russian [mobilization,]” adding that there was “incorrect information in circulation.” However, a few days later, multiple videos appeared from the border of Russia and Georgia; those are legitimate and presented in their proper context.
Update, 9/22/2022, 9:00 AM: Changed rating from “Unknown” to “Not True,” and added information about border crossing live cam. -bb
Update, 9/27/2022, 12:42 AM: Added ABC News footage of lines at the border of Russia and Georgia. -kl