By John Simpson
World Affairs Editor in Vaalimaa, Finland
At Vaalimaa, Finland’s border crossing with Russia – 120 miles east of Helsinki – buses and cars stop for passport and customs checks. These aren’t Ukrainians, they’re Russians, and although the flow isn’t heavy, it is constant.
Some people are anxious to get out of Russia because there has been a persistent rumour that President Vladimir Putin’s government might soon introduce martial law to deal with demonstrations against the invasion of Ukraine.
With flights to Europe halted, the only way out of the country is by car – crossing this border – or by train.
We spoke to one young Russian woman who was leaving for the West – one of the lucky ones who had an EU visa before the sanctions were announced. She was in despair at what has been happening.
“People in Ukraine are our people – our family,” she said. “We shouldn’t be killing them.” Would she think of going back, I asked? “Not while our dreadful government is there. It is so, so sad.”
She said most Russians don’t want this war, but they risk going to jail if they try to stand up to Putin.
In Finland, there’s immense sympathy for people like her – just as there is for Ukraine and its inhabitants. This sympathy, and the fear that Russia might lash out at other neighbours such as Finland itself, is changing attitudes to Finland’s traditional leanings toward neutrality.
According to the latest opinion polls, a growing majority of Finns believe that it’s time for their country to join Nato and access the protection that membership of the alliance would bring.
Back in Helsinki, the train from St Petersburg is pulling in, carrying hundreds more people anxious to flee Russia. Most trains are fully booked, with ticket prices soaring.
The amount of money passengers leaving Russia can bring is limited. The rouble is in a state of collapse; the Russian economy is threatened by sanctions and the withdrawal of many large Western companies. Russia’s government is desperate to avoid a run on the banks.
Will sanctions against wealthy Russians cause them to turn on President Putin? It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s unlikely to force him to stop the war on Ukraine.
More worrying for him is the call by the Russian oil giant Lukoil for a halt to the invasion. If the main elements of the Russian economy are turning against him, he will find it much harder to carry on without making big changes – such as the introduction of martial law.
Another woman who has left Russia, this time for Istanbul, told us by phone she had been terrified of a return to life as it was under the Soviet Union.
“I’m 30, I haven’t seen the worst… the repressions, the secret police,” she said. “I had a very clear fear that if I’m not going to fly out right now, I will not be able to fly out ever.”
“On the one hand, it seems this is the moment to get out. On the other, there is a legitimate fear that you will not be able to see your friends and family for God knows how long, if ever.”
If martial law were introduced, Mr Putin would be free to do what he wanted, without having to worry about damaging protests in the streets. He has already made it clear to French President Emmanuel Macron that he won’t stop until he has occupied the whole of Ukraine – and a French official who listened in on their phone call said, afterwards, that things could get a great deal worse.
How? Well, the nuclear option could be getting decidedly closer. It’s a frightening prospect.
No wonder Russians who don’t want any part of the invasion or the trouble it’s creating inside Russian towns and cities are desperate to get out of the country – and make a living for themselves outside.
Additional reporting by Christy Cooney in London