Russians crowd trains to Helsinki as passage to EU narrows
- Mutual airspace closures cut off Russia-EU flights
- About 700 arrive by train daily from Russia to Finland
- Hundreds more drive to border crossings
- Many fear Ukraine war will lead to wider Russia-EU crisis
HELSINKI, March 8 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Russian passengers have filled up trains to Finland's capital Helsinki from Saint Petersburg every day since the war in Ukraine began and mutual airspace closures cut off flight connections between Russia and the European Union.
The two trains on that route were almost empty before Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 but were now fully booked with 700 people arriving from Russia daily, Finland's public railway operator VR said.
Hundreds more are driving to join lengthy queues at Finnish, Estonian or Latvian road border crossings as many Russians fearing a wider Russia-West conflict over Ukraine seek ways to leave the country.
More than 2 million Ukrainians have so far fled the fighting in their country, most of them into neighbouring central and eastern European countries. L2N2VB0W9 read more
The EU has agreed to grant temporary residency to Ukrainian refugees but the status of Russians seeking extended stays in the bloc is unclear.
For 40-year-old Philip, his wife and young daughter, the trip to Helsinki was supposed to be a much awaited four-day holiday for the Russian family but now they are not sure they will go back home.
"We just came here because that seemed to be the only quick way to get out of Saint Petersburg," he told Reuters after stepping off the train.
"People who understand what is really going on are really upset and I have already heard about several of my friends and colleagues who have either already left or they are desperately trying to leave," he added, requesting Reuters not mention his last name.
Before the trip, he and his wife spent several days trying to withdraw as much money as they could from their savings accounts as financial uncertainty caused by western sanctions sent Russians scrambling for cash and a possible way out of the crisis. read more
Due to Russian COVID-19 restrictions, only Finnish and Russian citizens are allowed on the trains. The Finnish rail operator was negotiating with Russian authorities to allow other nationalities onboard as well, VR Finnish-Russian passenger service director Viktoria Hurri said.
"We are negotiating about putting a third train to run daily from Saint Petersburg and from Helsinki - but let's see what the authorities will say about that," Hurri said.
Traffic at the Burachki road crossing from Russia into Latvia has also heavily increased since President Vladimir Putin ordered the attack on Ukraine.
Moscow describes its actions in Ukraine as "a special operation" to disarm its neighbour.
"I have two sons close to military age. We got into this (decision to leave) late but we jumped in a car and left Moscow," said a Russian woman in her late 40s who had driven the eight hours from Moscow to the Burachki crossing.
"It does not matter if we cannot return, I have seen different things in my life, including the 90s in Russia. Now the key is to leave, to have some sleep and then decide how we will go to Italy to our house," she said, declining to be named.
The future is unclear too for 23-year-old engineer Fedor who was at the train station in Helsinki to pick up his girlfriend who lives in Saint Petersburg.
"I'm not sure if she's moving permanently to Finland," said Fedor who no longer sees returning to Russia as an option even though it is his homeland.
On the return journey to Russia, the trains have been a lot less busy, with roughly a quarter of seats occupied, VR said.
Among those waiting on the platform to board is Islam, 29, who works as a systems engineer.
"My main goal is to see my friends because I suspect that I will not have any opportunities in the future," he told Reuters.
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