YEREVAN — As Russia faces unprecedented Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin turns the screws even tighter at home on anyone questioning Moscow’s war, Aleksei, a Russian national working in media, decided it was time to get out.
“That’s why I felt an urgent need to leave my country,” Aleksei, who requested that his last name not be used, told RFE/RL after arriving at Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport on March 3.
President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and bloody attack on Ukraine has turned Russia into an international pariah, complicating travel as 33 countries — including all 27 EU countries — have closed their airspace to Russian carriers.
One of the few destinations still accessible is Armenia, where the majority of people speak Russian and whose government has so far not condemned Russia’s military or joined sanctions against the Kremlin and Russia’s economy.
A member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance, Armenia is a strategic partner of Russia. Moscow not only has a military base in Armenia but troops to maintain a shaky cease-fire after the short war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
“My choice was between Armenia and Georgia, because those were the easiest destinations to reach as some airports had already been closed. Logistically, the easiest way for me was to get to Yerevan,” Aleksei explained.
Flights from Moscow to Yerevan were completely sold out for several days in advance, The Guardian reported on March 3, along with flights to Istanbul and Belgrade.
Several Russian nationals arriving in Armenia have told RFE/RL that friends and acquaintances back home are either thinking of leaving the country or have done so, mainly due to the tightening Western sanctions over the Ukraine war.
“I have heard that many companies will be moving abroad in the near future, because doing business in Russia in spheres connected with import, export, finances is no longer possible,” said another arriving Russian, who chose not to disclose his identity.
Burgeoning IT Sector
Armenian Economy Minister Vahan Kerobian claimed on March 1 that Russian tech companies are indeed moving operations to Armenia to evade Western sanctions, which are unprecedented in their scale, hitting Russian banks, businesses, and powerful individuals linked to Putin.
“About a dozen companies have already effectively relocated, while several others are on their way,” Kerobian said.
Kerobian did not disclose the name of any of the Russian firms or any further details. He said only that most of them are involved in the tech sector and oriented toward “Western markets.”
“The latest restrictions do not allow them to do the job from their country,” Kerobian added.
An engineer working for a Russian tech firm, who has booked a flight to Yerevan, said her decision was not only for economic reasons but also in protest against her country’s attack on Ukraine.
“Our company promised to help those employees who are planning to leave but they didn’t say how,” she explained, requesting that her name not be used. “That is why I’m leaving on my own.”
Yevgeny, a Russian software engineer, is also planning to relocate to Armenia. He said he is confident about finding a job in the country’s burgeoning information technology (IT) sector that already employs an estimated 20,000 people in Armenia.
“My choice was between Armenia and Serbia,” he explained. “In both countries attitudes toward Russians are good…. There is no language barrier and local cultures are understandable. But my guess is that Armenia is now more inclined to receive technology specialists.”
The sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union include measures aimed at restricting Russia’s access to high technology and complicating Russian companies’ financial transactions abroad.
Another company providing consulting to foreign and local businesses has also confirmed to RFE/RL that in recent days they have had requests from Russia and even Belarus to help transfer business operations to Armenia.
Russian professionals are particularly interested in the IT sector in Armenia and some of them have already found jobs here, said Hayk Chobanian, executive director of the Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises.
“We will be able to talk about figures in about a week when things get calmer, but as of now we can say that some professionals from Russia have already got jobs in Armenia,” Chobanian said.
Amid the fallout from the latest Western sanctions that have hit the Russian economy and the country’s financial sector, President Putin issued a decree banning all individuals from taking more than $10,000 abroad.
At Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport many Russians simply refused to talk about the reasons for coming to Armenia, with some merely saying they were there as tourists.
On the streets of Yerevan in recent days, the number of Russian nationals appears to be rising. Several questioned by RFE/RL acknowledged that they had come to Armenia because of the war in Ukraine, but not all said they plan to stay.
“Most likely I will stay here for a couple of months. After that I’ll get a job in Europe,” a young Russian man approached by RFE/RL in downtown Yerevan said.
Walking A Fine Line
Since Russia launched its unprovoked assault on Ukraine on February 24, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government has tried to walk a fine line between neutrality and tacit loyalty to Putin.
Armenia abstained from voting on a UN General Assembly resolution that deplores “in the strongest terms” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The resolution, approved late on March 2 by 141 members of the 193-member body, demands that Russia immediately stop its war in Ukraine and withdraw all of its troops from Ukrainian territory.
Russia was joined by Belarus, which has served as a launchpad for Russian invasion forces, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria in voting against the nonbinding resolution
Armenia had repeatedly voted against UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea and upholding Ukrainian sovereignty over the Black Sea Peninsula.
On February 25, Yerevan also voted against the effective suspension of Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe. The decision was backed by 42 members of the Strasbourg-based organization. Armenia was the only member state that joined Russia in opposing it.
In what was the first official Armenian reaction to the Russian assault, Pashinian said on March 2 that Yerevan was “deeply saddened” by the war in Ukraine. He expressed hope that fresh Russian-Ukrainian negotiations “will produce results.”