Bad Sign for Russia: Flights Sold Out
The data behind sold-out Russian flights and prices
This morning, Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian reserve forces, totaling about 300,000 men. It seems to be a desperate measure to reverse a major Ukrainian breakthrough in the country’s northeast.
Will it work?
Will Russian men try to flee the country, to avoid getting called up?
One bad sign for Russia is that, per Reuters, “flights out of Russia quickly sold out.”
That would signal a change inside of Russia. For comparison, I was traveling in Russia when the war started (my previous reporting on it here and here) and my flight from Moscow to New York was canceled the day before departure.
But there were still lots of flights out of Russia. I booked one for the following day to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for a mere $50. Everything went smoothly, and I got back to the US from there.
So — is the situation really different now?
I went to the Aeroflot website to see what options are available for people to leave Russia now.
Below is a complete list of Aeroflot’s international flights from Moscow, which I just compiled. To virtually every foreign destination, flights are sold out for several days at least, and now cost and arm and a leg (especially on a Russian salary):
For example: The first entry shows that flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Turkey are sold out until September 26, 5 days from now, and that’ll cost you $1,658 to book. If you can wait to fly until October 1, then you can buy it for $796.
The only two exceptions, which are not so sold out, are to:
— Belarus, a Russian ally
— Osh, Kyrgystan, which has had its own mini-war in the last few days, and which costs a fortune to fly to on short notice.
Just as a comparison, I looked up some Russian domestic flights, and the prices and availability there are totally normal. For example, a flight from Moscow, Russia to Arkhangelsk, Russia, is available for today, and available tomorrow for an affordable $84.
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As another sanity check, I looked up flights flying out of other major Russian airports (and Belarus):
Same deal as with Moscow. Sold out for days, and crazy expensive as well.
The above data are pretty damning regarding the mood in Russia, but it should be noted that there are also exaggerated viral claims about Russians leaving. One Tweet with about 10,000 retweets claims there’s a “35 km” line of cars outside of the Finnish border.
That stretches credulity, especially as Russians can only enter Finland with a visa, which a very small proportion of Russians have. The Finnish Border Guard says the claims about such lines are fake news:
But, the flights being sold out is real, as documented above.
People I know inside Russia tell me that today, people feel stressed about the situation, but that for the most part, people are just feeling concerned and waiting for more information.
The fact that flights are all sold out likely does not have great direct importance, but it is an important proxy for morale in Russia.
It seems that many reservists are fleeing the country to avoid being called up, and/or other Russians who have stuck around for last 7 months are deciding that they’ve had it with living in Russia during the war.
It should be noted that my contacts say the economic situation in Russia remains stable. Inflation for basic goods has not been dramatically higher than in many western European countries.
So the people flying out are likely doing it either to avoid mobilizing, or for political reasons.
Official support for Putin and war also remains high.
But it’s one thing to say “I support the war” and another to get sent to the front lines of a brutal offensive war, in an army that has not shown great regard for the lives of its troops.
It might have once been easier to mass-draft hundreds of thousands of people in prior eras. After all, throwing millions of foot soldiers at a front line has always been Russia’s preferred military tactic. But in the modern era of creature comforts — thanks to electricity, the internet, and mass production — the difference between the battlefield and home has probably gotten starker.
Facts about recent battlefield developments
This all comes on the heels of a major breakthrough by Ukraine in the north.
The below map from the NYT shows the territory just re-taken by Ukraine at lightening speed (in blue):
It also shows how the long, thin shape of Russia’s new territory is hard to defend, because troops have to move much further to redeploy from one end to the other than do Ukrainian troops, who can attack almost anywhere they like from the center.
The recent, rapid Russian losses are also reflective of poor morale. As one anecdote, here’s one video of a tank retreating as fast as it could:
Will Ukraine advance still further? A small prediction market called Insight Prediction decent odds for Ukraine rapidly capturing certain major population centers near the current front line:
In my last post on Russia, from way back on March 20, I gave estimated probabilities for Ukraine outcomes.
Here are the scenarios still in the running, and how I’d adjust them.
1. Bloody slog, Ukrainian “victory”, but Putin still stays in power (
5% → 30%) — Ukraine pushes Russia out of Ukraine — at least everywhere but Crimea.
Metaculus puts a similar outcome at about 30%:
Metaculus is a community of smart people who like to make predictions and rigorously keep track of them. In all these scenarios, I broadly agree with their estimates.
2. Ukrainian “victory” with Russian internal collapse (
5% → 10%) — Putin is removed, and Russian gains reverted.
Prediction markets now put his removal at about 10%.
3. Bloody slog, “draw” (
20% → 60%) — Russia contents itself with holding some parts of Ukraine’s south and east, and calls it a win.
Metaculus puts a related outcome around 50%:
4. Bloody slog, Russian “victory” (
5% → ~0%) — Russia establishes either direct or puppet control over all of Ukraine (at least Kyiv plus all of Ukraine that borders Russia.) Metaculus also puts related outcomes at nearly 0%.
It’s still very unclear whether Ukraine will win outright, or ultimately lose some territory while also giving Russia a massive black eye.
It’s nearly a coin toss.
At any rate, Ukraine’s resistance has surprised just about everyone, including me, with its effectiveness.
The latest data on flights is also a bad sign for Russia’s morale. There may be no shortage of Russians ready to support the war with words, but there certainly is a shortage of Russians ready to die for an invasion of Ukraine.
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