Swathes of Ukrainian men are finding they've got better stuff to do with their lives than fight a war between Kiev and Donbass
This article originally appeared at Sputnik
At beginning of the year, Ukrainian authorities announced an ambitious plan to mobilize nearly 104,000 men aged 20-60 to continue Kiev’s so-called "anti-terrorist campaign" in the country’s east.
The campaign, meant to be carried out in three waves, between late January and June, has been reported to have recruited roughly 45,000 personnel so far. However, as many Russian, Ukrainian, and even Western observers now recognize, the mobilization machine is running out of steam, as large numbers of men and their families do anything they can to avoid the senseless and bloody civil conflict in the east. Sputnik has collected just a few of the reason why mobilization is failing in Ukraine.
Reason #1: Pseudo-Patriotism in the West Doesn't Translate to Warm Bodies on the Battlefield in the East
In an invective-filled Facebook post late last month which soon caught the attention of Ukrainian and Russian media, Poroshenko advisor Yuri Biryukov boiled with anger over the high rates of draft-dodging in Western Ukraine.
Citing high desertion rates in the country’s Western-most regions, Biryukov noted that the type of pseudo-patriot that screams at the top of his lungs about his patriotism but refuses to join the fight "is a cowardly bastard –tail between his legs, hiding from the commissar, changing his phone number, gathering his belongings and running to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia or Poland."
And Biryukov really does have a lot to be angry about, as officials have reported about Western regions such as Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil and Zakarpattia seeing draft-dodging rates of between 40-60 percent, while Ukrainian media commented on the disappearance of the draft-eligible populations of entire villages and districts practically overnight, men fleeing to other regions, to Europe and into Russia.
Biryukov was outraged to find that even local officials are complicit in the affair, noting that authorities in several regions have been caught refusing to distribute draft notices or tipping off residents ahead of recruitment officials' arrival.
Naturally, conscription offices in the center and east of the country don't have it any easier, with up to 50 percent desertion rates reported in some regions. Then again, many people in these regions never supported the military operation in the first place.
Anger toward the vanishing patriots has quickly spread throughout Ukrainian civil society, particularly among its ever-growing anti-war segment. Liva.ua commentator, Sergei Kirichuk, noted in a recent op-ed that "the professional patriots, who continue to incite hatred and war far from the front, do not join the army." And anger has been growing steadily toward war-hungry elites as well, with Ukrainian social media launching campaigns featuring the so-called "Elusive Battalion," listing the names and photographs of the children of high ranking officials, parliamentarians, and businessmen who are so quick to send the children of others to war, while their own hide in Kiev or abroad.
Ukrainian media reports are filled with reports of skyrocketing numbers of conscientious objectors, draftees refusing to serve based on their newly-found religious convictions, and of exploding rates of bribery of conscription officials and medical commissions to get out of service.
Reason #2: Anti-War Voices in Ukrainian Society Are Growing Increasingly Louder
Earlier this month, Western Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba was arrested on charges of treason and espionage after he posted a YouTube video challenging the government’s call for mobilization and asking others to do the same. The journalist had defiantly stated that he would rather "sit in jail for two to five years than join in the civil war in the east, to kill my Ukrainian brothers in the east." He now faces up to 15 years in jail. Kotsaba is one of nearly two dozen other "active critics of mobilization" detained by Ukrainian security forces for online "anti-Ukrainian activities," for the crime of anti-mobilization agitation. They join the nearly 7,000 Ukrainian men who now face criminal charges for avoiding military service.
Kotsaba’s sentiment is shared by many of the country’s draft-evaders, who note that while they remain patriots of their country ready to defend it from external aggression, they are not prepared to fight against their fellow countrymen in the east. Ukrainian football superstars Alexandr Zavarov and Yuri Sivukha are among the latest in a series of high-profile conscientious objectors who would rather face jail time than join in the fratricidal war. Zavarov, hailing from the now rebel-occupied Luhansk, noted that "I will never wage war in the city, where my family and my children live and where my parents are buried."
Along with men 'voting with their feet,' Ukrainian women –the wives and mothers of draft-eligible men, have been staging ever-louder protests in communities all across the country. This has ranged from small gatherings in town squares protesting conscription to demonstrations against officials verging on riots. And it is occurring nationwide, from Volhynya in the West to Odessa in the south to Kiev-controlled areas of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian political analyst Vladimir Kornilov recently told Radio Sputnik he believes that eventually, "these sporadic protests, which now happen in villages and towns, will eventually grow in size and get more organized," as "no one wants to send their children to war."
Reason #3: Ukrainians Recognize the War’s True, Terrible Costs
What began last April as a military operation, which Kiev authorities had promised would be over in a matter of a few weeks, has since turned into a bloody, drawn out meat grinder, claiming the lives of thousands of combatants and civilians. While President Poroshenko has recently estimated the deaths of 1,200 combatants and 5,400 civilians, other sources propose that the Ukrainian president’s estimates are severely understated. In late January, hacker group CyberBerkut published a grisly report based on classified Defense Ministry figures stating that 1,100 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in combat over the course of two weeks’ of combat alone. Then, earlier this month, German intelligence revealed estimates that the conflict may have claimed the lives of up to 50,000 people. Sporadic reporting on the woeful state of the Ukrainian military and the horrendous casualties suffered by a poorly trained and equipped Ukrainian army suffering an ineffective and corrupted command structure have led to many citizens asking what sort of government would force its young people to go and fight without providing them with even the most basic supplies. As the caskets of young men continue to arrive in cities, towns and villages across the country, more and more Ukrainians are becoming disillusioned with Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation." Those who have already suffered the loss of loved ones have been reported to be among the most active in trying to send their men abroad.
Reason #4: Russia Remains Unwilling to Close the Door on Ukrainian Refugees
Earlier this month, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev noted that among the Ukrainian citizens and refugees presently residing in Russia, there are over 1.27 million men of draft age, many of them arriving within the last months with the express purpose of dodging the draft. Patrushev added that Russia has been granting large numbers of Ukrainian nationals refugee status, and noted that even while border regions have had some difficulties absorbing the large numbers, the country has no plans to close the border. President Putin had earlier sympathized with Ukrainian men escaping to Russia to avoid the draft, noting that “they are absolutely right because they are simply being sent under bullets like cannon fodder.”
Russia has provided Ukrainian draft evaders with their largest safe-haven by far. As paradoxical as it may seem, even many Western Ukrainians are heading for Russia in search of a safe-haven and work, with countries of the EU often snubbing refugees and job-hunters, even despite the present Ukrainian leadership’s much-touted hopes for future integration into that organization.
The Results: Kiev’s Attempts at Using the Carrot Are Being Replaced by the Stick
As Kiev's calls to patriotically defend the country against "Russian-backed separatists" gradually ran out of steam over the previous waves of mobilization, Kiev has been forced to turn to repressive measures, some of which have now been condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International and even the UN. As Ukrainian daily newspaper Korrespondent explained, while 20 percent of those called up for the first wave of conscription last spring showed up at recruitment centers voluntarily, by the second wave that number had dropped to 10 percent. For January's mobilization, only 6 percent of those receiving a military ticket turned up voluntarily. Since then, commissars have fanned out across the country, searching for young men in factories, farms and offices. Moreover, as witnesses now located abroad have reported, conscription officers have now begun abducting young men evading the draft, taking them off the streets, from stores and from public transport straight to conscription centers. Ultimately, as Kirchuk noted, Kiev faces a dire situation where "the flow of volunteers from among the professional military has almost dried up; those who wanted to go have already signed up."
Ukraine's parliament has passed a law threatening 2 to 5 years prison time for draft evaders, and the president has even warned invoking martial law across the country if necessary in order to support mobilization efforts. Regions across the country have already announced initiatives to prevent draft-eligible men from leaving their home regions without military commissars' permission, something the UN has condemned, noting that it would "negatively affect the free movement of Ukrainian men, spur corruption and human smuggling."
Ultimately, Kiev's increasing desperation in the effort to feed new meat into the grinder in eastern Ukraine is demonstrated by its willingness to use ever-more aggressive and draconian laws to get what they want, from locking up anti-war agitators to launching patrols to a round up draft-dodgers in the streets, to harsh punishments handed out to those found guilty of deserters. Hopefully, the recent ceasefire agreement will hold, and Kiev can come to a peaceable arrangement with the eastern rebel territories. If not, sooner or later, the wheels of Ukraine's military machine are going to come off.