Ukraine needs more soldiers, but few want to go to war

The government in Kyiv and the Armed Forces have activated a plan to call up thousands of men who have avoided enlisting. Those who refuse will face time in prison

Ukrainian soldiers
A group of Ukrainian soldiers on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Thursday, November 30, 2023.ROMAN PILIPEY (AFP)
Cristian Segura

Ukrainians who volunteered to defend their homeland are exhausted, wounded, or dead. And many of those who should be replacing them — after 21 months of war — would prefer not to.

Ukrainian society is facing a defining moment: that of the second great wave of recruitment, in an attempt to stop the Russian invader. The Ukrainian Armed Forces and civil authorities have intensified actions to call up men between the ages of 27 and 60, even threatening prison sentences for those who refuse. The government in Kyiv now has a double challenge ahead of it: confronting the invader with new troops and dealing with the lack of motivation felt by a large part of the population that doesn’t want to go to war.

Kiril Babii is a Ukrainian artillery officer serving in Bakhmut, one of the bloodiest fronts of the war. He’s from Crimea, the peninsula that was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. He had resided in Kharkiv since then. When the Russians began their large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he didn’t hesitate and volunteered to enlist. Like him, there have been almost half-a-million men — and 62,000 women — who have enlisted, especially during the past year. However, on November 20, Babii published a text on Instagram that had a great impact on the internal Ukrainian debate: he announced that, in February 2024, when two years of war have passed, he will leave the army. Babii assumes that he will go to prison for desertion… but he believes that the recruitment system is unfair.

“A month ago, I asked myself a question: ‘What if the war lasts five years, Kiril?’ And I started to cry. It’s two in the morning. I don’t want to be here [on the frontlines] for three more years. I’m mentally exhausted. Rest permits aren’t useful.” This is what Babii wrote… words that other Ukrainian soldiers have repeated to EL PAÍS. “The days of rest, when they arrive (on average, leave is limited to about two weeks annually) aren’t useful for disconnecting. Your brain continues to think about war,” the soldier notes.

Babii’s text hits home for many of his comrades. “It’s wrong that those of us who mobilized voluntarily and defended our country have such poor expectations [for the future]. That’s why I write this — so that there are changes, changes that transform the army from a prison into a well-organized institution for the defense of the country in a long-term war.”

Babii’s protest isn’t unique. This past Friday, on December 1, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy confirmed in a televised address that his government will implement a new system of mobilization, but also one of demobilization, to relieve troops who have been fighting for almost two years.

EL PAÍS visited several cities in the east and west of Ukraine throughout November, from Lviv to Kherson, from Mykolaiv to Dnipro, from Kyiv to Zaporizhzhia. In all of them, the interviews with a dozen young people from different socio-economic backgrounds have ended with the same conclusion: they don’t want to go to war. In Lviv — the city in the country where Ukrainian nationalism is strongest — a hotel receptionist named Stanislav laments that so many people from Eastern Ukraine continue to speak Russian. When asked if he’s ready to enlist, he rejects the idea: “Why so many deaths? To advance [12 miles]? This makes no sense.”

Stanislav is referring to the minimal progress that the Ukrainian Army has made in the great counteroffensive that began this past June on the Zaporizhzhia front. The first three months of the offensive — between June and August 2023 — caused the most casualties among Ukrainian troops. While the Ukrainian military leaders don’t provide data about their human losses, U.S. military sources assured The New York Times in August that the number of wounded soldiers since the beginning of the invasion could be 120,000, with about 70,000 dead. There’s no available data about possible casualties over the last three months.

The majority in Ukraine continues to support the war effort to stop the Russian invasion. This is indicated by surveys, such as the one conducted by Gallup in October of this year, which found that 60% of Ukrainians are committed to the idea of “[continuing] fighting until [they] win the war.” By winning the war, 91% of respondents mean expelling Russian troops from all of Ukrainian territory, according to Gallup. In the same survey published by Gallup in October 2022, the majority in favor of continuing the war was 70%.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces doesn’t disclose the number of people who are being incorporated into the army, nor the number of replacements that are needed. However, military sources on the Zaporizhzhia front told EL PAÍS this past October that about 200,000 new soldiers are required.

The hotel where Stanislav works is located on Svoboda Avenue, in the center of Lviv. On weekends, before the midnight curfew, the bars and liquor stores in the area are full of young people, stocking up to have a party. One day in November, Stanislav witnessed how a military patrol from a recruiting office forcibly took away a group of young people in a van. In the last two months, videos of these occurrences have increased. These videos — recorded by observers on their phones — have circulated on social media. But now, they frequently appear in traditional media, as well as in columns that denounce cases of abuse of power.

The Ukrainian Army has no power to force a citizen to accept enlistment orders. Rather, this falls under the jurisdiction of the civil administration. Recruitment offices can send notices by mail, deliver them in person, on public roads, or by visiting homes. Each person is free to sign the acknowledgment of receipt. If a person repeatedly refuses to appear at the recruitment office — whether to register, to declare their personal situation and the reasons why they shouldn’t be called up, to pass medical examinations, or to enlist — a legal case is opened against them, which can result in a fine, or a prison sentence of between two to five years.

Zelenskiy visits a command post in Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, this past week.
Zelenskiy visits a command post in Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, this past week. AFP

Since this past fall, military patrols have intensified, attempting to recruit civilians on public roads. Oleksiy Danilov — secretary of the National Security and Defense Council — confirmed to The Guardian on November 27 that a new recruitment program will soon be announced. This plan includes the hiring of two large human resources companies, which will identify citizens who can be enlisted more precisely, according to their studies or profession. Danilov claims that this will give new recruits more confidence about their ability to perform military functions in line with their training.

The end of voluntary mobilization

The Ukrainska Pravda newspaper published a report on November 1 indicating that the time of “gentle mobilization” must end. This Ukrainian media outlet interviewed a military chaplain — Andrii Zelinskii — who repudiated the dichotomy between the almost normal life seen in cities far from the frontlines, such as Kyiv, when compared to the combat zones. “In Ukraine today, there’s an alternative reality; an alternative to pain, to wounds, to death, to war. And this is the main threat [when it comes to resisting] the enemy.”

But not all is well in the Ukrainian capital. There’s also anxiety. Rostislav is 28-years-old and, since last September, he always goes out wearing boots, a jacket and a military-style backpack. He’s not a soldier, but he believes that, with this appearance, he won’t be approached on the street by soldiers from the recruitment office.

Irina is a 30-years-old accountant. One day, a guy struck up a conversation with her on Tinder. He lives in the eastern suburbs of Kyiv. She asked to meet at a coffee shop downtown, but he rejected this, admitting that he doesn’t leave his neighborhood, because he doesn’t want to take public transportation and be stopped by a recruitment patrol. The Telegraf media outlet warned, in an article from November 27, that many men limit their movements to avoid being drafted.

Several Ukrainians are thinking the same thing as Oleksandr, a 27-year-old man from Zaporizhzhia. This isn’t his real name — he prefers to remain anonymous. Just 15 miles from the city is the front. Oleksandr suffers from depression because, as he doesn’t have a full-time job, he knows that, sooner or later, he may be called up. Military salaries are high, compared to the Ukrainian average: they range from $800 to $3,000 per month, depending on risk and responsibilities. However, Oleksandr has soldiers in his circle of friends… and they all suggest that he do everything possible to avoid serving.

“I have two great friends. One was assigned to a Special Forces unit and was demobilized two months ago, because his mother is sick and he must take care of her. The first thing he told me is that the army is chaotic and that he doesn’t plan to return. This fall, my other friend paid $5,500 to a guide who walked him through forests for two hours to the Slovak border. Now, he’s out of the country — he didn’t want to go to war.” According to martial law, most Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not permitted to leave the country.

Oleksandr’s cousin is on a wanted list for failing to register with the local military office… a mandatory procedure for all adult men up to the retirement age (60). The army showed up at his mother’s house the last week of November to deliver another request: her son is now hiding in Kyiv. But the message that has affected him the most was shared on Instagram by a good friend of his named Bogdan, who’s a doctor in an infantry platoon of 12 men, all of whom have been discharged due to injury or death.

Bogdan wrote on Instagram that his goal was to write a book to convince others not to enlist. His message has since been deleted and he hasn’t been active on social media for weeks. “I was optimistic in May about the outcome of the war,” Oleksandr explains. “At that time, I would have joined the army, but there’s been no progress. [I would now be fighting] in a war that has no end. It would be like serving a prison sentence for years, without knowing when I will be free again.”

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