By RFE RL
By Aleksander Palikot
(RFE/RL) — For months following Russia’s full-scale invasion, the phrase “volunteered to fight” kept coming up in casual conversations and in the media as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians joined the war effort to resist the unprovoked aggression despite the uncertain future and immense risks.
Eighteen months later, as the field of flags commemorating fallen soldiers on Kyiv’s Independence Square grows wider and wider, the term “draft dodger” is gaining ground and a public outcry over enlistment and the mistreatment of soldiers reached a tipping point.
After a series of scandals sparked by evidence of corruption, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that the senior military recruiters nationwide would be dismissed and promised to alleviate problems faced by soldiers who may endure many more months of fighting as the war drags on and Ukraine’s current counteroffensive makes only limited gains.
But a push for reforms may prove difficult, not least because the resources at Ukraine’s disposal are limited, as is the number of people willing and able to fight. With no end to the war in sight, the shake-up of the system could turn into a decisive stress test for Ukrainian society.
A Spanish Villa
Amid a war that has killed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, a report that a $4.35-million seaside villa in Marbella had been purchased by Yevhen Borysov, the head of the Odesa regional military enlistment office — along with an office in the Spanish resort city and a luxury car — pushed public anger to a point where the government apparently decided it had to act.
Borysov was detained, dismissed from his post, and subjected to a criminal inquiry. Evidence of lavish wartime spending by Borysov was brought to light by journalist Mykhaylo Tkach in an investigative report titled Battalion Spain; Ukraine’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption later stated that he had illegally enriched himself to the tune of 188 million hryvnyas ($5 million).
According to Valeriy Bolhan, the editor in chief of the independent media outlet Intent and an associate at the Center for Public Investigations, an anti-corruption NGO in Odesa, as many as 50,000 people had paid off military recruiters there to avoid conscription or go abroad. “If you multiply that by $5,000 — and that’s an average price to ‘confirm’ unfitness for military service — you get a fortune,” he told RFE/RL.
Some claim the iconic Black Sea port city, which has a reputation for rampant corruption, has turned into a hotspot for draft evasion schemes. But Bolhan asserted that Odesa is not significantly different to other parts of Ukraine, as malpractice was reported across the whole country.
In the wake of that scandal, Zelenskiy announced an inspection of Ukraine’s Territorial Recruitment and Social Support Centres, successors to the post-Soviet system of military commissariats that have struggled with deep-seated corruption for decades. As a result of the inspection, the State Bureau of Investigation reported that 112 criminal proceedings had been opened against recruitment officials, 33 notices of suspicion filed, and 15 indictments submitted to courts.
On August 11, Zelenskiy took a more dramatic step, announcing that the heads of the military recruitment centers in each of Ukraine’s regions would be dismissed. The recruitment system “should be run by people who know exactly what war is and why cynicism and bribery in wartime are treason,” he said, vowing to replace the dismissed officials with soldiers who have been wounded and can no longer fight.
At the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, lines in front of the military recruitment centers were a common sight as Ukrainians rushed to defend their country. Since then, the nation of roughly 40 million has assembled an army of some 700,000 soldiers, plus up to 250,000 servicemen of the National Guard, border guards, and police, according to Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
At the same time, an unknown number of people have bribed military recruiters to avoid compulsory service, while others have gone abroad despite a ban on leaving the country for almost all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60.
In a year and a half of grinding warfare, many of those who volunteered to fight have been killed or wounded. The precise number of Ukrainian casualties is not publicly known, but in an August 18 report, The New York Times cited U.S. officials it did not name as saying close to 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded — far higher than the figures that Kyiv has disclosed.
As the war drags on, men and women in Ukraine are showing less and less enthusiasm about joining the military ranks in private conversations, while the need to provide new recruits for Ukraine’s 1,500-kilometer front line is incessant.
This demand, combined with systemic corruption in the military enlistment system, led to “wild mobilization,” Rostyslav Kravets, an attorney and head of the Ukrainian Independent Foundation Of Lawyers who represents dozens of men claiming to have been illegally summoned or recruited, told RFE/RL.
Since last winter, dozens of videos showing recruiters handing out draft notices in dubious or obviously illegal ways have surfaced online.
Recruiters in Odesa distributed summonses straight out of an ambulance they drove around the city. In Cherkasy, three recruitment-center staffers beat a civilian; one of them kicked him in the face. In Ternopil, a group of women prevented recruiters from roughly detaining a man in the street. In Kyiv, a group of illegal nighttime street racers received notices as a form of punishment — a practice that became widespread for petty-crime or misdemeanor suspects despite criticism from civil society and the military.
As a result, some men across Ukraine have become skittish about leaving their homes and are angered by unpredictability and harsh treatment. Telegram chat groups with anonymized data about recruitment officers’ patrols have sprung up in bigger cities, and anecdotes about men pulled off the streets and into the army have been passed from mouth to mouth. Pro-Russian Telegram channels and Tiktok accounts have magnified such messaging and mixed it with disinformation, seeking to sow fear.
According to Kravets, military recruiters have no right to detain men or forcibly transport them to recruitment centers, and there are no legal grounds to use summonses as punishment. “But recruiters do this all the time to manifest that they are efficient and at the same time simply enrich themselves through corruption,” he said.
Moreover, he said, successive amendments to Ukraine’s general-mobilization legislation have broadened the powers of recruitment centers without providing more control over the process or instruments that would help men who are targeted defend their rights. Initially, summonses could be delivered to home addresses; now they can be issued without geographical restrictions, and more officials are allowed to distribute them.
In theory, the distribution of a draft notice does not mean immediate dispatch to the front. But all men aged 18 to 60 can be called up for military service if they have no legal grounds for postponement or exclusion, such as illness and disability — of the draftee or a dependent — or a specific family situation, such as single parenthood or three or more dependent children.
According to Yulia Zasoba, a lawyer from the human rights advocacy organization Yurydychna Sotnya, men called to the army are often unaware of their rights, and many recruitment centers simply mobilize them without providing relevant information.
Yevhen Havrylchak first volunteered to fight against Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region at the age of 18, in 2017, and has been engaged in warfare on and off since then. After the full-scale invasion, he joined Kyiv’s territorial defense unit and then fought in the Kherson and Donetsk regions. He told RFE/RL that he did not know he had been formally mobilized until a letter arrived at his home. “At that point, I wanted to leave the army, but it was too late,” he said.
Vitaliy, 47, who preferred to have his surname withheld, fearing retribution, was qualified as fit for military service despite having four herniated discs restricting his leg movement. He agreed to join the army after he was promised to be assigned to a position in the rear. After two months of training, he was sent to the front in the Donetsk region.
Almost No Way Out
No matter how exhausted they are, physically or mentally, soldiers cannot leave the army unless the military medical commission states that they are not fit for service anymore. Their commanders may let them go on furlough for up to 30 days a year on family or health grounds. In practice, as a common saying goes, there are two ways out of the army: death or injury.
Last autumn, Havrylchak started to suffer from constant coughing and chest tightness. He was diagnosed with asthma, but the military medical commission has ruled that he can continue military service. He is self-injecting steroids to treat asthma attacks and says he has “accepted” his situation and “will carry on until the end.”
Vitaliy spent three months at the front before he was hit by a grenade unleashed by a Russian drone and suffered several bone injuries, a brain injury, and lost sight in one eye. His family was mistakenly informed that he had deserted and could not find him until volunteers helped them identify the hospital where he was treated.
Zasoba told RFE/RL that a substantial portion of the soldiers’ problems are caused or aggravated by military medical commissions that are incentivized to keep soldiers in the army and are sometimes untransparent. Even if a commission qualifies a soldier as partly unfit, it often takes the commanders months to move them to a less risky position.
One woman who is over 50 and asked that her name be withheld because she fears retribution, spent six years in an administrative job in the army. She said she had a nervous breakdown last summer and was diagnosed with neurological diseases by several civilian doctors. At first, the medical commission dismissed her request to let her demobilize, but it let her go after she presented it with a pile of documents and threatened to bring a lawyer.
“I was released because I am a woman; men are under too much pressure to defend their rights,” she told RFE/RL, adding: “Ukraine’s enormous front demands a huge army and the pace of hostilities means there’s not enough time to train and heal people.”
On August 14, shortly after he vowed to shake up the enlistment system, Zelenskiy visited troops in the Donetsk region and said he discussed the challenges faced by the military with the commanders of brigades and battalions. He said that “a lot of problems arise due to the poor quality of the work of the military medical commissions” and promised to “prepare a solution.”
On the following day, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, who also heads the Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, said that “the road to victory will be long and difficult” as, contrary to hopes expressed by many Ukrainians, the war with Russia will not be over by the end of the year or by next spring.
‘The Decisive Factor’
For now, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are wondering how long they will have to fight, while those who have not yet been mobilized fear they may be called up.
“Ukraine needs to choose between the needs of the military, the needs of the economy, and human rights — one cannot have all,” Kravets told RFE/RL. He said he believes that promises to root out corruption will prove meaningless because they will be most likely limited to personnel changes.
Others are more optimistic. Vladyslav Grezyev, the CEO of Lobby X, a human resources agency that has been active in civil society projects for almost a decade and is now recruiting for some highly specialized positions in the military, told RFE/RL that the military enlistment system has improved since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
“If there is political will, long-term reform is possible, and we need it because we will never outcompete Russia in quantitative terms,” he told RFE/RL.
The agency conducted research showing that roughly half of the men obliged to serve are ready to join the military, but they would like to have more control over the recruitment process and their potential military careers.
“To move forward, we need to make it easier to transfer soldiers between units, introduce a mechanism for demobilization and optimize recruitment for specific roles,” Grezyev said.
According to Mykola Byelyeskov, an analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, personnel policies in the Ukrainian Army are not ideal, but Ukraine’s case is not unique. “A lot of wars started with a mass of volunteers ready to join ranks, but then conscription played its role.”
He said that recruiting specific people for specific roles is important for the morale and cohesion of both the army and society in general, but in the end, the decisive factor for people’s readiness to join the war effort is the chance to come back alive, which ultimately depends on proper training and armament.
“For the past 18 months, the sacrifice of lives compensated for lack of firepower — no wonder people’s enthusiasm ebbed,” he said, echoing statements of Ukraine’s leadership about the slow pace of Western military supplies. “But we are not going to compromise and we will do everything, we will keep fighting and prod allies to sustain our fight. As happened last spring.”
- Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.