‘I love my country, but I can’t kill’: Ukrainian men evading conscription

Anton* was on his way to work as a civilian volunteer in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv 10 days ago. Several men stopped him. They asked: “Hi, who are you?” And: “Can you show me your documents please?” One of the officers produced a tablet and scrolled down a list. He found Anton’s name. A single word was written next to it in red capital letters: ukhyliant, or draft dodger. The men took him to the nearest conscription office.

That morning, Anton and his colleague Serhii were due to drive a truck full of humanitarian aid to a frontline zone. The two men – aged 32 and 31 – had been checked twice before, once outside a metro station, and on a second occasion while waiting for a tram. They received pieces of paper. The first was a polite request to register details. The second an official summons to report to a recruiting centre as soon as possible.

More than two years into Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s armed forces are short of soldiers. Russian troops in February captured the city of Avdiivka and in recent weeks they have been advancing further in the east of the country, besieging the town of Chasiv Yar. Ukrainian commanders acknowledge Moscow has more troops, but say the decisive factor is its superior artillery, as well as war planes, used to pound defences.

Soldiers of the 25th storm battalion of the 47th brigade at their base near Avdiivka. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Nevertheless, the army is trying to find new people to replace those who have been killed or injured and to relieve exhausted soldiers propping up the frontline. In spring 2022 volunteers queued to joined up, but with the war stretching on indefinitely, there are few eager recruits.

Measures allowing the military to call up more soldiers and to tighten punishment for evasion were approved by Volodymyr Zelenskiy in April. The mobilisation age was reduced from 27 to 25 and, from 18 May, draft evaders can lose their driving licence and have their bank accounts frozen and property seized.

The government has also said it is withdrawing consular services from Ukrainian men living abroad in countries such as Poland and Lithuania. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, admitted that few were likely to come home but he said it was a symbolic move as “guys in the trenches are very tired” while their counterparts in the rest of Europe were “sitting in restaurants”.

With draft officers roaming the streets of Ukrainian towns and cities, some men of conscription age are hiding. Telegram channels have sprung up where users can report sightings of state representatives in order to avoid them. Posts are written in a simple meteorological code. The officers are dubbed “clouds” or “rain”. A typical exchange goes: “What is the weather like at Defenders of Ukraine metro station?” Answer: “Three clouds have covered a young guy.”

At the Kharkiv conscription centre, meanwhile, Anton explained he was a volunteer doing useful NGO work. The military official interviewing him was unimpressed. He told Anton he had to appear within three days before a medical commission, which would assess whether he was fit to join the army. If he didn’t turn up he faced a 5,100 hryvnia (£100) fine. “There was hate in his eyes. He was a Dalek. He emphasised Ukraine has been fighting Russia since 2014,” Anton’s friend Serhii said.

The official said that if Anton didn’t want to serve, he could swim across the Tisa river to Romania, one of several routes used by draft evaders. Or he could “tunnel” to the Russian city of Belgorod.

“It was a joke but not a joke,” Serhii said. Instead, Anton vanished. He moved to a village. Now he works remotely. “I love my country. But I can’t kill anyone and I don’t want to die,” Serhii said. He added: “Everyone is tired of war. And of this government. There’s an attitude of: ‘Go fuck yourself.’”

Ukrainian soldiers, returning from the southern frontline, in Izium. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Oleksandr – a 36-year-old IT manager – said he rarely went out. He avoided public transport, travelling only by car. He moved to a wealthy neighbourhood of Kyiv because draft officers preferred to operate in poorer districts, where it was easier to catch evaders, he said.

Some of the apartment owners in his block were members of parliament. “The military don’t visit here. Our compound is an island of survival. To be poor in Ukraine is to be dead,” said Oleksandr’s wife, Nastia.

Nastia said she worried about her husband and suffered from panic attacks. “We’ve been married for 12 years. We are one organism. If he dies I will die too. Maybe I will kill myself,” she said.

The couple paid taxes, were “100% Ukrainian” and bought a prosthesis for a soldier who lost a leg. But they believed Ukraine should negotiate with Russia, even though Putin was a “madman”, they said. “I feel a slave. You have one life. If it’s a choice between life and flag I choose life,” Oleksandr said.

In October 2023 one of their friends, Myroslav, fled Ukraine on foot. He bought a map for $500 (£400), paying on a crypto site, and trekked for 24 hours to Hungary, across fields and through a forest.

Myroslav said he only took with him a small backpack. At one point he spotted a patrol and lay down in the grass for 40 minutes. He crawled through a hole in a border fence. Then he went to a Hungarian police station. Myroslav is now in Warsaw. “I didn’t want to fight. I’m afraid to die,” he said.

Others pay local smugglers to show them the route. The going rate is $5,000 to $15,000 per person. Another option is to pay a bribe to obtain a medical exemption certificate and to exit via normal channels.

About half of those who try to escape – 40,000 people, up to summer 2023 – get caught. Some drown. On Saturday the state border service said its guards found the bodies of two men who tried to swim across the Tisa river.

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Fedir Venislavskyi says Kyiv needs more soldiers to fight Russia, but adds: ‘It’s not a huge issue. Russia exaggerates it for propaganda.’ Photograph: Artem Mazhulin/The Guardian

Fedir Venislavskyi, a deputy and member of the national security committee, said the number of would-be escapers was smaller than in 2022, when 6 million refugees left.

“We have a problem with conscription. But it’s not huge and it should not be exaggerated,” he said. “Russia is trying to blow up the issue for propaganda reasons.” A “few dozens” of men tried to cross illegally, he acknowledged. “People are afraid. Fear makes them do stupid things.”

Venislavskyi said the government had no easy options. Moscow has 470,000 to 500,000 troops fighting at the frontline and was seeking to mobilise another 500,000. It offered a $7,000 sign-on fee to new recruits: a fortune for men from deprived areas, he said.

Ukraine had to respond by boosting its reserves “by a few hundred thousand”. A professor of constitutional law, Venislavskyi fought Russia in 2014. He saidonly a handful of colleagues from his university had volunteered so far.

Conscription has radically changed the nature of Ukrainian society. In the capital there appear to be more women on the streets than men, mostly students and older officer workers.

Masha Lavrova, a 24-year-old TikTok producer, said the “number of guys had dropped” off since 2023, when she came back to Ukraine after eight years abroad. She said it was difficult to find suitable matches on dating apps such as Tinder, with so many potential dates serving in the armed forces.

Masha Lavrova, a 24-year-old TikTok producer, says it is hard to find a date because many men her age are fighting on the frontline. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

“When I open Tinder near the frontline I get thousands of likes. My telephone loses charge. In Kyiv it’s different,” she said. “I think many guys are quite depressed. You feel guilty for living. It’s hard to do anything that’s not about survival or Ukraine’s victory.”

She said that some men pretended the war was not happening, with one telling her he didn’t want to “waste his energy”. “It seems a lot of guys with values that align with mine are somewhere else,” she said.

Olha – a 34-year-old living near Kharkiv – said her husband didn’t want to fight because they have two small children and household debts. An IT programmer, he is “at home 24/7”. When he had to see a dentist they researched back routes to get there, including one “through the woods”, she recalled.

“Before 2022 we went to the cinema, holidayed in Spain and travelled. Now we go nowhere. My husband’s brother is in the army. He tells him every time ‘you don’t need this shit’,” she said.

Her husband felt “ashamed” that he was not participating in the war. She explained: “He met a friend who is in the army. They were joking. But I could see he felt uncomfortable that this man went and he didn’t.”

She added: “The problem is now we are in some bubble. Yes, rockets are flying. But in our small town it’s not so bad. That’s why many people are sitting at home and trying to avoid going to the army. Many don’t give a shit. They are living their lives as normal.”

*Some names have been changed

The Guardian