Tempers fray far from frontline as Ukraine seeks new influx of troops

Volodymyr Zelenskiy highlights need for ‘justice’ in drive to replenish military ranks

As Ukraine’s outnumbered and outgunned soldiers endure relentless Russian attacks in the eastern Donbas area, more than 1,000km to the west near the country’s borders with the European Union, police officers and border guards face very different problems.

One night this month, two white delivery vans were stopped near the border with Hungary. The drivers were local men from the Zakarpattia region, but in the cargo bays behind them were “38 passengers of military call-up age” from 11 provinces across Ukraine.

“This is the biggest group of border violators detained during the full-scale war,” said the border agency, which handed the men over to the police to be charged with attempting to leave Ukraine illegally. “For their services, the organisers of this illegal transfer planned to win the jackpot, taking $4,500-$8,500 (about €4,000-€8,000) from their clients.”

Even the lower sum is equivalent to about 10 months’ average pay in Ukraine, but many people will hand over a lot of money and even risk arrest to escape conscription, as Kyiv prepares to draft potentially hundreds of thousands more soldiers into its army as the country enters a third year of full-scale war against Russia’s bigger and still-growing military.


Two days earlier in Kosmach, a village of some 6,000 people near the Ukraine-Romania frontier, scores of angry residents had blocked a road after a post in an online chat group claimed falsely that conscription officers were coming to take more men for the army.

A woman who drove through Kosmach that day published video of the crowd stopping her car and reaching in through a window to hit her and grab her hair, allegedly injuring her and her young daughter, while accusing her of being a “spotter” looking for men liable for military service.

“They were locals. There were lots of women there… For the leaders of the community, this is a real shock. We have never had such sentiments here before,” said village head Dmytro Mokhnachuk.

He estimated that about 100 men living in or born in Kosmach had fought in the army over the last two years, and that about 60 were now at the front while six had been killed.

Locals told Ukrainian media they were angry that conscription officers had tried to draft men who were legally exempt from serving due to physical problems or because they had three or more children, and at a subsequent village meeting they said they had sacrificed enough for the war and would not allow any more of their men be mobilised.

Vladimir Putin benefits as the West's support for Ukraine wavers

Listen | 23:23

The incidents at the border and in tiny Kosmach show in microcosm some of the problems facing Ukraine, as it tries to replenish military ranks that have lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers to death and injury since Russia’s full invasion in February 2022.

Ukraine had more volunteer fighters than it could arm when the war began, and the many loopholes and lax implementation of mobilisation rules meant few people ended up in the army against their will. That flow of eager soldiers has now run dry, however.

If Ukraine lived on anger and adrenaline early in the war, and was buoyed a year ago by the liberation of Kharkiv region and much of Kherson province, and hopes for a spring counteroffensive, then now it feels like a more sombre place. The counteroffensive failed, bloody battles for Bakhmut, Kupiansk, Avdiivka and elsewhere have drained resources and morale, and political fighting in Washington has halted arms deliveries from the US.

A BBC investigation last November found that some 20,000 men had fled the country illegally, while a similar number had been caught in the process – sometimes swimming across rivers and trekking by night through hills and forests into EU states – since Ukraine introduced martial law and banned most men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving.

Many others have bribed officials and doctors for exemptions from army service on false grounds, whether feigned medical conditions, invented university courses or fictitious children or other relatives who supposedly rely on their care.

Ukraine’s former top military commander, Valery Zaluzhnyi, said the army needed 450,000-500,000 new soldiers to allow it to repel attacks from Russia’s bigger military and then launch another counteroffensive.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was not convinced of the need to mobilise so many more civilians, and disagreement on the issue may have led to him replacing Zaluzhnyi this month with Oleksandr Syrskyi, erstwhile chief of Ukraine’s ground forces.

“The Ukrainian defence forces are now almost a million people,” Zelenskiy said when appointing Syrskyi. “As of today, the majority of them have not felt the frontline in the same way as the minority who are... actually fighting. This means that we need a different approach to rotations, in particular.”

Changing the way combat duties are shared will not solve all of Ukraine’s personnel problems, however, so parliamentary deputies are working up a new mobilisation law to boost army numbers, and seeking to protect the economy and tax base needed to pay and equip them, and prevent the wealthy and well-connected from abusing the system at the expense of the poor.

A Bill that passed a first reading in parliament this month includes provisions to lower the mobilisation age to 25 from 27, to allow draft notices to be delivered online, to give courts the power to freeze the bank accounts of draft-dodgers, and to limit compulsory continual military service to a maximum of three years.

Under the Bill, the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men of mobilisation age who are now abroad would be obliged to update their military registration details – though there are no plans to summon them home to serve.

“We would like those who left the country illegally, of mobilisation age, to be here in Ukraine. Once again, the issue is not that we need every one of those men on the front lines – we have a large army – but about justice,” Zelenskiy said recently.

“Some people left and didn’t return. They didn’t return to their work. That’s their right. But if they are citizens of Ukraine, they should pay taxes – preferably in Ukraine. Because these funds are passed on to our military, to our soldiers who protect us. And they protect not only Ukraine.”

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily - Find the latest episode here