Bribes and hiding at home: the Ukrainian men trying to avoid conscription

Bribes and hiding at home: the Ukrainian men trying to avoid conscription

15 Aug 2023 ( The Guardian )

At the last military checkpoint before he exited Ukraine in April, a 39-year-old man from Odesa handed over papers showing he had a serious spinal injury, thus exempting him from military service and from the ban on adult men leaving the country.

“One of the soldiers said, ‘That hospital really likes this diagnosis, huh?’” recalled the man. “I could see they knew exactly what was going on, and it wasn’t the first time. But they were powerless to do anything, so waved me through,” he said.

The man, who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter, admitted that he had paid a $5,000 bribe to escape a potential draft into the Ukrainian army and service on the front lines in the war with Russia.

“I knew there was no way I would be able to sit in a trench, so I took my savings and contacted a ‘fixer’. Everyone knows where to find them. I paid in cash, they sent me to a hospital to do a spinal MRI; the hospital gave me a medical report claiming I had a major spinal defect, and with that I could get papers allowing me to leave the country. I had the feeling that, at every stage of the way, people knew what was happening and were getting a cut,” said the man.

The whole process took two weeks; the man was able to leave Ukraine and now lives elsewhere in Europe.

It is believed that tens of thousands of Ukrainian men have left the country illegally since the full-scale war with Russia started last February, many by paying bribes. On Friday, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, fired every regional military recruitment head in the country, citing endemic corruption in the apparatus.

“This system should be run by people who know exactly what war is and why cynicism and bribery during war is treason,” he said in a video address.

Odesa has emerged as a particular hotspot for draft evasion schemes, with a recruitment official arrested after he was found to have $5m in savings and a lavish property in Spain. But across Ukraine, there are reports of corrupt officials willing to take bribes from people eager to buy their way out of the draft. There are more than 100 other criminal proceedings against enlistment officials.

“The cynicism is the same everywhere,” Zelenskiy said on Friday. “Illicit enrichment, legalisation of illegally obtained funds, unlawful benefit, illegal transfer of persons liable for military service across the border.”

While the corruption scandal has made headlines, it hints at an even more troubling story for Ukraine as the country approaches the 18-month mark since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion.

In the first weeks after the invasion, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians volunteered to serve at the front in an explosion of patriotism that helped keep the country independent and fight off the initial attack.

More than a year later, however, many of those initial recruits are now dead, wounded or simply exhausted, and the army needs new recruits to fill the ranks. By now, most of those who want to fight have already signed up, leaving the military to recruit among a much more reluctant pool of men.

Fathers of more than three children, people with disabilities and those working in strategically important jobs are exempt from the draft, but everyone else is expected to join up if called. Crews of mobilisation officers roam the streets and sometimes go door to door to hand out notices. Viral videos show officers bundling men into vans to deposit them at enlistment offices.

Some Ukrainian men say they would not relish receiving mobilisation papers, but would accept it if called, as a part of life in a country at war. But others are desperate to avoid receiving draft papers, and not everyone can afford a $5,000 (£3,945) bribe.

In Odesa, like in most Ukrainian cities, a Telegram chat group serves as a forum for people to share anonymised data about where recruitment officers, known informally as “olives” due to the colour of their uniforms, can be found on any given day. The group has more than 30,000 members.

Every few minutes, a new tipoff drops: “Pishonivska Street 37. The olives have arrived”. “There’s a bus of olives outside the market; six olives walking around inside handing out papers.”

Other people simply stay at home. A factory owner in eastern Ukraine said the threat of being grabbed by conscription officers on the morning commute meant some workers were too scared to go to work.

He said: “I met a guy who told me he was taken from the street and within a week his unit was starting to attack a village near Bakhmut. And he told me ‘What the fuck – it is the first time I picked up a rifle and after a week I go to attack this village’. He was shot twice, once in the arm and once in the back.”

Mobilised recruits receive several weeks of training before being sent to the front. Many are sent to Britain for brief courses in the essentials of frontline combat, although the training often appears to be rudimentary.

In Lviv, one man who was served with mobilisation papers outside a supermarket in the city said he was conscripted, sent to Britain for training, dispatched to the frontline and then wounded all within a two-month time span.

The stakes have left many people reluctant to comply with mobilisation calls, and those who receive the initial set of papers often lock themselves away to avoid being dragged to the recruitment office.

“There are two categories of people – one is already in the army and the other is too scared to go outside so as not to be conscripted, and no salary will make them leave their houses,” said the factory owner.

One young woman, who like most people when speaking about mobilisation requested to remain anonymous, recalled a scene in Kyiv earlier in the summer at a nightclub in the capital.

A few minutes after 10pm, when bars and clubs are required by law to close during wartime, the club was raided by armed men in uniform, who told the women to leave. They then handed all the men conscription notices.

“My husband has an important job for his company so he has an exemption, but my visiting friend did not, and he was terrified. He has gone back to his small town and has been sitting at home, scared to go out, ever since,” the woman said.

Many Ukrainians who have been serving since the start of the war see avoiding the draft as nothing short of treasonous. The country’s political leadership said it recognised the mobilisation process was difficult, and wants to avoid excess zeal in recruitment, but said Ukraine had little choice but to continue conscription if the army is to stand up to Russia, which has mobilised hundreds of thousands of men since the start of the war.

“Of course it’s hard to expect people to be positive about mobilisation,” admitted Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, in a recent interview in Kyiv.

“The people who went first were those who had this internal call, who were the most patriotic, but they are there for 17 months and we need rotation. Of course it’s scary, it could mean death or disability. It’s the 21st century, you finished university, you were trying to get a job, and now you have to take a gun and defend your home. But the president is trying to talk to society, to explain what is at stake,” he said.