By Roger Annis, New Cold War.org, Aug. 12, 2015
Mass resistance by young Ukrainian men against military conscription is a major impediment to continuing a war in eastern Ukraine.
The people of Ukraine are finding new and innovative ways to avoid compulsory military service and the vigilante military recruiters who enforce it. Deepening resistance to the draconian measure is now a significant impediment to the very prosecution of the war.
Battle over public spaces
Recruiters are routinely raiding public spaces to hunt down and grab men of conscription age (20-26) who fail to answer the call to war. They block exits to shopping centers, transit vehicles, parks and other public spaces and then conduct identification checks. Those found to have dodged service or whose call-up dates are approaching are hauled away or given strict instructions of when and where to report for duty.
Vesti.com reports on the new phenomenon by Ukrainians of creating online maps to mark the public places where recruiters commonly hunt. Men and their families use the maps as a guide to public spaces to avoid.
The first map appeared in the city of Dniepropetrovsk, reports Vesti. The phenomenon has quickly spread across the country. The maps are constantly updated. One such project uses Google Maps and calls itself “Hot Dances”.
“Before you go to a local shop, first check whether there is a patrol on your way, otherwise you may soon find yourself in the trenches of Donbass,” reads the instruction accompanying one of the regional maps.
Vesti also reports that people are using online social networks to inform on the locations and activities of the recruiters. It cites several such reports from Dniepetropetrovsk.
“They captured young men at the entrance to the Orbit supermarket near the UMZ machine-building factory,” says one report. “Twice they blocked the exits from the Caravan shopping center,” reports another.
One report has triggered a wave of jokes in Ukraine about the ‘yellow submarine’ being employed by the military. Referring to the famous song by The Beatles of the same name, the joke was sparked by a social network report that announced, “On July 23, they arrived at a local beach on a yellow catamaran and began to hand out military draft call-up notices.”
Mass evasion of compulsory military service
Several months after a neo-conservative regime, allied with extreme-right parties and militias, seized power in Kyiv in February 2014, it launched what it calls an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against regions of the country where militant resistance to its coup erupted. These included the regions of Odessa in the south and Kharkiv and Donbas (Donetsk and Lugansk) in the east.
Crimeans dodged a bullet, so to speak, by seceding from the new, extreme-nationalist Ukraine in early March 2014, before a Kyiv-sponsored civil war could arrive on their territory. Donbas gained precious weeks to organize its defense thanks to its geographical distance from Kyiv and to the fact that the new regime had its hands full in regions closer to Kyiv. The regime created new paramilitary forces from among extreme-right and neo-fascist movements because most of the soldiers of the volunteer Ukrainian army proved unwilling to follow orders to fire upon their fellow citizens.
Among the measures accompanying the ‘ATO’ (as the regime abbreviates the name for its civil war) was the introduction of military conscription. Compulsory military service in Ukraine was abolished in 2013 by President Yanukovych, the same president overthrown in February 2014.
As the example of the online maps cited above shows, resistance to the war or to military conscription is taking very innovative forms.
The most significant opposition is in the form of the tens of thousands, quite likely hundreds of thousands, of men of military age who have quit the country.
Many have gone to Russia. A special program of the Russian immigration service welcomes them and allows them to stay and work in the country. Others have fled to neighbouring countries in eastern Europe or farther afield in western Europe. There, many live quasi-legally as precarious workers.
On June 19, the Ukrainian government and military embarked upon their sixth wave of military conscription since April 2014. A feature article in the July 24 edition of Novoye Vremya (The New Time) magazine reports that the results of the previous conscription drive were bad and results for the newest one will be worse.
Vladimir Kydon, military commissioner for Kyiv, stays up late worrying about the situation, the magazine reports. “The mobilization is difficult,” he admits. “It’s summer, people are on vacation.”
Stanislav Gurak, Deputy Head of the Defense and Security Policy Center think tank in Kyiv, explains to the magazine, “People do not see the point of this war and do not want to risk their lives.”
“Unfortunately, we have very poor motivation. It is frustrating for people—it’s not clear what we are fighting or against whom we are fighting.”
The magazine reports that on average, out of 1,000 conscription notices sent, a few hundred recipients answer the call. Of those, half are typically disqualified for medical reasons.
Because of this, says Novoye Vremya, the draft boards take any zabrivaya [referring to the shaved heads of military conscripts] they can, “even alcoholics”. The solution could be a professional army, but for that, Ukraine would need to pay higher salaries and the government would have to commit to that.
Ukraine is aiming to have a standing army of 250,000 soldiers, says Novoye Vremya, up from 184,000 in 2013. It asked military officials for the results of the fifth conscription drive, conducted in April-May 2015. They replied that “more than 90 per cent” of their recruitment goal was reached. But the magazine says its own research suggests the figure is 70 per cent.
In June, Segodnya news reported that during the fifth drive, only one in 12 recipients who received their conscription notice appeared at the recruitment office. (See footnote below.)
The Novoye Vremya report publishes a map showing the results across all of Ukraine of the recruitment goals that were set for the fifth drive. The article was headlined, ‘It’s the central regions of Ukraine that are sending soldiers to the front.’ Results of 50 per cent or lower were scored in the west, south and center-east of the country. Zakarpattia, Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi regions scored less than half of the set goals, while in Transcarpathia, in the far southwest, it was less than 30 per cent.
Even these figures understate the problem because the goals for these regions were already set lower, proportionately, than the more “patriotic” regions in the center of the country, for example in Kyiv.
Vesti reports on August 3, “Military commissioners recognize that the sixth wave of conscription is faltering.” It reports the conscription service in Kyiv as reporting results of only 23 per cent in the city.
The newspaper also reports very bad results in Cherkassy (center) region and , again, in the west of the country. “In Cherkassy, half of those who could potentially be conscripted are hiding in Belarus while the other half is hiding in Kyiv.”
The sixth conscription drive ends on Aug. 17.
Stanislav Gurak explains that western Ukraine is far away from the war and its inhabitants do not understand why they should die for the Donbas region in the east. As well, he notes, in Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine (the city of the same name is the second largest in Ukraine) and in the south of the country, “pro-Russian sentiments remain strong”.
Vladimir Kydon says the worst problem the military recruiters face is not the people who refuse to show up once their call to service is issued. No, the biggest headache of all is now the young men who are opting to “disappear” from the eyes of the government. They change their address and refuse to inform any branch of government. He says the phenomenon is now universal in large and small urban centers in Ukraine.
Even larger numbers of Ukrainians are fleeing the economic disaster which the civil war policy has deepened in the country.
Ukraine’s total population today is approximately 42 million. That’s down by ten million from 1991, the year that Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union and a proposed, successor country.
There have been several million additional emigrants leaving Ukraine in the most recent years, further testament to the failure, nay disaster, of the economic policies of the new, capitalist elite which came to own and control the capitalist economy of post-Soviet Ukraine.
A 2012 study pegged the number of Ukrainians living abroad at 5.3 million. The majority of those were living in Russia. Several million were living elsewhere in Europe, many as precarious workers.
Living standards for workers in Ukraine prior to 2014 were already significantly lower than in neighbouring countries, leave alone those in western Europe. That gap has increased sharply since the pro-austerity, Euromaidan government came to power in Kyiv last year.
Poland acts as an important “gateway” to western Europe. A report by Reuters in December 2014 explained, “According to Eurostat, 236,700 Ukrainians were granted residency permits by EU states last year, and 171,800 of those permits were granted in Poland, one of the main routes for Ukrainians to travel to western Europe.”
“With the correct documents, a Ukrainian living in the European Union could legally seek work, pay tax, open a bank account and travel home.
“Without the correct documents, migrants in Europe are forced to work around the law. As a result, many spend years apart from their children who benefit from their earnings but not their presence.”
The June 2014 issue (Vol. 3, #1) of Central and Eastern Europe Migration Review was devoted to Ukraine and reported there were as many as 635,000 Ukrainians living legally in Europe. (The introductory essay to that issue of the review is here.)
A new survey commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration shows that eight per cent of Ukrainians—some 3.5 million people–are hoping to leave the country and work abroad. The IOM survey also reports a sharp rise in the proportion of Ukrainians working abroad who are doing so illegally. The proportion has risen from 28 per cent in 2011 to 44 per cent today.
Seeking refuge in Crimea from Ukraine conscription
According to several reports received by New Cold War.org, many Ukrainian men, joined by their spouses in some cases, have taken refuge in the two regions which the Kyiv regime’s ‘ATO’ has failed to conquer—Crimea and Donbas. This is ironic because many of these people are strident, pro-Maidan nationalists who supported the February 2014 coup.
Crimea is a preferred destination over Russia for nationalists to flee for a variety of reasons.
For one, it is relatively easy to flee there. Apart from very lengthy queues, there are no formal barriers to entry to Crimea from Ukraine.
For another, nationalists can console themselves that, according to their myths and beliefs, and according to official Ukrainian government policy, they have not left Ukraine at all. Crimea is considered by them as “Ukrainian” territory. No doubt, many of those fleeing to Crimea also hope that the myth of Crimea as Ukrainian territory will shield from the wrath of their fellow nationalists and the wrath of whatever government is in power when and if they return home.
Thirdly, and this will come as a surprise to those who take Western media propaganda as good coin, pro-Ukrainian nationalists have freedom of expression in Crimea. Here is a part of a report received by New Cold War.org from a correspondent in Ukraine who recently returned from Crimea:
A lot of Maidan nationalists (especially of the middle class) write and post from Thailand, India, Turkey and other countries, calling upon Ukrainians at home to “defend the country” while they live comfortably abroad.
As for the children of our rich businessmen and officials living abroad, there are a lot of jokes circulating on social media and in online media in Ukraine of how these “volunteer battalions” abroad are bravely defending Ukraine from “Russian aggression”… as they write from Paris and London. The brave writers have trouble pointing to evidence of Russian soldiers in their midst, but they soldier on in defending Europe from the Russian threat they say exists.
In Crimea, I met many Ukrainian nationalists who come from western Ukraine and Kyiv. They wear symbolic Ukrainian dress and carry national flags and badges. No one touches them so long as they don’t provoke the local people.
I noted in speaking to some of them that they are angry with Petro Poroshenko. According to them, the “lost territories” (Crimea and Donbas) should be retaken (and the local populations deported to Russia). But not by themselves, they explain, because they say they are the “national elite” that is needed for the future resurrection of Ukraine. (End report citation.)
Mass avoidance of military conscription as well as rising economic emigration are glaring signs that the policies of the right-wing government in power in Kyiv, backed by the governments of the NATO military alliance, are deeply unpopular.
Many Ukrainian citizens are thus acting in their own ways, within their means, to oppose the policies of war and economic austerity of the Kyiv government that are causing so much harm and misery to their fellow citizens in the east of the country. The rise of the nationalist, extreme-right in Ukraine is a threat to all of Europe. Antiwar and anti-austerity Ukrainians deserve a much broader international hearing and solidarity than what they are receiving to date.
Roger Annis is a writer and editor at the website New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. In April of this year, he traveled to the Donetsk People’s Republic on a reporting mission. The above article also appears on Counterpunch, Aug. 12, 2015.
Fifth military conscription drive in Ukraine yields worst results yet, news report on New Cold War.org, June 14, 2015