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After two years of war in Ukraine, the difficult mobilization for the front

Photo: Agence France-Presse Un soldat Ukrainien qui monte la garde

Deux ans après le début de l’invasion russe, l’armée ukrainienne peine à recruter de nouveaux combattants. Car les hommes en âge de combattre avouent craindre la violence du front.

“Like all men, I am afraid of going into battle. » With a trembling voice, Vitali, 35, lowers his eyes, looking embarrassed. To remove any ambiguity, he assures that he is patriotic — “Ukraine must win! » — but this taxi driver from kyiv, the capital, is torn between the defense of national interests and the fear of death. “I am old enough to be mobilized by the army to fight. If they call me, I will go. But I'm afraid of what awaits me there. We all have someone close to us who took up arms: those who were mobilized to the front return either dead or missing a leg. »

Vitali bypasses Maidan Square. On Khreschatyk Street, at the foot of the Independence Monument, a cold winter wind shakes the thousands of small Ukrainian flags planted in the ground by passers-by. In the mass of yellow and blue, photos of soldiers who died in combat stand out.

The martyrs of the war against the Russian invader are glorified, Ukraine is still determined to drive the soldiers of Moscow from the smallest piece of Ukrainian land. But the battle is arduous. Today, soldiers are dying to gain a few meters of land in an almost frozen front.

“The front is hell”

“I’m not ready to take up arms,” says Oleg, 38, who runs a café in the center of the capital. In Ukraine, all men aged 27 to 60 are eligible for military mobilization.

“Some of my friends went to the front. Our country is under attack, we must defend it, but I'm scared. The traditional media flaunt the extent of our victories, but we know the reality. The front is hell. And on social networks, we see images of the dead, the injured, families searching for missing soldiers. War is merciless. I am not trained, the authorities should first take those who are ready to fight, like the gendarmes, and then they can call people like me. »

During the first year of the war, pumped up by the shock of the invasion and the victories of their side, the Ukrainians, eager to defend their country, stormed the recruitment centers. But the failure of the 2023 counter-offensive was a severe blow to the morale of the troops. And Ukraine has settled into a war with no prospect of victory in the short or medium term. The fighting is punctuated by deadly battles for control of medium-sized localities, such as Bakhmout in 2022-2023 or Avdiivka today.

Faced with the “human wave” from Russia, which is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Ukraine needs to raise new troops on the front. Volodymyr Zelensky said in December that the army had offered to mobilize up to 500,000 additional people.

At the beginning of February, the Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, voted in first reading for a text requested by the government aimed at simplifying military enlistment measures. It includes the increase in the conscription age from 27 to 25, tougher sanctions for draft dodgers and the possibility of updating documents on the Internet. Soldiers could also request to be demobilized after 36 months of combat, while their service is currently unlimited.

To be adopted, however, the text must still be the subject of parliamentary debates and a vote on second reading, a procedure which can take place over several weeks. President Volodymyr Zelensky will then have to promulgate it.

False exemptions and MMA clubs

To avoid conscription, men left the country with the help of smugglers, defying martial law which prohibits men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the national territory. Some doctors also produce false exemption certificates for a few thousand dollars. Other men – those displaced by war and undeclared workers, among others – are difficult to spot.

To find civilians capable of combat, the authorities recruit, sometimes by force, from MMA clubs (Mixed Martial Arts) or shooting galleries. Training centers are also a breeding ground for potential recruits.

On the eastern bank of the Dnieper, in the Dvrz district, Gennady, dressed in military fatigues, trains the new army recruits to prepare them for combat, but also a handful of civilians anxious to be able to defend themselves in the event of return of Russian troops to the Kiev region: “Twice a week, a few dozen civilians come to train in combat techniques. They are taught to use weapons and move in a hostile environment. » This 34-day training is insufficient to be sent to the front, but the civilians who come to train there are more likely to be detected by the Kiev authorities than the rest of the population, who are ignorant of the handling of weapons .

“In addition to civilians, we also train men who have just been mobilized, and who will soon be sent to the front,” says Gennady. The average age of those mobilized is 43 years old. “Their physical situation is therefore not optimal: it would be better to call 30-year-old men. As for their morale, it has never been so low. Their pay is poor, they have no prospect of return in the short and medium term. In short, they are depressed. »

On the front

It is in this gloomy context that the very popular General Valeri Zalouzhny, whose relations with President Zelensky were strained, was dismissed from his post as head of the armed forces at the beginning of February, then replaced by General Oleksandr Syrsky. Responsible for commanding several battles, including that of Bakhmut, Syrsky was criticized for having sacrificed numerous Ukrainian soldiers.

“I respect Syrsky’s nomination, but it comes in a difficult context. » Not far from the recruitment center, in a residential area, Oleg, 46, fills his van with food and stoves. “I will take them tomorrow to Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast. Every week, I go to the front to deliver equipment to the soldiers. »

A volunteer since the start of the war to help the Ukrainian army, Oleg regularly rubs shoulders with kyiv troops. “Some men have been fighting non-stop for two years. They cannot be demobilized because there is no rotation. Those left behind could take over, but too few are getting involved. With the conflict lasting, if you are mobilized for the army, it is for life; it’s terrible for those on the front. This situation must change, they must have hope of returning home. »

In the premises where he stores donations for soldiers, skeletons of missiles are strewn around. On the walls, alongside the national flag, the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army outlines the space. “We are civilians, we help however we can. But in my opinion, in kyiv, part of the population is too careless: they do not see the danger that our people are in. If the Ukrainians who enjoy life in kyiv did more to help the war effort, we wouldn't be here,” says Oleg, disillusioned.

Beyond the fights

To avoid being sent to the front, some Ukrainians take the lead and join the army for office activities, far from the fighting. Olesia Korzhenevska understood this well: the activist created a school in Podil, the trendy district of kyiv, to raise awareness of the professions of the Ukrainian army. “When Ukrainians think “mobilization,” they immediately imagine the front. But many professions are poorly known, such as teaching, drone manufacturing or intelligence. »

The activist is in contact with the army and recommends recruits interested in military professions. This type of structure is also very successful among Ukrainians, who prefer to engage in a field they have chosen and thus avoid the possibility of being conscripted. “Men are afraid, that’s normal. The army poorly communicates its work opportunities. My idea is to show them that they are not going to die tomorrow if they join the army. »

Because faced with the lasting establishment of war in the country, a general mobilization could soon be announced.

This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir.< International Journalism Fund /i>

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116