Ukraine’s military mobilization undermined by rebels

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As the conflict in the east enters a second year, Ukrainian military leaders are trying to learn from the mistakes of the past.

They are trying to be better trained and prepared, because no one knows when the hot weather might push this frozen conflict with pro-Russian separatists into all-out war again. And they are en masse calling on the able-bodied men of Ukraine to transform the army which had only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers before the start of this conflict into a permanent force of a quarter of a million people.

But not everyone listens to the call to arms.

“I decided a long time ago that I would not answer the order,” said Igor, a 25-year-old worker with a non-governmental organization in Kiev, who received a summons in February. “I am not at all interested in participating in such a conflict. They should have acted much more effectively to have fewer victims – I don’t want to end up on the victim list myself. “

The potential soldiers in this article spoke on the condition that their last names not be disclosed due to the risk of penalties if they were to be identified as rebellious.

Igor is, by most measures, a shoo-in for the serve. He is a reserve officer, a radio specialist, and he participated in the 2013-2014 protests on Independence Square in Kiev.

But between a third and half of the more than 6,000 dead in the Ukraine conflict were in the military, and Igor cites systemic issues – such as budding commanders asking for bribes and commanders including the president, who keep Russian affairs going. ties while asking soldiers to die for Ukraine – as reasons why he and many others cannot bring themselves to serve.

“We have some problems in the mobilization”, admitted the military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev, questioned on cases like that of Igor. “That’s why we try to find a balance: on the one hand, the government offers advantages to those who defend the country; on the other hand, very severe penal sanctions are foreseen for rebels.

Basic soldiers can earn up to $ 200 per month, with commanders entitled to much more. But those who evade the call to duty – or miss work, as an estimated 13,000 did – risk fines and years in prison. In a recent case, a journalist who spoke out publicly against the project was charged with treason.

But that’s not enough to scare off many potential recruits from dodging.

“I’d rather stay in jail for three years – and be fed and safe – than serving,” said Andrey, 26, a metal worker who was recruited in March. “After a whole year of this government, we still have to work for two more days to buy a loaf of bread. I don’t want to go and fight for this kind of government.

Andrey is from Slovyansk, a town in eastern Ukraine that suffered heavy assault last summer as troops eventually wrested the town from pro-Russian rebels. But the sympathies of the locals are still mixed, and of the 40 or so people Andrey knows who have recently received draft orders, he says only one actually responds.

“We were fighting for autonomy, for the right to live and work in our own region. When the army arrived, they bombed us for two months in a row, ”Andrey said. “And now am I supposed to go fight for them?” I do not think so.

While the draft dodge penalties are high, the process is fairly straightforward. Notices are sent to the city where one is registered – normally a place of birth or work. But if someone has moved or has a job that isn’t officially registered, it’s easy to hide in plain sight, as Andrey and Igor do.

The military says it has completed about three-quarters of the planned mobilization, now in its fifth wave, with a sixth already proposed. However, response rates vary widely across the country: Igor’s home region, Kharkiv, for example, has the most appalling turnout, with only around 17% of people receiving draft orders responding. . Meanwhile, Lviv in the far west is said to have the highest response rate, with almost full participation.

But even with the majority of conscripts showing up for medical checks, the military is worried. By rotating soldiers off the battlefield, they expect only 15-20% to return voluntarily. New soldiers only receive 26 days of general training, plus a week or two to practice their specialization. Thus, without a constant flow of recruits, they fear that the quality of the soldiers will decline. Only 1 in 8 soldiers volunteer, which is far from sufficient to fill the recruitment gap.

“The more people there are who respond to the mobilization, the more likely we are to send the most prepared, the best motivated and the best soldiers into the ATO zone,” Seleznev said, referring to the combat zone. . “It is not fair that some go and defend the homeland and others hide in the bushes, live their lives and do not defend the country.”

But military experts say the recruiting system suffers the most from mismanagement; the legacy of years of post-Soviet decimation.

“We don’t understand why we are fighting, and the government is not informing people about the objectives of this war,” said Aleksey Arestovich, a Kiev-based military expert, who added that after a year of hostilities , the conflict is still not officially a “war”. Despite the databases the administration builds on soldiers, their skills and defections, Arestovich pointed out that specialists are often ignored in favor of bringing more people to the front line, and families of soldiers. killed often have to fight for the promised benefits.

As the Home Office begins to prosecute no-shows, human rights defenders are also speaking out for fraudsters.

“We cannot win by numbers alone, we have to win by the quality of our soldiers,” said Oleksandra Matviychuk of the Center for Civil Rights in Kiev, arguing that the military should offer more non-combat roles. “I don’t believe that people forced into the army can effectively defend the population.

Maxim, 23, who was recruited in the fall, is a Seventh-day Adventist and therefore a pacifist. But he’s also a competitive athletic fighter, which he says will make a military review board skeptical of his religious beliefs.

More urgent, however, Maxim does not want to go to war because his wife is five months pregnant with their first child. If necessary, he said, he would try to obtain a Romanian passport, which he is entitled to as a resident of a border town.

“You know, I would go serve as something like a medical worker,” Maxim said. “But I don’t have that education. And after the physical exam, I know where they would send me – straight to the infantry. “

Natalie Gryvnyak contributed to this report.

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