I recently passed through the Slovak town of Kosice, located 120 kilometers from the border with Ukraine.

Twice a day, a small train consisting of two oldish carriages runs between Kosice and the Ukrainian town of Mukachevo. It’s usually crowded and almost all the passengers are Ukrainians. This time, to my surprise, the train from Kosice to Transcarpathia departed half-empty, but that wasn’t what surprised me the most.

While waiting for the train on the platform, I noticed a young Ukrainian couple in their mid-30s. The woman was crying and hugging the man. Their conversation seemed nervous.

“He must be returning to Ukraine to go to the military registration and enlistment office and then he will be off to the front,” I thought.

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Since May 18, a new law on mobilization has been in effect in Ukraine, according to which all men of draft age living abroad must return to Ukraine and go to the military registration and enlistment office.

When the train started moving, the scenario about the couple, which I had created in my head, came crashing down. The man remained on the station platform while the woman sat down in the carriage, opposite me, still crying.

I tried to imagine the purpose of her trip. Perhaps she was going to visit relatives. Perhaps the man had asked her to bring some of his documents from Ukraine. One thing seemed clear: the man had somehow managed to leave Ukraine and had no intention of returning to his homeland, at least for now.

Grenade Thrown at Army Recruitment Center in West Ukraine
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Grenade Thrown at Army Recruitment Center in West Ukraine

No one was injured in the incident. The facade and windows of the building were damaged, the regional police service said.

Since the war began about one million Ukrainian men have left the country. Many more left even earlier and have been living outside Ukraine for a long time. The law on mobilization obliges them all to return home, but the vast majority do not intend to do so and that makes them all potential felons.

Interestingly, for a man of conscription age, the act of leaving Ukraine without special permission remains an “administrative infraction,” not a criminal offense, and the punishment is in the form of a fine. Evading conscription, however, is a criminal offense, punishable by a prison sentence.

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If we allow ourselves to imagine a scenario in which the war ended and all the “evaders” decided to return to Ukraine, the country’s judicial system would be completely paralyzed.

For many years, Ukrainian courts have suffered from a catastrophic shortage of judges. Currently, the judicial system lacks almost two and a half thousand judges. There are courts that don’t function at all and others where two judges are trying to do the work of 24.

To date, about 8,000 cases of desertion from the army and more than 10,000 cases of unauthorized “abandonment of the location of military service” have been added to the tens of thousands of criminal cases that are waiting for their day in court.

Eighteen thousand servicemen is the equivalent of two or three divisions – a significant military force. Putting them all in prison would only weaken the front line.

This situation has prompted Ukrainian lawmakers to propose a new bill that allows servicemen who have committed desertion or another offense for the first time to avoid getting a criminal record.

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Instead, they will be given the opportunity to voluntarily return to their military units to continue their service, although a return to post would depend on commanders agreeing to take servicemen back.

This bill would solve two problems at once, freeing the courts of tens of thousands of criminal cases and potentially increasing the number of available soldiers at the front.

However, while the war continues, the problem of evasion of military service remains on the agenda and, indeed, it is becoming more acute.

The borders of Ukraine with Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland are now regularly the scene of clashes between border guards and Ukrainians trying to escape the war. In these increasingly violent skirmishes, people on both sides have been killed and wounded.

Recently, a truck with a tarpaulin-covered trailer and Ministry of Defense license plates crossed the Ukrainian border into Hungary during the night. In the morning, the vehicle was found empty in a Hungarian field. Very soon, near the village of Barabas, 32 Ukrainians who had clandestinely entered the European Union in the truck were detained by Hungarian police.

The vehicle had nothing to do with the Ministry of Defense. It was just painted in military colors and given false license plates. The escape went to plan. Hungary will eventually return the truck, but the men will most likely be granted refugee status. After all, they fled from a country in which a war is raging.

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When these men have settled in Hungary or some other European country, they will gather their wives and children. The wives (provided they have no medical training which makes them liable for Ukrainian military service as well) and the children will be able to leave Ukraine quite legally.

At some point, these families will need to retrieve something from their Ukrainian homes or visit one of their elderly relatives. Then the wife will prepare to go back across the border, and both of them will stand crying on the train station platform. She, because parting in wartime is always painful. He, because of the possibility of never being able to return freely to his native Ukraine.

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