As Ukraine continues to bolster its armed forces as it fights against Russia’s full-scale invasion, not everyone eligible for conscription has stuck around to wait to be called up to fight.

A recent report from AFP spoke with several Ukrainian men who had left Ukraine to avoid fighting. Ivan, a 24-year-old who declined to give his last name due to legal concerns, spent $5,000 on a medical certificate that exempted him from service – and allowed him out of Ukraine.

He is not proud of his actions, saying “it all felt wrong and disturbing,” but added that “everyone knows there are opportunities” for avoiding service. 

“Everybody has friends or acquaintances who can offer options,” he said.

Ivan’s plight garners little sympathy and much condemnation for people Kyiv Post spoke to in the capital, especially from those already serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).

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Serhiy, 47, says: “Everyone has to defend their country. If one does and the other does not, I do not see how the country can develop. 

“Even if I were not in the military, the attitude is the same: you must defend your homeland.”

His wife, Maria, agreed, saying: “I believe that everyone should go and do their duty and be a man. 

“If you live here, defend your country.”

Draft evaders and deserters now face up to five and 12 years in prison respectively, according to a law passed in January toughening the punishments. 

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Amid a struggling counteroffensive, Kyiv is cracking down on corruption schemes that allow men to avoid the army. 

All top officials in charge of conscription have been fired in recent weeks, and investigators said they had “uncovered large-scale corruption schemes in almost all regions of the country.”

Maryna, 42, had no sympathy for draft dodgers but says blame also lay with the government for not doing enough to stop them.

“We should have blocked the borders from the very beginning and not let anyone out,” she says. 

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“And now those with money can pay a bribe and leave, and the others should stay. [The government] should have fixed everything on their side first.”

Currently under martial law, men aged between 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country and are subject to conscription barring some exemptions.

Since the beginning of the war, authorities have detained 13,600 people trying to cross the border outside of checkpoints, State Border Guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko told AFP. 

Another 6,100 – most of them fighting-age men – have been caught when attempting to leave with forged documents, Demchenko said.

Most people in Kyiv if not serving themselves, have friends or family that are, a fact that pervades many of the responses in those interviewed.

“I do judge [draft-dodgers],” says 20-year-old Oleksandr. “I have many friends and relatives who are at the front. A citizen must protect their country.”

Katia, 44, echoed the sentiment, saying: “My husband is in the army and I have a son. It's war, and we must be united now more than ever.”

Some however, took a more nuanced view. Andriy, 25, says that men could be helping in other ways in the fight against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

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“Who are we to judge anyone? he says. “I definitely do not. Some people help in other ways: they donate money or develop themselves to donate more. 

“Some people are afraid, I believe. I do not know how I will react if I get a summons.”

AFP also spoke to one man who spent time fighting at the front but later deserted. Ivan Ishchenko volunteered to fight at the start of the full-scale invasion, but after a month of combat he was willing to pay thousands of dollars and risk prison to flee the front. 

“Before I went to war, I thought I was a superhero. But all heroism ends when people see (war) with their own eyes and realise that they don't belong there,” Ishchenko, 30, said. 

“I saw someone being shot near his spleen; the pain was crazy. Then I saw a severed head. It all built up... I didn't want to see anything else.” 

Ishchenko deserted without warning anyone but his mother and fled Ukraine, paying $5,000 for a government-plated car to escort him to a forest on the border with Hungary. 

He then escaped through a hole in the fence and ran. 

“The scariest moment was back then, when I left Ukraine and fled on foot,” he said.

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Despite these experiences, 50-year-old soldier, Artem, says his view of draft dodgers is “very negative.” 

“I'm in the military. I won't say anything else.”

 

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