NewsIllegal escapes and fake docs: Ukraine's quiet conscription crisis

Illegal escapes and fake docs: Ukraine's quiet conscription crisis

Officially, although the mobilisation law has only been in effect for less than two months, Ukraine is able to field 10 new brigades. It is difficult to definitively assess whether this is actually the case.
Officially, although the mobilisation law has only been in effect for less than two months, Ukraine is able to field 10 new brigades. It is difficult to definitively assess whether this is actually the case.
Images source: © Getty Images | 2024 Anadolu

6 July 2024 20:49

"This information is classified," said Ihor Klymenko, head of Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs, dismissing discussions about the number of conscripts who fled the country since the war began. This is problematic for an army desperately in need of recruits; for dishonest officials, it represents an opportunity for profit.

The border guard monitors the Tisza using trail cameras and vehicles with optoelectronic heads in the forests and drones, planes, and helicopters in the air. For a 39-mile stretch, the Tisza river marks the border between Ukraine and Romania. The primary goal is to make illegal border crossings more difficult.

Conscripts who wish to avoid being drafted into the army choose this area, although it is not the safest. They escape on inflatables, mattresses, and even by swimming. Some perish - border guards from both countries have already retrieved over 30 bodies.

Others attempt to cross into Hungary or Moldova, but even there, the green border is dangerous. In March, on the shores of the Turunchuk River - a border river with Moldova - a resident of Odessa was found in a state of severe hypothermia. In the same month, border guards saved the lives of three young men from Zhytomyr Oblast who, while making their way to Hungary, got lost in the Mukachevo region. They were soaked, frozen, and completely unprepared for a mountain crossing.

A safer option is to try and leave hidden through a border crossing. However, the risk of being caught is higher - in a truck heading to Hungary that was supposed to be carrying grain, 41 escapees were discovered.

It is impossible to determine how many Ukrainians have illegally left the country since the start of the war. The only seemingly certain number is 22,000 who have been arrested for attempting illegal border crossings or possessing forged documents permitting departure from Ukraine. The actual scale is unknown because Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs considers this classified data. In Romania alone, the official number provided by the Border Guard is 11,000 people.

The law that frightened conscripts

At the end of last year, Volodymyr Zelensky announced that, due to the approaching Russian counteroffensive, the army had asked him to mobilise 450-500,000 conscripts. Meanwhile, the immediate need was for 150,000 new soldiers.

In mid-May, new mobilisation regulations began to apply in Ukraine. The law replaced universal conscription with a five-month training period for all men fit for military service. This applies especially to those aged 18-25. Until they reach the age of 25, they will not be mobilised into frontline units but will undergo cyclical training.

The Ministry of Defence of Ukraine also announced that conscripts abroad should return and report to the territorial recruitment centre to update their military registration data.

It was announced that if someone does not report for registration, they might later have trouble obtaining documents or be deprived of consular services, which could significantly complicate their stay abroad. There may also be problems finding work upon their return to Ukraine or continuing their education.

"If these people think that someone far away on the front line is fighting and giving their life for this country, and someone else can just sit abroad while receiving state services, that’s not how it works," wrote Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on the platform "X".

A fortune for fake certificates

Ukraine has started fighting those who help conscripts dodge frontline service. After illegal departures from the country, the second most common method of avoiding the army is falsifying medical documentation and being listed in occupations crucial for defence. This lucrative business continues unabated.

The prelude to the current intensified action against corruption was still in 2023. Officers of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine primarily checked logistics centres and Territorial Draft Centres. The result of the inspections was the dismissal of all regional commissioners in Ukraine on corruption charges.

The real fight began in early 2024. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) revealed that since April 2022, a judge from the District Court in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi had been enabling conscripts to leave the country based on fake certificates. For $3,500, the judge issued a document stating that the conscripts had children residing abroad and that the conscript was their sole breadwinner. One thousand such certificates were issued.

Now officers have moved forward. They've launched a hotline where cases of avoiding military service can be reported. This is how the head of a village in Ternopil Oblast was caught - he falsified letters justifying the need to direct conscripts to transport humanitarian goods supposedly for the needs of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This service cost $12,000.

A real gang was busted in Kyiv. The director of one hospital, the head of the endocrinology department, a nurse from that hospital, and a surgeon from the State Institute of Cardiology of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine were all arrested. The prosecutor's office found that they acted together and in concert, so they were also charged with operating as part of an organised criminal group. They all face up to 15 years in prison. Over 20 escapees used their services, paying between $3,000 and $5,000 for certificates of poor health.

Freedom for fighting

Although the mobilisation law has been in force for less than two months, Ukraine can field 10 new brigades [brigades have 3,500-4,000 soldiers each - ed.]. Is this the case? It’s hard to say definitively - news has just emerged that prisoners convicted of lighter crimes are now serving in the army. The office of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General stated that over 3,000 out of 27,000 eligible prisoners have utilised the "freedom for fighting" programme. Enlisting prisoners may indicate that conscription has not gone as Kyiv had hoped.

Related content