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Territorial defense forces undergoing combat training in Zakarpattia region. May 31, 2022.

Fit for service Ukraine’s recruitment efforts leave volunteers waiting, while others receive draft notices in unexpected places

Source: Meduza
Territorial defense forces undergoing combat training in Zakarpattia region. May 31, 2022.
Territorial defense forces undergoing combat training in Zakarpattia region. May 31, 2022.
Serhii Hudak / UKRINFORM / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Alexander Rybin. Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

In late July, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine’s military casualties had fallen to about 30 soldiers killed and around 250 injured per day. Ukraine has not made its total military losses public. But as Russia continues to wage all-out war, Kyiv’s mobilization efforts are ongoing. In fact, according to media reports and eyewitness accounts, military recruiters in a number of Ukrainian cities have begun issuing draft notices to men of conscription age in the most unexpected places — from nightclubs and gas stations to beaches and mountain sides. 

Please note. This article was first published in Russian on July 28, 2022. The following translation has been abridged for length and clarity. 

As of late May, Ukraine’s military had more than 700,000 soldiers on active duty to combat the ongoing Russian invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky told Ukrainian journalists in an interview. On the eve of the full-scale war, however, the Armed Forces of Ukraine consisted of 250,000 personnel, including reservists.

After Russia began launching artillery and air strikes on February 24, enlistment offices across Ukraine were flooded with volunteers. The Territorial Defense Forces, officially activated on January 1, 2022, saw 100,000 people join its ranks in less than a month, and more than 700 military formations were created from volunteers. Even those without combat experience or basic military training joined up. More experienced fighters taught them how to shoot, dig trenches, and use heavy weapons, while civilian volunteers provided them with food, medicine, and gear.

There is currently no official data on the number of volunteers who underwent training before being sent to the front line — nor is there publicly available data on how many Ukrainians have volunteered to fight. In March, Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported that one volunteer fighter with the call sign “Tornado” was sent to his first position without any training: more experienced soldiers taught him how to shoot after he arrived. Another man, Oleksandr Kolot, was able to sign a military contract just two weeks after joining the Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv. This, he said, came after his brigade got “a commander with ties to the armed forces.” 

Several sources who underwent military training before being sent to the front told Meduza that the Ukrainian army’s training centers only began operating in April, after the military had liberated Russian-occupied territories in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, as well as a number of other settlements. The Ukrainian authorities did not publicly announce the opening of these training centers. 

After more than five months of all-out war, there are no longer lines to get into Ukrainian enlistment offices. Most of those who wanted to go fight signed contracts long ago, or have registered with enlistment offices and are awaiting mobilization. How long they’ll have to wait depends on the military units, which mobilize personnel based on military specialization. 

That said, people are often forced to wait for mobilization due to bureaucratic errors and red tape. “A lack of necessary paperwork or spots at training centers, as well as bureaucracy, are the most widespread reasons why volunteers are sent home from recruitment centers and asked to wait for a phone call,” a Kharkiv resident named Ihor told Meduza. Ihor began military training in July — 152 days into the all-out war. 

Would-be volunteers aren’t the only ones who are dissatisfied with the work of enlistment offices: those with draft deferment or other exemptions are also having issues. While some are doing everything possible to get to the front, there are also those who don’t want to fight — and are receiving draft notices nonetheless.   

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‘They looted a humanitarian aid warehouse’

Today, men of conscription age can receive draft notices virtually anywhere in Ukraine — and at any time. For example, according to Maksym Ladyko, a former bartender at the Caribbean Club in Kyiv who still keeps up with the party scene, police officers and military recruiters in the capital have been carrying out “raids” on bars and clubs more frequently in recent months.

“Because of the curfew, nightclubs shut their doors at 23:00 and don’t let visitors out until 5:00,” Ladyko explained. “That is, the entertainment industry is working. And that’s where they often come with the draft notices. So now the chances of encountering a military recruiter are the greatest at a techno party or at karaoke.”

Many of Kyiv’s clubs and bars have reopened, despite the war and nightly curfew. Some have adapted by hosting daytime raves, while others hold nighttime events strictly behind closed doors. Those inside the club once curfew begins don’t even step outside to smoke. But although they aren’t actually breaking the law, they can still attract attention from the police — and military recruiters. 

On June 26, Ukraine’s National Police reported that over the course of two nights, law enforcement officers had carried out checks at 420 establishments in the capital, accompanied by the military recruiters who handed out 219 summonses at clubs and bars. 

Police officers and military recruiters also came calling at 31 Nyzhnoiurkivska Street, a popular cultural center and nightlife venue in Kyiv, located on the site of a defunct ribbon factory. After the start of the war, all of the establishments at 31 Nyzhnoiurkivska Street banded together to form “Ribbon Factory,” an NGO that raises funds and purchases humanitarian aid for refugees. 

On June 25, Ribbon Factory held a charity event in the afternoon. According to Ribbon Factory member Pavlo Derhachov, the co-founder of the club Otel’, guests dispersed long before curfew, but employees who couldn’t make it home in time decided to spend the night at the venue.

Later that night, the police showed up. They broke into the premises and arrested the men inside — including Derhachov himself. The officers took the men to a police station, where they were fingerprinted and then handed notices ordering them to report to the enlistment office. None of the men complied with the summons, knowing they’d only be fined 3,400 hryvnias ($92). 

But the story didn’t end there. A week later, the police came back to 31 Nyzhnoiurkivska Street. Writing on Facebook on July 2, Yury Lifshits — an employee of the workshop Banya — said that the police officers broke down doors, damaged walls and windows, and “looted a humanitarian aid warehouse.” In the comments section of his post, Lifshifts also shared surveillance footage that appears to show police officers hurling rocks at windows. 

The next day, the National Police announced that the officers involved in the raid had been suspended pending an internal investigation. There have been no further updates since. 

Meduza’s dispatch from Kyiv

‘They’re already on their way’ After three weeks of war, Kyiv and its residents have changed irrevocably. A dispatch from Meduza’s Liliya Yapparova.

Meduza’s dispatch from Kyiv

‘They’re already on their way’ After three weeks of war, Kyiv and its residents have changed irrevocably. A dispatch from Meduza’s Liliya Yapparova.

Ukrainian military recruiters aren’t just showing up at nightclubs. For example, in June, military officials were spotted drawing up summonses at an Odesa beach. In Kyiv, one tipsy beachgoer tried to swim away after the authorities served him a summons at Vyrlytsya Lake. In the Zakarpattia region, conscripts were literally fished out of the pool at a local hotel. And in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, the Kosiv district recruitment office had its staff hand out draft notices to those waiting in line at a local gas station. 

There are also reports of cases where people received military draft cards as punishment for traffic violations. In the Cherkasy region, for example, a man caught driving under the influence was issued a summons on the spot. 

‘They climbed the mountain in uniform’ 

Situated in the Carpathian Mountains on the border with Hungary and Slovakia, Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region is known for its scenic landscape and mild climate. This makes it a popular location for music festivals like Shypit — an annual hippie festival held near the Shypit Waterfall. The festival has no official organizers and the event details are worked out among participants, either online or in person. To get to the festival’s location, you have to hike up a mountain on foot. 

Roman from Kyiv attended this year’s Shypit festival with his friends. He said rumors about the Zakarpattia region’s fervent military recruiters reached him while he was still in the capital, but he and his friends made it to the festival’s location without incident. 

According to Roman, this year’s festival was spread across five meadows located along the hiking trail leading to the peak of Mount Hymba. Most of the festival participants decided to head for the upper meadows, fearing a visit from the police. 

“[Shypit] is a hippie convention. Of course, there are drugs there. A lot of drugs. There’s smoke in the air in the very first meadow — and the smoke isn’t from bonfires. Usually [in past years] the police didn’t come there, but now [since February 24] law enforcement officers have become meaner and more stringent. Moreover, there’s a countrywide curfew, and we didn’t know how they [the police] would react to our spending the night under the stars,” Roman told Meduza. 

According to Roman, the hike up to the first meadow takes about an hour. The next two clearings are each another 30 minutes away. This didn’t stop the authorities: police officers and military recruiters crashed the Shypit festival on the second day. 

“We were in the second meadow, building a campfire near the tent. Suddenly, one of the [festival] participants ran by us, naked, with a red scarf on his head. He shouted loudly: ‘Ecosexuals, unite! They’ve come! We won’t let them besmirch Shypit!’ Everyone burst out laughing, and then we saw the military officials and the police,” Roman recalled. “They climbed the mountain in uniform to serve us draft notices, can you imagine?” 

Roman said that he and about 30 other people fled up the mountain or into the nearby forest. Others stayed behind or didn’t realize what was happening: “Within twenty minutes, about a dozen guys in our clearing had received draft notices, after that the law enforcement officers went up to the next clearing,” he explained. 

Neither the police nor military recruiters have officially commented on this event.

Roman told Meduza that he tried to enlist in the Azov Regiment at the start of the war. His application was rejected: Roman was deemed unfit for service because he has flat feet and is missing a kidney. The military recruiters in the Zakarpattia region, he surmised, simply may not have noticed this in his records.

‘If his arms and legs are in place, he’s fit for service’ 

Makar, 28, evacuated his family from Kyiv to the Zakarpattia region in early March. The 800-kilometer (500-mile) drive to the town of Ust-Chorna, which takes about nine hours in peacetime, took them more than two days. When they finally reached their destination, Makar’s relatives warned him that “it was best for men not to go outside” and that he should hide his car in the garage because of its Kyiv license plate. 

“Allegedly, people in the village don’t like Kyivites, because since the first days [of the war] they’ve been having fun, drinking a lot, grilling kebabs, and not observing the curfew,” Makar explained. 

Since March 1, the Zakarpattia region has reportedly taken in more than 50,000 refugees. But in addition to those fleeing hotspots, there have also been numerous media reports about people from relatively safe cities coming to the region and behaving as if they’re on vacation. 

According to Makar, this led the residents of Ust-Chorna to join the enlistment office’s “hunt” for conscripts. Locals, he said, would tell members of the Territorial Defense Forces which of their neighbors had refugees staying with them. And, in turn, the Territorial Defense Forces — as well as the village councilors and their family members — enthusiastically set about handing out draft notices. 

“As I understand it, the military commissar gave them a pack of blank draft cards with stamps — and they went on ‘safari’,” Makar said. “They caught passersby on the street, drove around the village in civilian clothing, they could come to [your] home. It was completely unclear who could give you a summons and when. I think even the locals themselves were afraid of each other.”  

Dmytro, a 26-year-old from Kyiv, had a similar experience in the Lviv region. He left for western Ukraine along with his family on February 24. Two days later, they arrived in the town of Zolochiv. 

After a night spent sleeping in their cars, Dmytro managed to find a hotel where they could stay. The next morning however, a hotel employee knocked on his door and informed him that all men needed to get their passports and report to the first floor. In the foyer, Dmytro, his brother Yevhen, and his father were met by two women in their fifties, who said they were representatives of the city council. After photographing their documents, one of the councilors informed the men that they had 24 hours to report to the local recruitment office, or they would face criminal charges. 

The atmosphere in the enlistment office was “rather oppressive,” Dmytro said. “My brother and I got nervous, when, through the half-open door of one of the offices, we heard the phrase from the commission’s head doctor: ‘If he doesn’t lose consciousness right here, [and] his arms and legs are in place, it means he’s fit [for service]’.”

Dmytro’s brother went into the military commissar’s office first. Ten minutes later, he came out and said that he was being sent back to Kyiv the next day, to serve in the Territorial Defense Forces. In turn, Dmytro’s father was assigned to man a checkpoint as part of the local Territorial Defense — arguments that their family had just arrived and might not stay in Zolochiv were of no use. Dmytro himself didn’t set foot in the military commissar’s office. As he told Meduza:

“I wasn’t going to go fight. There are people who were trained for this, but I didn’t even go through mandatory service and I haven’t held a weapon in my hands. I have a job and a family that is more important to me. [My] brother and father were of the same opinion. My dad called his friends all evening, looking for someone who could help ’negotiate.’ We managed to find contacts through one of his former colleagues. The next day, when we came back to the enlistment office, they told my father that our files could ‘get lost’ in the folders for a thousand U.S. dollars.” 

The Lviv enlistment office did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment on this alleged occurrence. In addition, there are no other reports of this enlistment office committing violations available through open sources. 

Dmytro, his brother, and his father later received military registration certificates, which said they would be contacted by phone. They never received a call from the enlistment office. The family spent a total of 30 days in Zolochiv and then went back to Kyiv. 

Meduza’s dispatch from Lviv

‘Just throw me into hell’ How western Ukraine is preparing to defend itself. Meduza reports from Lviv.

Meduza’s dispatch from Lviv

‘Just throw me into hell’ How western Ukraine is preparing to defend itself. Meduza reports from Lviv.

Mobilizing in waves 

All three of Meduza’s sources — Roman, Makar, and Dmytro — are not legally required to serve in the army. According to Ukrainian legislation, mobilization happens in four “waves” with different groups being drafted at different stages of the war. 

The first wave of mobilization calls up military personnel with practical combat experience. Former conscripts and professional soldiers with combat experience are drafted during the second wave. The third wave calls up the “mobilization reserve,” which is made up of reserve officers who were not mobilized during previous waves and graduates of the military departments of universities. The final, fourth wave mobilizes the “public reserve,” which includes all men of conscription age who are not exempted for health reasons. As of July 28, Ukraine was only in the second wave of mobilization.

But even if a person is called up by mistake, this does not mean they are exempt from being mobilized during a future wave, lawyer Rostyslav Kravets told Meduza. His law firm, Kravets and Partners, has received dozens of appeals from citizens in connection with violations of the procedure for serving draft notices.  

According to the lawyer, it’s not illegal to serve someone with a draft notice in a shopping center or at a bar. But this can constitute a procedural violation if the document wasn’t drawn up for that specific person in advance. The lawyer also noted that by law, only authorized officials are allowed to issue a summons — and police officers and members of the Territorial Defense Forces are not included on this list (unless they also happen to be employed by an enlistment office). 

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Additionally, the lawyer explained that Ukraine does not have special laws governing mobilization during martial law. In other words, President Zelensky’s decree on general mobilization should be carried out in accordance with the basic law on mobilization. 

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry did not respond to Meduza’s questions about reports of draft notices being served unlawfully. Multiple petitions on the issue have been submitted to Zelensky’s office. One such petition, which urges the president to prohibit issuing summonses at checkpoints, gas stations, and in public places, has already gathered more than 26,000 signatures. Zelensky is therefore obliged to respond to it. 

In an interview with BBC Ukraine in mid-July, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov spoke out against issuing draft cards as a form of punishment, calling it “complete stupidity.” Not long afterward, however, Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Yenin said that military recruiters should set their sights on those who break curfew, since, in his opinion, it’s “unfair” for some people to be partying while others are at the front. The ministries never clarified the discrepancy in their messaging. 

read more about the draft in Russia

‘Our entire society is built on threats’ How Russia’s military enlistment offices intimidate conscripts who seek alternative service

read more about the draft in Russia

‘Our entire society is built on threats’ How Russia’s military enlistment offices intimidate conscripts who seek alternative service

Story by Alexander Rybin

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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