KYIV—There aren’t enough volunteers in , arguing that Ukraine needs more men at the frontline.
“Our capacity to train reserves on our own territory is also limited… We cannot easily spare soldiers who are deployed to the front, (and) Russia can strike training centers. And there are gaps in our legislation that allow citizens to evade their responsibilities,” he said.
As of now, no Ukrainian man between 18 and 60 can leave Ukraine. Men between 27 and 60 can be mobilized to the army, while men between 18 and 26 can only join voluntarily. Volodymyr Zelensky is considering lowering the mobilization age to 25.
The Ukrainian parliament is also considering other legislative changes to increase the number of people eligible for military service. Among other things, people are now only categorized as either fit or unfit for service. Previously, people could be “partly suitable,” such as those with minor health issues like asthma. These proposed changes are making men, who were previously only partly suitable, worried about their future.
In December, the Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov told DW that all Ukrainian men between 25 and 60, living abroad will be asked to report for service. According to the European statistics agency Eurostat, 19.9 percent of the 4.2 million Ukrainians who have received temporary protection status in the European Union since the invasion are men.
“We are still discussing what should happen if they don’t come voluntarily,” said Umerov.
At the beginning of the invasion, Sergei considered volunteering for the army like thousands of his fellow citizens, but the fear of what he might encounter made him hesitant. Sergei then tried to find a way to leave Ukraine legally but failed. He says that he doesn’t want to leave Ukraine illegally as he would be afraid of the repercussions.
In Ukraine, so-called “guides” offering to help men cross the border can be found on Telegram’s social media site for about $1,300 and up. Sergei often keeps updated on the situation on Telegram, where people share stories.
He has friends fighting at the frontline and can understand why some soldiers are angry at people like him for not doing what they consider a man’s duty.
“But I don’t think that it is reasonable that we should all be fighting. Some are more scared and not fit for it,” says Sergei. “I understand that these soldiers are angry because they see their friends dying. They are full of anger against everyone.”
“I might be able to help the army in some ways, which is not at the frontline, but I cannot trust that they will not bring me directly to the frontline,” says Sergei, who adds that he has heard stories of people with diabetes or asthma, who are taken to the front.
The Daily Beast also spoke to another man on condition of anonymity. The 27-year-old, who we will call Alex, volunteered for the army last year but was sent home due to too many volunteers. He has a heart condition and tells The Daily Beast that he wants to help the army but that he is reluctant to volunteer again due to the risk of being sent to the front.
He is worried that everyone being taken now will simply be used as cannon fodder at the frontline and that the army wouldn’t mind sending people with disabilities to the frontline.
“On social networks, you can hear things are incorrectly done. Some people, who are taken to the army to serve other functions, end up at the frontline after a few months anyway because a commander changes his mind,” says Alex.
“The army knows where I am, so they can come to my home and pick me up. So, if the war lasts very long, I will probably end up in the army, but I know that many people now also wish for peace. I hope peace will come soon,” says Alex, who adds that the military often drives around his city in busses, picking up men on the streets to serve.
He says a fair and transparent mobilization system would calm people and potentially provide more volunteers. Alex argues that there are too many stories of people being sent to the front with minimal training and disabilities, which makes everyone scared.
“Now, they are establishing these recruitment agencies, where they promise you can come and volunteer and receive three months of training, not only a few weeks. Make a real soldier out of you, but you cannot trust that,” he says.
The criticism of the mobilization systems comes from various parts of Ukrainian society. Some argue that Ukraine should introduce a lottery system, where people are drafted depending on their birthday. Others say that Ukraine should only mobilize people not vital to the Ukrainian war effort. Recently, on Facebook, a Ukrainian officer named Yuriy Kasyanov criticized what he calls an inefficient system.
He fears that Ukraine might lose the war if something isn’t changed to make the system more fair and increase the number of men willing to serve in the army.
“The first thing I can say is that the situation is awful at the frontline. Very bad, and I know it very well. Maybe this is not so visible in the rear. Still, we are holding on with all our strength,” Kasyanov, a drone expert in the army, told The Daily Beast, “The most important thing is that, finally, euphoria and blindness are beginning to subside in society. We understand, including commanders and government officials, that something needs to be done.”
Kasyanov says that mobilization has been a mess for a long time, with people in critical civilian positions being taken to the army. He knows examples of people producing much-needed drones for the army being taken despite a lack of military training.
“We now have very few specialists—welders, turners, not to mention high-class engineers. And in the field of drone engineering, you can count them on your fingers,” said Kasyanov, who advocates for a mobilization system that considers people’s abilities.
People who might not be fit for frontline duty or have special skills should work with military production instead of risking their lives in the muddy trenches. He also advocates removing some of the exemptions from duty. Today, students are exempt from mobilization. He wants that removed to help reduce the average age in the army, which he says is over 40.
“Now the situation is such that, for various reasons, our level of support from Western countries has decreased. There was still no defense industry of its own. There are not enough people, and no one wants to take responsibility for mobilizing the youth. At the front, the troops are having difficulty holding back enemy pressure,” Kasyanov said.
The Daily Beast also spoke to a 28-year-old man who only wants to be identified by his first name, Andriy. He left Ukraine in 2023 and is now in Europe. He crossed the border legally due to his mother’s disability, which enabling him to go as her guardian. Andriy told The Daily Beast that he and his mother decided to use this loophole to avoid being drafted into the army and risking his life at the frontline.
Andriy has health issues, making him exempt from military duty in peacetime, but he cannot trust that it will shield him now during the invasion if he gets picked up on the streets.
“I just decided not to leave it to chance. Not to believe that I would be let go if the military picked me up on the streets because I will not survive on the frontline,” says Andriy, who is trying to live an anonymous life abroad so as not to attract too much attention.
He says that the stories he heard from the frontline affected his decision. He might be able to help the military in functions away from the frontline, but he doesn’t trust the system.
“All this new legislation makes mobilization stricter and stricter. The opportunity today might not be there tomorrow,” says Andriy, “I have a responsibility to care for my mother and myself. I did not want to be taken, and I have a lot of friends who feel the same.”
“I will not come back until after the war. If I have to pay some fine for avoiding mobilization after the war, it will be okay, and I will pay it, but if there is a criminal case and I need to do real-time in jail, I will not come back,” says Andriy.