Ukraine in Focus

By Svitlana Morenets

The analysis

Mar 31

The problem with conscription

Nobody was born to fight in a war, but Ukrainians haven’t had much choice. The first volunteer battalion of 500 people went to fight Russian forces in the east of Ukraine in March 2014. At that time, regular military personnel had to rely on patriots who felt it was their duty to resist occupying forces. Volunteer fighters held the defence line in Donbas for eight years, but the Russian invasion last year stretched the front up to 1,500 miles. While thousands of civilians joined the fight, thousands also tried to flee. Tough decisions had to be made in Kyiv for the country to stand a chance.

On the evening of 24 February last year, every male Ukrainian aged between 18 and 60 was prohibited from leaving the country. The borders will be shut until martial law ends. However, there are exceptions for men who prove to be unfit for military service, have disabilities, more than three children or raise a child on their own. The government also allowed those who work in international transport, diplomats, athletes, and some volunteers to cross the border. Those who did not fit into these categories but wanted to avoid conscription sought illegal ways to leave the country.

When there is demand, there is always supply. Anonymous Telegram channels offered fake documents for sale which would apparently allow the men to cross the border. The price varied from 1,000 to 13,000 dollars (between one and ten thousand pounds) and depended on the client’s region of residence and the urgency of the escape. These documents would have cost a lot for the average Ukrainian – the average salary is approximately 15,000 hryvnias (equivalent to £335) per month. Many of the offers were fake: the people behind some of the anonymous Telegram channels tended to disappear as soon as they received the money.

The cheapest options were the riskiest: desperate men were caught dressing in women’s clothes or hiding in baby boxes. They also used inflatable boats to cross the Tisza river or hiked through the mountains trying to reach Romania. Some of them froze to death attempting to do so in winter. More expensive was to make fake disability documents or to falsify military medical exemption certificates. But the most popular and safest way to flee so far has been through the ‘Shlyakh’ (‘path’) system. It allows volunteers and drivers of draft age to cross the border if they are transporting humanitarian aid or medical cargo. They can stay abroad for up to 30 days. The latest reports showed that 11 per cent have never returned – their certifications were later discovered to be fake.

While Kyiv has not yet found a way to fill the gaps in this scheme, the number of men available to fight for Ukraine is dwindling. Heavy military losses have prompted the government to start new waves of conscription. Summons are usually distributed at workplaces, military checkpoints, and residential areas – but the situation is getting out of hand. Officers are chasing the men on the streets and inside shopping centres. They were also seen handing out summonses in ambulances. One video from Odesa showed men being forcibly dragged into a conscription centre.

When Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, all men of draft age were obliged to come to the conscription centres to update their records, without any summons. This is precisely what many Ukrainians did in the first days of the full-scale invasion. However, many others chose to stay at home, reducing the ability of the military centres to recruit the required number of people. It affects the defence capability of the country but also its chances to liberate the occupied territories. Today, the Ukrainian army has more than a million soldiers. Those not fighting in hot spots are dispersed along the borders with Belarus and Transnistria, waiting for Russia to open another front. Many of them are composed primarily of volunteers and civilians with little military experience. This week, Vladimir Putin announced a spring draft aiming to recruit almost 150,000 Russians for the army. Kyiv has to keep up.

Time is not on Ukraine’s side. The future serviceman must be trained for 30 to 70 days, but often end up on the frontline much earlier. Men who have never held weapons are scared to be thrown into the meat grinder without basic training. To regain their trust, Kyiv must rethink its methods of issuing summonses and provide a sufficient number of instructors for newcomers. The faster this is done, the lower the fear of summons will be among those who receive them. Ukraine needs thousands of men to fight if it wants to repel Russian forces. The government must find a way to keep Ukrainian men in the country – but also to keep them motivated to fight until the end.


Quote of the week

‘It’s a slaughter-fest for the Russians. They’re getting hammered in the vicinity of Bakhmut, and the Ukrainians have fought very, very well’

– General Mark Milley, the US Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff


Wider reading on the war

Ukrainians in a hidden command post see Bakhmut going their way –Carlotta Gall (New York Times)

On the border with Belarus, Ukrainian troops prep for a long war – and the front line –Joanna Kakissis, Polina Lytvynova, Claire Harbage (NPR)

A steel plant ready for war shows hit to Ukraine’s economy –Hanna Arhirova (Associated Press)

What’s behind India’s strategic neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine –Teresa Mettela (ABC news)

Xi Jinping says he is preparing China for war –John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger (Foreign Affairs)


The war in numbers

German Leopard 2 tanks arrived in Ukraine


Berlin has also send 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles

Job vacancies per unemployed Russian


Some analysts say conscription is leading to a labour shortage in Russia

Maximum sentence for WSJ journalist arrested in Russia

20 years

Evan Gershkovich was arrested yesterday on espionage charges


Svitlana Morenets was a journalist in Kyiv. She hitchhiked in Crimea to learn more about life under the Russian occupation and wrote a story about her experience in 2019. She is now in London working at The Spectator. If you enjoy the Ukraine in Focus newsletter, please forward it to someone you know: you can sign up here. Svitlana’s writing for The Spectatorcan be found here. This email is a work in progress: all feedback welcome:


  1. It does not take a genius to work out that putler’s Holocaust has to be finished this year. The rat nazi has no shortage of vermin to chuck into the fray.

    Ukraine has flesh and blood; a finite supply. FFS give them the weapons to finish the putinazi bastards off.

  2. ‘It’s a slaughter-fest for the Russians. They’re getting hammered in the vicinity of Bakhmut, and the Ukrainians have fought very, very well’

    This was the best statement spoken by General Milley since the start of this war.

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