‘At what cost?’ Ukraine strains to bolster army as war fatigue weighs
KYIV — When Antonina Danylevych’s husband enlisted in the Ukrainian army in March 2022, he had to line up at the draft office alongside crowds of patriotic countrymen.
There are no crowds now, she says.
Danylevych, a 43-year-old HR manager, gave her blessing when Oleksandr joined up with tens of thousands of other Ukrainian citizens to defy the Russian invasion.
Now she’s finding it hard to cope, with no end in sight. Her husband has only had about 25 days’ home leave since he enlisted and their two children are growing up without a father.
“We want Ukraine to win, but not through the efforts of the same people,” she said in an interview at her home in Kyiv. “I can see they need to be replaced and that they also need to rest, but for some reason other people don’t understand.”
Women on the home front have also had to become stronger, she added: “But at what cost did we become stronger?”
Her husband – a university lecturer with no prior combat experience who’s now a platoon commander – watched his son get married this year on his phone by video call from the ruined city of Bakhmut. His 14-year-old daughter misses her dad.
Almost two years into the grinding war, this family and others around the country are coming to terms with the prospect of a much longer and costlier conflict than they had hoped for, and one that some now acknowledge they’re not guaranteed to win.
This autumn, Danylevych was one of 25,000 people to sign a petition to President Volodymyr Zelensky saying that military service cannot remain open-ended and calling for troops to be given a clear timeline for when they will be discharged.
The campaign, which has included two protests by 50 to 100 people in Kyiv’s main square in recent weeks, illustrates a growing level of exhaustion among Ukrainian troops and the mounting toll that is taking on families back home.
Ukraine’s vaunted summer counteroffensive has so far failed to deliver a decisive breakthrough, both sides are dug in along largely static front lines and questions are being asked over whether foreign military aid will be as forthcoming as it was.
The country has relied on tens of billions of dollars in arms from the United States and other allies to sustain its war effort, but stockpiles of artillery shells are emptying and governments are cooler on sustaining previous levels of support.
Such protests would have been unthinkable a year ago when national morale soared as Ukraine beat Russian forces back from Kyiv and retook swathes of the northeast and south. Martial law, declared at the war’s start, prohibits public demonstrations.
Danylevych’s campaign points to difficult choices war planners face as they try to maintain the flow of recruits to defeat a much larger army amid steady losses, while retaining a big enough workforce to sustain the shattered economy.
Only Ukrainian men aged between 27 and 60 can be mobilized by draft officers. Men aged between 18 and 26 can’t be drafted, though they can enlist voluntarily.
Ukraine, which has said it has about 1 million people under arms, has barred military-age men from going abroad. Its constantly running mobilization program, which was declared at the start of the war, is a state secret. So are battlefield losses, which U.S. estimates put in the tens of thousands.
The Ukrainian defense ministry referred questions for this article to the military, which declined to comment, citing wartime secrecy.
Drowned trying to flee
This month, Ukraine’s military chief said one of his priorities was to build up the army’s reserves as he laid out a plan to prevent the war settling into a stalemate of attritional warfare that he warned would suit Russia. The plan focuses on boosting Ukraine’s aerial, electronic warfare, drone, anti-artillery and mine-clearance capabilities.
He added that Ukraine, like Russia, had limited capacity to train troops and alluded to gaps in legislation that he said allowed citizens to shirk mobilization.
“We are trying to fix these problems. We are introducing a unified register of draftees, and we must expand the category of citizens who can be called up for training or mobilization,” he wrote in rare comments published as an article by The Economist.
The recruitment process largely takes place out of the public eye. Draft officers stop men in the street, at the metro or at checkpoints and hand out call-up papers to them, instructing to report to recruitment centers.
Over the last year, social media videos occasionally surface showing draft officers dragging away or threatening men they want to mobilize causing public outcry.
Many Ukrainians have also been angered by a string of corruption cases at draft offices that have allowed people to avoid the call-up, prompting Zelensky to sack all the heads of the regional recruitment offices this summer.
Seldom does a week go by without a law enforcement agency announcing criminal cases against people including draft officials accused of taking between $500 and $10,000 to provide fake documents for people to shirk mobilization or travel abroad.
At the River Tisa, which acts as the border from southwestern Ukraine to Romania, guard patrols used to focus on catching tobacco smugglers but now collar fleeing draft dodgers.
About 6,000 people have been detained trying to leave across that stretch, the border guards told Reuters. One of them, Dyma Cherevychenko, said at least 19 people had drowned trying to flee the country during the conflict.
“They died for nothing, died in the river when they could have contributed to the war effort,” the 29-year-old added.
University escape hatch?
The Ukrainian parliament has meanwhile been debating legislation that would stop people over the age of 30 using higher education as a legal way around mobilization.
The number of men aged over 25 who booked places at universities in the first year of the invasion shot up by 55,000 compared with the year before, Education Minister Oksen Lisovyi wrote on Facebook in September.
Some voices in the West have suggested that Kyiv step up the scale of its recruitment by drawing on younger men.
Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense minister until the end of August, said the average age of Ukrainian soldiers at the front was over 40 and suggested it was time to “reassess the scale of Ukraine’s mobilization”.
“I understand President Zelensky’s desire to preserve the young for the future, but the fact is that Russia is mobilizing the whole country by stealth,” he wrote in the Telegraph newspaper.
David Arakhamia, a senior lawmaker and Zelensky ally, said on Thursday that parliament planned to draw up legislation to improve the mobilization and demobilization procedure by the year’s end.
The bill, he said on TV, would cover what to do with people who have been fighting for two years without rotation, how to demobilize soldiers who have returned after being prisoners of war, and also address “issues related to the conscription age”.
Tanks and tranquilizers
A temporary lull in major Russian missile and drone strikes on the capital over the summer made the war seem more distant, although that calm was shattered over the weekend as Russia launched its biggest drone assault on Kyiv of the war so far.
Some sociologists say a gloomier mood has set in nationwide.
They point to surveys showing declining trust in the government, which had surged in the first months of the war when Ukrainian forces repelled Russian advances. Zelensky’s ratings remain very high, although they too are down from last year.
Trust in the government and parliament has tumbled from 74% in 2022 to 39%, and 58% to 21%, respectively, according to Anton Hrushetskyi, executive director at the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, a research organization.
“We’d hoped to be in a better position this autumn than we are right now,” he told Reuters.
Hrushetskyi said other contributing factors were various corruption scandals and a belief that Western military supplies for Ukraine could and should have been more robust.
Danylevych is now preparing their home for what many Ukrainians fear will be another winter of Russian airstrikes that will target the power grid and energy system, causing sweeping blackouts and other outages.
“I feel depressed because I understand all the challenges of winter and if there is heavy shelling and there is neither electricity nor heating, I will have to face all these problems on my own.”
Her husband Oleksandr and his unit, Ukraine’s fourth tank brigade, couldn’t be reached for comment.
This summer Danylevych stumbled across a group on the Telegram messaging site that now has 2,900 like-minded people including wives, mothers and family members who banded together to campaign for the right of war veterans to be demobilized.
“A lot of the women are on sedatives and tranquilizers,” she said, describing a “very depressed” mood of resignation among them.
The group staged a first demonstration of around 100 people on Kyiv’s Independence Square on Oct. 27, after which they wrote a letter addressed to Zelensky to make their case. No police action was taken against them.
Dozens of them returned to the square for a further protest in the rain on Nov. 12. One held up a sign saying: “My husband and father have given others the time to get ready. It’s time to replace the first people!”