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As Ukraine seeks to replenish its depleted army, a divide grows among its civilians

Olha Bilianska's husband was mobilized two years ago. Even after being injured, he is being redeployed. "Some people still believe that this war won't get them," Bilianska says. "It will get them. This war is cruel."
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Olha Bilianska's husband was mobilized two years ago. Even after being injured, he is being redeployed. "Some people still believe that this war won't get them," Bilianska says. "It will get them. This war is cruel."

KYIV, Ukraine — At grocery stores, at work and in Kyiv's bustling streets, Olha Bilianska has been trying to hide her annoyance about a divide she sees growing in Ukrainian society.

It has been nearly two years since her husband, a border guard, enthusiastically volunteered to be mobilized into Ukraine's armed forces. It has been roughly six months since he was injured by shrapnel while fighting in the country's east. He's already redeployed, and it's now unclear when he'll be back home.

"I don't understand why those who joined the armed forces first are still there protecting our country," she says, while other people — she gestures toward a busy Kyiv street — "are just living their normal lives."

"It's not fair."

Nearly two years after Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine finds itself locked into a bloody war of attrition with a country that has more than three times as many people. It is not an even fight. Soldiers are tired. Civilians too.

But with Russia still trying to seize territory in the country's east and south, and with delays in new Western military aid packages limiting ammunition and materiel, Ukraine's leadership is under increasing pressure to boost its defenses by finding more soldiers.

The question is how.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers an end-of-year news conference in Kyiv on Dec. 19.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers an end-of-year news conference in Kyiv on Dec. 19.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters at an end-of-year news conference that military officials have asked to conscript an additional 450,000 to 500,000 civilians to help replenish the country's armed forces and spell soldiers serving on the front lines. Zelenskyy said he'd need more information to support the proposal, noting the high economic cost of mobilizing so many civilians.

Days later, the head of Ukraine's armed forces, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, gave a rare news conference where he criticized the country's draft offices and denied that any specific number of additional troops had been asked for.

At the same time, Ukraine's parliament is working on legislation aimed at reforming the country's conscription process. A draft version of the bill, published in late December, called for lowering the minimum draft age from 27 to 25 and other reforms. The mobilization bill was later withdrawn and is being reworked due to criticism from Ukrainian politicians and civilian groups.

"This law is necessary for the defense of our state and every soldier who is currently at the front," Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov wrote in a Facebook post, shortly after the bill was withdrawn. "It needs to be approved as soon as possible."

Ukrainian soldiers of the 41st Brigade walk in a trench near the front line outside Kupiansk, in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, on Jan. 23.
Roman Pilipey / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers of the 41st Brigade walk in a trench near the front line outside Kupiansk, in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, on Jan. 23.

The growing realization that the war could continue for years to come has put the question of who should be obligated to fight — for how long and in what capacity — top of mind across Ukraine. Some, like Bilianska, feel more people need to serve. Some feel they have a duty to do so, an opinion hardened by nearly two years of air raid sirens and missile strikes.

Others are terrified at the prospect. Men are wary about leaving their homes. Wives are worried about their husbands. Mothers are worried about their sons.

"Some people still believe that this war won't get them," Bilianska says. "It will get them. This war is cruel."

Ukraine's early enthusiasm has tempered

In the months after Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians volunteered to join in their country's defense. Russian troops were driven away from the Ukrainian capital and out of much of the country's northeast. The southern port city of Kherson was retaken.

Public and military morale was high. Victory felt possible.

Pedestrians in Kyiv walk past a poster depicting Ukrainian servicemen and a slogan that reads, "Bring the victory soon," on Oct. 31.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Pedestrians in Kyiv walk past a poster depicting Ukrainian servicemen and a slogan that reads, "Bring the victory soon," on Oct. 31.

But after a stalled Ukrainian counteroffensive, the fighting has since settled into a deadly, dug-in stalemate. "We are not seeing movement," says a Ukrainian artilleryman serving in the country's east who goes by the call sign Zvynn, per military protocol. "Now we are just tired," he says.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are believed to be dead. Tens of thousands more are believed to have been injured. Neither Ukraine nor Russia divulges casualty figures.

In an essay and interview with The Economist magazine last November, Zaluzhny, the chief of Ukraine's armed forces, said finding and training more reserves is critical to Ukraine's success. But he acknowledged that factors like "the prolonged nature of the war" and "limited opportunities" for soldiers to rotate off the front lines "significantly reduce the motivation of citizens to serve the military."

Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine has been under martial law, which prohibits men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country and requires them to register for military service. Men between the ages of 18 and 26 can't be drafted but are encouraged to volunteer. Many men and women have. Ukraine's military doesn't reveal troop numbers.

Yevhen Shcherbyna, a hairdresser in Dnipro, colors a woman's hair at his salon downtown. He hears from many clients that they're worried their family members will be conscripted.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Yevhen Shcherbyna, a hairdresser in Dnipro, colors a woman's hair at his salon downtown. He hears from many clients that they're worried their family members will be conscripted.

Men between the ages of 27 and 60 can be drafted — forced to mobilize. Civilians and attorneys representing people who don't want to serve say that Ukraine's conscription officers have grown more aggressive in recent months. Social media is littered with videos of reluctant people being approached and taken by conscription officers. Fears of being mobilized are shared among family and friends, talked about at gyms and hair salons.

"They grab people from the streets," says a 30-year-old server in Kyiv named Yevhen, who doesn't want to give his last name for fear of being mobilized. "For men, it's the most scary thing right now."

Zvynn, the Ukrainian artilleryman, says he tells friends at home in western Ukraine to "be ready."

"I tell my friends to learn how to fly drones, so when [they] show up [they] can say, 'I don't want to be a paratrooper. I want to be a drone pilot,'" he says.

Many Ukrainians don't want to be mobilized

Last November, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's minister of digital transformation, told the RBC-Ukraine news site that the country was launching a "smart mobilization" effort to help boost recruitment. Under the pilot project, conscripts will be able to choose what unit and specialty they want to join.

"[A] person chooses whether they want to be a drone operator or serve in a strike drone company. He can be a sapper, a driver. All positions will be available," Fedorov said in the interview.

The hope is that more conscripts will be willing to volunteer if they have some agency over where and in what capacity they're being deployed.

An attorney based in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, who represents soldiers looking to be dismissed from service and civilians fighting against mobilization, says she hears from people who are morally opposed to taking up arms. Others are afraid of being sent to the front lines.

She says she has talked with people who have attempted suicide to avoid mobilization. "And these were children," says the attorney, who asked NPR to use only her first name, Olena, because she's worried about retaliation from Ukrainian security services. "They were the same as my daughter. Children of 18, 19 years old."

Ukrainian soldiers walk along a road not far from the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on Dec. 13.
Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers walk along a road not far from the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on Dec. 13.

There are a number of ways to be exempted from military service in Ukraine: health reasons, higher education, parenting three or more children, having a close relative who died or went missing during the war.

Last summer, Zelenskyy fired all the country's regional conscription chiefs, citing corruption and bribery schemes that he said had allowed exemptions from military service to jump tenfoldsince the start of the war. People were spending $3,000 to $15,000 to falsify medical records, Zelenskyy said.

Similar schemes still exist, allowing people with money to better avoid mobilization than others, Olena says, contributing to a "divide in society."

"Personally, I think that if we are at war, we all have to defend our country, and it's not very nice when a person tries to avoid it," she says. "Because the question arises: How is this person better than the one who is now in the trench in water up to his waist?"

Women in medical professions are now required to register for military service

At the beginning of last October, Ukraine started requiring female medical professionals ages 18 to 60 to register for military service. Unlike men, the order doesn't prevent women from leaving Ukraine, and registering for military service doesn't mean women will be mobilized.

Zelenskyy said at his year-end news conference that he would not sign legislation forcing the mobilization of women. Still, the order shook many women in the medical field.

Diana Banshyna, 23, is a gynecology intern living in Dnipro. At the beginning of last October, Ukraine started requiring female medical professionals ages 18 to 60 to register for military service.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Diana Banshyna, 23, is a gynecology intern living in Dnipro. At the beginning of last October, Ukraine started requiring female medical professionals ages 18 to 60 to register for military service.

Even before Zelenskyy's comments, Diana Banshyna, a 23-year-old gynecology intern living in Dnipro, said she didn't expect to be mobilized. "But at the same time, I'm still scared. Who's not?"

More than anything, Banshyna says, the requirement to register has sparked broader conversations with family and colleagues, forcing her to consider what life might look like in Ukraine in the long term. She wants to get married and start a family.

"I think most people understand that right now we are in the middle of a war and at some point everyone's help will be needed," she says. "So it's a duty at the end of the day."

Iryna Slupova, a 23-year-old pediatrician in Dnipro, registered for military service in the days following Russia's full-scale invasion. She still hasn't been mobilized, but she and her husband have both volunteered as medics in parts of the country's east and south.

Iryna Slupova works as a pediatrician in Dnipro, where she has treated soldiers wounded on the front lines. She says she hears a recurrent theme: "They are scared that there won't be anyone who will replace them."
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Iryna Slupova works as a pediatrician in Dnipro, where she has treated soldiers wounded on the front lines. She says she hears a recurrent theme: "They are scared that there won't be anyone who will replace them."

More recently, she has treated soldiers wounded on the front lines at her hospital in Dnipro, and she says she's hearing a recurrent theme.

"They are scared that there won't be anyone who will replace them," Slupova says. The optimism, the "united front," of the war's early days has worn off, she says, replaced by the brutal realities of a prolonged conflict: funerals, injuries, missile strikes.

Slupova says she knows a lot of people — men and women — who have toughed out the first two years of war but are now thinking about finding a way to leave the country.

"[People] thought this will be over soon," she says. "And right now people understand it will not be over soon. So if you [have to serve], you're going to be stuck there for years and years."

NPR's Elissa Nadworny and Kateryna Malofieieva contributed reporting from Ukraine.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Claire Harbage
Hanna Palamarenko