the Draft Dodgers Who Don’t Want to Go to War Against Russia

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  • Ukrainian men cannot leave the country under martial law and face being drafted into war service.
  • But some Ukrainians are attempting to dodge the draft.
  • Insider spoke with a 21-year-old who attempted to flee but was stopped at the border and sent back.

At the start of its summer counteroffensive, Ukraine recruited soldiers with the slogan, “Bravery conquers fear.” But as the war heads for its 600th day with no end in sight, some Ukrainians have renounced their nation’s call to arms and are looking for ways to avoid being drafted.

Artem, a 21-year-old whose name has been changed to protect his identity but is known to Insider, was born and raised just outside Kyiv. He told Insider he’s desperate to leave Ukraine to escape being drafted and had already attempted one escape. 

His family has been deeply affected by the conflict. He spoke with Insider alongside his father, Bohdan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, a carpenter in peacetime who speaks English. Bohdan, a soldier of the National Guard of Ukraine, had recently returned after surviving intense fighting on the eastern front.

Bohdan’s unit suffered significant casualties while stationed near Svatove and the Serebryansky forest, he told Insider, and he was one of the few who survived without injuries. He said he didn’t want his son to endure the same fate.

Recently, Artem decided to try and flee despite martial law prohibiting him from leaving Ukraine.

Bohdan, a witness to the horrors of war, supports his son’s attempts to avoid being called up. “He was partly motivated by fear that the law could be changed at any time and oblige him to join the military,” Bohdan said.

Although Artem cannot leave the country, he is not of conscription age, so he will not be drafted immediately, but this could change if mobilization laws are enacted to widen the recruitment net.

Artem added that he’s also disenchanted by the lack of opportunities in the country’s war-crippled economy.

His escape plan involved crossing over into Romania. He took a westbound train to a town near the border, but when he got off, he and the other men on board were confronted by police officers about why they were traveling within 20 miles of the frontier.

Artem said that several of them were taken to a police station and questioned further before being put on a bus that took them back deeper into Ukraine.

One of the men caught was in his 50s and traveling with his wife and children. Artem later learnt that he was taken straight to a military-registration and enlistment office to join the army, Artem said. 

The father and son live together in the family home Bohdan built himself. His wife and daughter are refugees in Belgium. “My family is divided,” Bohdan told Insider.

Bohdan agreed that prospects were grim for his only son, even if he’s not sent to the front. “There is not much work or quality education for young men during wartime, so some of them want to leave, but they can’t,” he said.

In the meantime, Artem said he was contemplating whether it’s worth trying to flee Ukraine again. 

“Young men at a checkpoint near the border told me not to bother trying,” Artem told Insider. “They warned that the forests ahead were full of bears and snipers.” Insider could not verify the claim regarding snipers. The route into Romania often involves a risky crossing over the Carpathian Mountains, which is home to brown bears and wolves.

While Artem considers his next moves, he awaits a fine for his attempt to leave Ukraine unlawfully — it’s not an imprisonable offense. He hasn’t received a letter yet but estimates it will be about 1,000 hryvnia, or about $27. 

Bohdan told Insider that last week, a friend of his managed to cross the border into Hungary. He paid about $6,400 to get instructions from a people smuggler who told him where to cut through barbed wire with pliers, his friend told him. He made it across and is now in Montenegro.

He chose Hungary over Romania or Moldova, his friend said, because he believed the border guards were less likely to beat him up and perceived Hungary as more accepting of Ukrainian refugees.

Smugglers are using Telegram to sell their services to Ukrainian men trying to flee military conscription, according to a BBC investigation.

A BBC reporter, named Andrey, spent a month corresponding with smugglers as a prospective Ukrainian draft dodger.

Services being offered included creating fake medical exemptions, adding pretend children to families, and organizing illegal border crossings, Andrey told the outlet.

At least six Telegram groups, some of which have several thousand members, are offering the services, per a BBC undercover reporter.

80,000 Ukrainian men have crossed over to Poland

Ruslana Danylkina, 19, a Ukrainian soldier who lost her leg in the fighting near Kherson, holds her crutches in a city hospital in Odesa, Ukraine, Feb. 27, 2023.

A Ukrainian soldier who lost her leg in the fighting near Kherson.

AP Photo/Libkos

Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been barred from leaving the country since martial law was imposed at the start of Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022.

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, voted again in July to extend martial law and general mobilization by another 90 days, Ukrainska Pravda reported. It’s the eighth extension since the invasion began and is in place until November 15.

In August, The New York Times reported that US officials, who spoke anonymously, estimated 70,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. In the first days of the war, hundreds of thousands volunteered to fight, but Ukraine is now more dependent on enlistments. The Armed Forces of Ukraine need to replace their dwindling numbers, and men leaving the country despite martial law could have long-term consequences for military mobilizations.

In Poland alone, an estimated 80,000 men — the equivalent to 20 military brigades in Ukraine’s army — ages 18 to 60 who may have been eligible for military service entered the country between February 24, 2022, and August 31 this year, according to data from Poland’s Border Guard. The whereabouts of the men are not known, the Polish news outlet Rzeczpospolita reported.

A spokesperson for the Polish Border Guard, Lt. Anna Michalska, said it was not known how many met the exemption requirements, the Kyiv Post reported.

Ukraine authorities say they have caught 6,100 men attempting to leave the country at border crossings using fraudulent or unauthorized documents. Over 13,000 who wanted to slip out of Ukraine have been caught, often, like Artem, collared at bus and train stations before they reach the border, The Economist reported in September.

Trekking across the country to escape via remote parts of the border can end in disaster. For example, 19 have drowned in the Tisza river, which flows along part of Ukraine’s border with Hungary and Romania, The Economist reported.

‘White tickets’ to freedom: buying medical exemptions

Doctor making notes while on video call with patient - stock photo.

Getty Images

The most common ruse for hopeful draft dodgers is to bribe doctors to sign what’s known as a “white ticket” medical exemption from military service. 

Business Insider previously reported that a 39-year-old from Odesa had paid a fixer to arrange for a hospital in southern Ukraine to diagnose him with a severe spinal injury to exempt him from military duty.

More than 50,000 “white tickets” were granted by commissions under the jurisdiction of Yevhen Borysov, the former head of Odesa’s regional military-mobilization office, an anti-corruption nongovernmental organization in Odesa told The New York Times.

It is alleged the bribery system enabled the top mobilization official to buy a $4.35 million villa in Marbella, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, The Times of London reported. He was arrested in July and is under investigation, the Kyiv Independent reported.

“We don’t know how many of these have been issued illegally or how many were issued due to real health issues,” Valeriy Bolhan, an associate at the anti-corruption NGO, told the Times. “Until the scandal broke and the investigations began, the price for an illegal white ticket for someone wanting to escape mobilization was around $7,000 to $8,000.”

‘You’re hiding behind our husbands’ backs’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Getty Images

Serhii Mytkalyk, the chair of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Headquarters, told Insider that Zelenskyy’s government had made obtaining a military exemption more complex to deter forged exemptions and corruption in the military-exemption system.

Mytkalyk added that Zelenskyy firing military-recruitment chiefs amid corruption concerns showed a shift toward higher accountability and a concerted effort to tackle corruption, even against the backdrop of war. 

“When we have transparency, the situation improves,” Mytkalyk told Insider. “Civil society and NGOs need to talk about corruption because this is one of the ways to solve this problem.”

Mytkalyk added: “We want to develop an anti-corruption bureau after the war to address this problem in the long term.”

In an August survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 89% of Ukrainians polled said corruption was the country’s most serious problem after the war against Russia. 

Ukraine has said it’ll pay people who report corruption and bribery 10% of the cash that gets recovered.

Since the authorities began clamping down, “the price of a white ticket has risen to more like $20,000,” Bolhan told the Times.

A 38-year-old Ukrainian reserve officer dodging the draft in Warsaw, Poland, with his young family, told Euronews: “Above all, I must take care of them.”

He now works as a taxi driver in the Polish capital and described picking up Ukrainian women in his cab.

“I have been told, ‘Our husbands are at the front, they are fighting, and you cowards are staying here? You’re hiding behind our husbands’ backs,'” he said.

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