Ukraine has been defended by the same people since the beginning of the war

As Ukraine unsuccessfully tries to expand the scale of mobilization, the families of soldiers who have been at the front for two years say it is time for them to return home and be replaced by new men

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Antonina Danilevich at a protest in Kyiv on November 12, Photo: Reuters
Antonina Danilevich at a protest in Kyiv on November 12, Photo: Reuters

When Antonina Danilevich's husband enlisted in the Ukrainian army in March 2022, he had to wait in line outside the recruiting office along with a large number of patriotic compatriots.

Danilevich, a 43-year-old human resources manager, supported her husband Oleksandr when he decided to join tens of thousands of other Ukrainian citizens to defend themselves against the Russian invasion.

Now she is having a hard time dealing with it, and there is no end in sight. Her husband has only had 25 days of leave since he applied and their two children are growing up without a father.

"We want Ukraine to win, but not through the efforts of one and the same people," she said in an interview with Reuters from her home in Kyiv. "They need someone to replace them and they need a break, but for some reason other people don't understand that."

Women on the home front also had to toughen up, she added: "But at what cost did we become stronger?".

photo: REUTERS

Her husband, a university lecturer with no previous combat experience who is now a platoon commander - watched his son's wedding from the destroyed city of Bahmut on the phone this year. His 14-year-old daughter misses her father.

Nearly two years since the start of the devastating war, this family and others across the country are coming to terms with the fact that this will be a much longer and much more expensive war than they originally thought, and one in which some now recognize that victory is not guaranteed.

This fall, Danilevicheva is one of 25000 people who signed a petition addressed to President Volodymyr Zelensky stating that military service cannot be indefinite and calling for a clear time frame for military service.

The campaign, which included two protests last week in Kiev's main square with between 50 and 100 people, shows the growing level of exhaustion among Ukraine's soldiers and the toll it is taking on their families back home.

Ukraine's summer counter-offensive has so far failed to provide a decisive breakthrough, both sides have dug in on mostly static front lines, and it has become questionable whether foreign military aid will continue to flow in as before.

The country relies on tens of billions of dollars in arms from the United States and other allies to sustain the war effort, but artillery ammunition stocks are running low and governments are unwilling to maintain previous levels of support.

Such protests would have been unthinkable a year ago when national morale was at its peak and Ukraine had driven Russian forces from Kiev and taken over large swaths of territory in the northeast and south. The state of emergency, which was declared at the beginning of the war, prohibits public demonstrations.

Danilevich's campaign points to the difficult choice those in charge face as they try to keep the flow of recruits flowing to defeat a much stronger army despite heavy losses, while maintaining a workforce large enough to sustain a faltering economy.

Only men between the ages of 27 and 60 can be conscripted, while men between the ages of 18 and 26 cannot be conscripted but can volunteer.

photo: Reuters

Ukraine, which claims to have about a million men in the military, has banned men of military age from leaving the country. The program of mobilization, which was declared at the beginning of the war and is a state secret, is constantly being implemented. Losses on the front, which the US estimates number in the tens of thousands, are also secret.

They drowned trying to escape

Earlier this month, Ukraine's military chief said one of his priorities was to bolster military reserves as he outlined a plan to prevent a stalemate in the form of a war of attrition that he warned would suit Russia. The plan focuses on strengthening Ukraine's air, electronic warfare capabilities, drones, anti-artillery and mine clearance efforts.

He added that Ukraine, like Russia, has limited capacity to train soldiers and pointed to loopholes in the law that he claims allow citizens to avoid mobilization.

"We are trying to solve these problems. Let's introduce a single register for recruits, and we must expand the category of citizens who can be called for training or mobilized," he wrote in rare comments published in the "Economist" article.

The recruitment process takes place mostly out of the public eye. Recruitment officers stop men on the street, in the subway or at checkpoints and hand them a summons instructing them to report to recruitment centers.

Over the past year, videos of recruiting officers dragging or threatening men they want to mobilize have occasionally been posted on social media, sparking a fierce public reaction.

Many Ukrainians have also been angered by a series of corruption cases in recruitment offices that allowed the draft to be evaded, as a result of which Zelenskiy dismissed the heads of regional recruitment centers this summer.

Not a week goes by without accusations against conscription officials who are said to have taken between $500 and $10 for false documents for people who want to avoid conscription or travel abroad.

On the Tisza River, which is the border between southwestern Ukraine and Romania, border patrols used to focus on cigarette smugglers but are now catching those trying to avoid mobilization.

About six thousand people were detained while trying to leave the country across the river, border guards told Reuters. One of them, Dima Cherevichenko, said that at least 19 people drowned trying to escape the country during the conflict.

"They died for nothing, perished in the river and could have contributed to the war effort," added this 29-year-old.

"University" outlet

Ukraine's parliament, meanwhile, is debating a bill that would prevent those over 30 from using higher education as a legal way to avoid conscription.

The number of men over 25 who enrolled in universities during the first year of the invasion increased by 55 compared to the previous year, Education Minister Oksen Lisovji announced in September.

Some in the West are suggesting that Kiev expand the scope of recruitment by including younger men. Ben Wallace, the British defense minister until the end of August, said that the average age of Ukrainian soldiers at the front is over 40 and suggested that it is time "to re-evaluate the extent of Ukrainian mobilization".

"I understand President Zelenski's desire to save young people for the future, but the fact is that Russia is mobilizing the entire country," he wrote in an article for the "Telegraf" newspaper.

David Arakamija, a senior MP and Zelenski's ally, said last Thursday that the parliament plans to draft a law to improve mobilization and demobilization procedures by the end of the year.

That law, according to him, would cover the part related to people who fight for two years without replacement, as well as the demobilization of soldiers who returned after being prisoners of war and would also deal with "issues related to age the age of recruits”.

War works far from Kiev

A temporary lull in Russian attacks on the capital over the summer made the war seem further away, though that calm was shaken last weekend when Russia carried out the largest drone attack on Kiev so far in the war.

Some sociologists claim that the mood has fallen in the entire country.

They point to surveys that show a decline in trust in the government, which grew in the first months of the war when Ukrainian forces repelled Russian advances. Zelenski's popularity is still high, although it is lower compared to the same period last year.

Danilevicheva is now preparing her home for what many Ukrainians fear will be another winter of Russian attacks targeting the electricity and energy grid.

"I am depressed because I know all the challenges of winter, and if there are violent attacks and we are left without electricity and heating, I will have to face all these problems alone."

This summer, Danilevich came across a group on Telegram that now has 2900 like-minded people, including wives, mothers, and family members who have joined together to campaign for the rights of war veterans to demobilization.

"A large number of women take tranquilizers and sedatives," she said, describing a sense of depression and resentment among them.

Relatives of Ukrainian soldiers at a protest in Kyiv demand an indefinite end to military service
Relatives of Ukrainian soldiers at a protest in Kyiv demand an indefinite end to military servicephoto: REUTERS

This group organized the first demonstration of about 100 people on Independence Square in Kyiv on October 27, after which they sent a letter to Zelenskiy presenting their arguments. No police action was initiated against them.

Dozens of them returned to the square for another protest on a rainy November 12. One of the participants carried a banner that read: “My father and husband gave others time to prepare. It's time to replace those who signed up first”.

Prepared by: NB

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