Ukraine's Draft Dodging (and Civil Liberties) Problem


I've blogged previously about some of Ukraine's current civil liberties issues related to its internal troubles here and here; this week Foreign Policy does a more thorough story, filled with specific Ukrainian voices, about the country's troubles willing to fight the war against Russian-backed rebels, a war theoretically in abeyance for now, and a war too many American politicians are willing to help the Ukrainians fight if it continues even as many Ukrainians themselves are not so willing.


Last week, high-profile journalist Ruslan Kotsaba was detained on charges of treason and espionage after he spoke out against mobilization. Days later, President Petro Poroshenko announced that the security service had "detained 19 active critics of mobilization" for their "anti-Ukrainian activity." New regulations reportedly in the works could soon prevent those eligible from service for going abroad or even leaving their home regions without permission.

The reports of large-scale draft dodging have raised questions about whether Ukraine will, in the face of a cease-fire that appears increasingly shaky, be able to recruit the manpower it needs to defend itself against Russia aggression — and whether it will be able to do so without repressing freedom of speech or civil liberties…

The story details the parlous state of Ukraine's official military and the slow shift back toward conscription over the past couple of years, initially starting just with former soldiers and then going wider.

The draft announcements have been met with alarm even in the country's traditionally more nationalistic west. Ukrainian outlets have published reports of men fleeing the country en masse to avoid being drafted. In one village in the Ternopil region, 45 men out of the 60 who were to be called up left the country five days beforehand, and all the draft-age men in another village disappeared overnight, regional draft office commissar Andriy Masly told journalists. Of the 14,000 men who were supposed to present themselves at the regional draft office for medical examinations, 7,500 didn't show up, he said…..

More than 1,300 criminal investigations have been opened against citizens suspected of evading military service, according to the Defense Ministry.

The Ukrainian government's response to reports of draft dodging has been to tighten the screws on civic freedoms. At the end of January, Poroshenko ordered the government to adopt legislation to regulate travel abroad for those eligible for conscription. In February, the armed forces said it would forbid draft-eligible men from leaving their home provinces without permission from the local military commissar….

Human rights watchers roundly condemned [journalist Ruslan] Kotsaba's detainment, and Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. But that hasn't stopped the Ukrainian government from pursuing other measures that would clamp down on freedom of speech when it comes to the fighting: After Kotsaba's arrest, Anton Geraschenko, an aid to interior minister Arsen Avakov, said he was working with Parliament to introduce legislation making it a crime to publicly call on people to avoid mobilization. On Feb. 7, Geraschenko warned activists planning to hold a picket against mobilization the next day that if they spoke out, each of them would be held for several hours to ascertain their identity, Amnesty International reported…

The State Department continues today to make vaguely threatening noises at Russia in defense of what we see as Ukrainian liberty.