RAGOZIN: Ukraine’s mobilisation – public support vs private resistance

RAGOZIN: Ukraine’s mobilisation – public support vs private resistance
Ukraine’s shortage of manpower on the frontline is acute and the state is turning to increasingly desperate measures to recruit more soldiers. / bne IntelliNews
By Leonid Ragozin in Riga May 27, 2024

In Odesa, a young woman was badly bruised when a draft officer attacked her with metal crutches as she protested her friend’s detention by a press gang.

Near Dnipro, a man apprehended by draft officers knifed one of them while trying to escape from their vehicle.

In Kharkiv, members of a press gang beat up a man at a bus stop. A video circulated on local Telegram channels shows the dazed man walking staggeringly towards a bench with hands on the back of his head as if suffering a concussion, while women form a human chain protecting the men and shout at the recruiters.

Originating from all around the country, videos of men actively resisting press gangs with the help of women, often random passersby, pop up online on a daily basis. In more than a few of these videos, draft officers are seen using violence against their targets. There were also reports of people dying inside draft centres - either from beatings or from medical conditions, such as epilepsy, ignored by the military.

This has been happening for many months before the new stringent law on mobilisation came into force on May 18. It obliges all draft age men to update their personal data in the reserve registry, making it easier for the military to hand them draft notices or punish them for draft dodging.

The shortage of manpower on the frontline is acute. Both the Ukrainian military and Western allies have been pushing hard to make the government facilitate mobilisation. But its prolonged hesitation is easy to understand when you hear what’s happening in real-life Ukraine, not inside the brilliant minds of military strategists and information warriors.

Sad or outright harrowing stories also come from the national border. In Zakarpattia Region, a man was shot dead by a border guard as he attempted an illegal border crossing. The shooter was charged with misusing the weapon.

In a separate incident, one of the best-known Ukrainian basketball players, Vadym Zaplotnytsky, was detained as he tried to escape into Romania.

More than 30 bodies of draft age men have been found in the Tisza river, which separates Ukraine from Hungary and Romania, since the beginning of the year. Still, Ukrainian men keep risking their lives by swimming across the cold and rapid mountainous stream, ridden with spiky underwater rocks, only to avoid being sent to the frontline. Others walk across the Carpathian mountains, an ordeal that sometimes also proves lethal.

Along a short section of a Ukrainian highway that runs through the territory of Moldova outside Odesa, people abandon their cars and escape into the neighbouring country.

A total of 11 thousand Ukrainian men illegally crossed into northern Romania alone since the start of the full-out Russian invasion over two years ago, according to Liberty Radio, quoting local police. Romania is only one of five countries Ukraine borders in the west.

On social networks, ukhylyant (or draft dodger) is the buzzword - there is an avalanche of memes, Tik-Tok videos, musical clips and posts which more often than not celebrate rather than shame those who try their utmost in order to avoid being sent to the frontline.

Information bubble

The Ukrainian leadership knew well that the mobilisation law would be extremely unpopular, so they kept postponing it despite considerable Western pressure. It was only adopted last month, a few days before the US Congress finally unblocked $61 billion in military aid to Ukraine. That synchronisation at least guaranteed that mobilised soldiers wouldn’t be fighting the Russian army with bare hands.

But the question of what they are really fighting for is dogging Ukrainian society and despite superficial appearances, it is difficult to say what Ukrainians really think on that matter.

Out of all theatres of this war, information space remains the one where the Ukrainian-Western alliance has an absolute advantage over the Russians. Infowar professionals are making a convincing case that Ukrainians are united like one in their desire to fight Putin until the last drop of blood, even though the prospects of victory are extremely dim and the devastation caused by Russian invasion has already set the country back by many decades, demographically and economically.

But when you look at what’s propping up this PR bubble more attentively, it may come across as a colossus with feet of clay. Worse than that, it only manages to linger in an atmosphere that feels eerily similar to the one that is being observed in Russia, Ukraine’s brutal and dictatorial adversary.

Opinion polls show an overwhelming support for the country’s war effort, mirroring similar results in Putin’s Russia. But as many experts, like sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, point out, war time polls can’t be taken at face value. In Ukraine, millions of people have left the country, also millions have been internally displaced. This migration tsunami primarily affected southeastern regions where pro-peace and pro-Russian sentiments have always been stronger.

But perhaps an even greater factor is preference falsification - a dominant issue in societies where people face serious risks for expressing their private opinions.

Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, puts out regular updates on people arrested for “justifying Russian aggression” in their social media posts or even in private phone conversations. Vast majority of opinion polls happen to be conducted over the phone.

In February, the Guardian reported that SBU had opened more than eight thousand criminal cases related to collaboration with the enemy since the start of the invasion. By comparison, a total of 483 politically motivated criminal cases (317 of them for antiwar views) were registered in the supposedly more repressive Russia in 2023, according to OVD-Info.

In recent months, the arrest spree extended to the hierarchs and ordinary priests of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the country’s largest church organisation which used to be formally affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. The affiliation naturally raises suspicion about loyalty to Ukraine and some priests in the east of the country did actively support the occupation. But specific charges in individual cases often sound about as plausible as those brought against members of the opposition, or religious dissidents like Jehovah Witnesses, in Putin’s Russia.

The spectrum of opinions in the Ukrainian media space shrank considerably in the early 2021, when president Zelensky decided to clamp down on TV channels associated with Kremlin’s ally Victor Medvedchuk. The channels commanded considerable audiences, but didn’t explicitly promote Russian propaganda. It’s unlikely that the ban made members of these audiences less sceptical of the government or Western-funded Ukrainian media.

When Putin launched a full-out invasion of Ukraine, regular broadcast on main channels was replaced with the government-controlled news stream known as “TV marathon”. Critical coverage is sparse and mostly confined to pointing out the shortcomings of the government’s war effort, not the overall maximalist policy of fighting Russia until Ukraine territorial integrity is fully restored. The criticism of secret services or far right groups, associated with various military units, is virtually impossible.

As a result, millions have drifted to Telegram with its proliferation of Russian military propaganda as well as fugitive Ukrainian media outlets operating out of the EU.

One of these, run by ex-journalist and politician Anatoly Shary, has 1.2 million followers. By comparison, president Zelensky’s channel on Telegram had 760 thousand followers at the time of writing. Shary covers events in Ukraine using combative and often obscene language typical that attracts the largest audiences on the platform.

An unashamedly biased commentator, Shary charges Ukrainian leadership with pursuing a suicidal confrontation with Russia and thus ruining the country. Official Kyiv routinely dismisses him as a Russian stooge, but Shary doesn’t mince words about Putin’s dictatorship and is universally hated by the Russian milblogger community.

A very different phenomenon is Politika Strany, a professional media outlet that was better known as the website strana.ua until it was squeezed out of Ukraine. Associated with media manager Igor Guzhva (and possibly with one of the fugitive Ukrainian oligarchs), it has adopted a neutral and dispassionate tone in its news coverage. It monitors a multitude of regional channels, scouring them for fresh mobilisation videos and other war-related stories. It also does a great job of monitoring Western media output related to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. With over 270 thousand followers, it finds itself well ahead of major professional Ukrainian news outlets, such Ukrayinska Pravda (164K) or NV (50K).

It is no wonder that Ukrainian politicians and security officials periodically call for banning Telegram, but that radical step hasn’t been taken yet.

What are we dying for?

Channels like Shary’s or Politika Strany are popular because they provide an alternative to the predominant view which dwells on two controversial narratives - that the war was inevitable and that it is also existential. That there is no middle ground between Ukraine’s complete subjugation by Russian dictatorship and overwhelming victory that involves complete restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. Or, as people like Estonian prime minister Kaya Kallas and Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov hope, Russia’s disintegration into many small countries.

Russia's full-out invasion in February 2022 shocked with its brutality, which seemed entirely out of place in the 21st century Europe. Its sheer disregard for international law was also dumbfounding. But when the shock subsided and war became part of the daily routine, people began to get a clearer view of what Putin’s invasion is and what it isn’t.

Notwithstanding the horror Putin has subjected Ukrainians to, when one’s lives are at stake - as in the case of Ukrainian men facing mobilisation - outlandish hyperbole and manipulation of the war’s cheerleaders become a hard sell. It is only natural for people to suspect that an earlier compromise with Putin - any time between 2014 and the failed Istanbul talks in the spring of 2022 - would have likely been a much better outcome for them personally and for their country as a whole. Especially when this idea is backed up by some of Ukraine’s own negotiators.

Over the last two years, infowarriors kept creating an illusion that it only takes this of that new weapon, provided to Ukraine at the risk exceeding the critical mass of Russian red lines crossed, and the Russian regime and its war machine will collapse. But now, after the failure of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in 2023, people are seeing clearly that if anything, the escalatory game is making Russia stronger.

The question which the men facing mobilisation are asking themselves goes along these lines: What if my sacrifice will be in vain or that it only helps to promote the agendas of other people and other countries?

The scope of material which demonstrates resistance to mobilisation in Ukraine is just too overwhelming to be dismissed as abnormal behaviour by people lacking the sense of civic duty or as the result of Russian propaganda.

It shows a growing rift between the public face of Ukrainian society, as presented by cheerleaders calling for war till victorious end, and the private opinion of real life Ukrainian citizens, expressed through draft dodging, cross-border escapes and a seemingly widespread hatred against press gangs hunting for men. This rift may play out in many different ways politically and Putin’s regime will surely try to exploit it to its own advantage.