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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Ukraine’s west, draft dodgers run, and swim, to avoid the war

A Ukrainian border guard operates a drone over the Mala Tysa River where it runs on a border with Romania, whose authorities say that more than 6,000 Ukrainian men have swam across to evade the military draft, in Tyachiv, Ukraine, April 10, 2024.(Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

By Andrew E. Kramer

The roiling water can be treacherous, the banks are steep and slick with mud, and the riverbed is covered in jagged, hidden boulders.

Yet Ukrainian border guards often find their quarry — men seeking to escape the military draft — swimming in these hazardous conditions, trying to cross the Tysa River where it forms the border with Romania.

Lt. Vladyslav Tonkoshtan recently detained a man on the bank, where he was preparing to cross the river in the hope of reuniting with his wife and children, whom he had not seen in two years since they fled to another country in Europe.

That thousands of Ukrainian men have chosen to risk the swim rather than face the dangers as soldiers on the eastern front highlights the challenge for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as he seeks to mobilize new troops after more than two years of bruising, bloody trench warfare with Russia.

“We cannot judge these people,” Tonkoshtan said. “But if all men leave, who will defend Ukraine?”

With Russia having seized the initiative on the battlefield in recent months, Ukraine’s ability to defend itself hinges on replenishing its arsenal of weaponry, a matter largely up to allies, and mobilizing troops at home.

But getting more men to enlist has been particularly difficult and politically fraught. After months of delays and debate, Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday passed a law to expand the draft by eliminating some medical and other exemptions, increasing soldier pay and stiffening penalties for draft dodging. Zelenskyy separately signed a law lowering the draft age, to 25 from 27.

Ukraine’s shortage of soldiers has become acute, generals say. In a speech in parliament on Thursday, the commander of Ukrainian forces in the east, Gen. Yurii Sodol, said Russians in certain sections of the front outnumber Ukrainians by more than 7-1.

It was among the first public assessments of the balance of forces in the east by a senior Ukrainian military commander. Ukraine, Sodol told members of parliament, requires one soldier for every 10 yards of trench work stretching along the 600-mile front.

Many Ukrainians who rushed to volunteer in the first days of the war have fought continually since, with only two weeks of leave once a year. Soldiers are enlisted until the end of hostilities, with no defined date for release from their obligation to serve. With casualty rates high, being drafted, soldiers say, is like getting a one-way ticket to the front.

As Ukraine’s battlefield prospects have sagged, draft dodging has been on the rise.

In the hills and river valleys of western Ukraine’s border regions, men from elsewhere in the country have been seeking to avoid enlistment by crossing into European countries, where they seek refugee status.

Romanian authorities say more than 6,000 men have turned up on their side of the Tysa River since Russia’s invasion. Not everyone makes it. The bodies of 22 men have washed up on both banks, said Lt. Lesya Fedorova, a spokesperson for the Mukachevo border guard unit.

More have most likely drowned, officials say, though their bodies have never been found. The fatalities have earned the river a grim nickname, Death River, though it is hundreds of miles from the violence along the front.

Men also slip across the border on mountain paths or try to exit through border crossing points with counterfeit documents.

The exodus has shifted the nature of smuggling in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains, which border four European Union countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Smuggling that once revolved around counterfeit cigarettes has pivoted almost completely to the business of guiding draft dodgers, border guards and local officials say.

Border guards say they detain men trying to cross the border illegally and cannot specify in any particular case whether a man was dodging the draft, a determination that is left to a court. But the trend of men crossing is clear.

Last year, the Mukachevo Border Guard Detachment broke up 56 criminal gangs helping Ukrainian men illegally leave the country during wartime, Fedorova said. Prices for help crossing the border, she said, have risen to as much as $10,000 today from $2,000 per person soon after the invasion. Smuggling a backpack of cigarettes, in contrast, pays as little as $200.

Checkpoints have gone up on highways near the border, where cars are checked for men who might be trying to leave the country. And along the border, guards have put up additional infrared cameras and sensors triggered by footsteps, Fedorova said.

The flow of draft dodgers in the west is a reflection of how large the specter of war looms over the lives of Ukrainian men, who by law are required to stay in the country.

Most men turn up when summoned for military service rather than flee, said Sgt. Mykhailo Pavlov, the commander of a military recruitment office in the western city of Uzhhorod. A veteran of the fighting, he was wounded before serving as a recruitment officer.

He said he talks to the men he drafts, describes the front and assures them they can improve their chances if they train well.

“Everybody is afraid to die, but we try to make them look at it from a different perspective,” he said — the perspective of survival. He also describes frankly the random risk of artillery shelling.

Still, the efforts to avoid the draft can be elaborate. On a recent morning, within minutes of officials beginning a patrol to check papers, posts on the Telegram social networking site were tracking their movements, alerting men who want to avoid the draft.

“Petofi Square,” warned a post in the channel, called Uzhhorod Radar, that tracks the recruitment officers as they walk through Petofi Sandor Square. In Kyiv, a similar site, Kyiv Weather, posts the risk of draft officer patrols in neighborhoods as sunny, cloudy and raining.

Vitaly Semon, 30, a welder, nervously fished his passport from a pocket for soldiers checking documents one recent morning, and described his two exemptions, for a back ailment and as a caregiver for an elderly father. His papers checked out. “It’s our reality now,” he said of the document checks.

In nearby villages, closer to the border, cars from other regions of Ukraine frequently cruise the streets and highways as men look for opportunities to cross out of the country, said Koval Fedir, the mayor of Tornivtsi, a village whose last houses overlook the fence along the border with Slovakia.

Before the Russian invasion, cigarette smuggling — done to avoid high European Union taxes — infused many aspects of life in the village, he said, financing some lavish homes and new cars in the driveways.

“It was profitable for everybody,” he said. Drones carrying boxes of cigarettes buzzed over the village and toward the Slovak border, sometimes crashing on the streets. Some smugglers used catapults to hurl cigarettes over the border fence.

But it has all but faded as a business, since moving draft dodgers is more lucrative. Smugglers have taken to hiring Roma guides to steer men out of Ukraine, Fedir said.

Andriy Benyak, who is Roma, said in an interview that he had been arrested while guiding two Ukrainian men toward a loosely guarded section of the border between Ukraine and Slovakia. He said he had been trying to earn money to buy food for his children. He spent a week in jail and paid a fine.

On the banks of the Tysa River at night, when most crossings are attempted, the speed of the current and breadth of the river are harder to gauge, border guards say. The guards last year took to publishing videos online of rescues and recoveries of bodies to discourage men from risking the swim.

In one video, a man standing precariously in the swirling water yells for help. The guards yell back, “Don’t slip; hold on!”

In that case, he lost his grip and was swept away before rescuers could reach him. No body was found, officials said.

The man apparently had tried to avoid the risk of dying in the war, but “he died anyway” in the river, Fedorova said. Of draft dodgers, she said, “They see the river as their chance to live because so many soldiers die on the front line.”

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