July 19, 2024

Ukrainian officials have taken several steps in recent weeks to swell the ranks of an army depleted by more than two years of grueling combat. The government passed a new mobilization bill aimed at increasing troop numbers and has stepped up border patrols to catch draft dodgers.

Now, officials are targeting men who have already left the country. This week the government announced that Ukrainian embassies had suspended issuing new passports and providing other consular services for military-age men living abroad.

Men between the ages of 18 and 60 were prohibited from leaving the country after the start of Russia’s invasion in 2022, but some were abroad before the rule took effect and others have left illegally since then.

By suspending consular services, the government said, it was responding to demands for fairness in society.

The new rules will remain in place until a new mobilization law takes effect on May 18. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that it was still working out the details about what services would be provided after the broader mobilization law went into effect, but its message was clear: If you are healthy and can fight, come home and join the military.

“How it looks like now: A man of conscription age went abroad, showing his state that he does not care about its survival, and then comes and wants to receive services from this state,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said in a statement. “It does not work this way. Our country is at war.”

Critics have said the move could end up sowing divisions between Ukrainians at home and those abroad while not having a real impact on the drive for more soldiers. There are about 860,000 Ukrainian men now living outside the country, in the European Union.

The drive to bring men back to Ukraine is part of a broader effort to enlist new soldiers urgently as Russia seeks to exploit its advantage in arms and numbers across the eastern front. In certain areas, Russians outnumber Ukrainians by more than seven to one, Gen. Yurii Sodol, the commander of forces in the east, told the Ukrainian news media last month.

As American officials pressed lawmakers in Washington to deliver more military aid for Ukraine, they also pressed the government in Kyiv to address problems with its draft.

James O’Brien, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, noted on a visit to Kyiv this week that the country’s mobilization efforts were every bit as critical to stabilizing the front and turning the tide of war as artillery.

“Ukraine needs to make sure it has the people necessary to fight,” he said at a news conference.

The lack of clarity about how the policy would be carried out added to the heated debate inside Ukraine about the measure.

Many soldiers on the front, including tens of thousands who have been fighting with little rest for more than two years, see the rule as a just and fair move.

“This decision is long overdue,” Alina Mykhailova, a military medic and widow of a commander killed in combat, wrote on Facebook, describing it as the restoration of some “small percentage” of justice for Ukrainian servicemen.

“You don’t like it? Give up your citizenship and go to hell,” she wrote, in comments that reflect growing anger among Ukrainian soldiers and military families at men who have avoided fighting.

However, Volodymyr Viatrovych, former head of Ukraine’s National Memory Institute, warned that the move could create resentment from Ukrainians living abroad.

“This decision will bring nothing but damage,” he wrote on Facebook, arguing that it would not force more people to join the army but only “weaken national unity.”

A majority of Ukrainians living abroad, he wrote, will not abandon their jobs, studies, wives and children “to take a one-way trip right now.”

There is particular concern about teenage boys whose parents took them abroad for their safety when the war broke out and who have since turned 18. Under the new law, they may have to return to Ukraine to get their passports, and then they may not be able to leave.

“There has to be some improvement, the creation of some possibility to get registered with the army at the consulate,” Tetyana Senenko, a Ukrainian living in Georgia, said on social media.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would provide further clarification on the procedure for obtaining consular services, to avoid leaving hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men abroad in a state of limbo.

Serhiy Fursa, deputy director of the investment company Dragon Capital in Kyiv, said on Facebook that Ukraine should be more wary of alienating men who could be useful to the economy if not to the military: “Yes, these men are needed in Ukraine. And yes, they chose not to be in Ukraine during the war. Ukraine needs all its citizens. And not all citizens of Ukraine are heroes.”

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