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“Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” Maybe John Lennon’s famous musical lyric can be called naive, but it’s a hopeful vision all the same. Antiwar protests, mass soldier desertions, refusal to serve and fight in defiance of government orders and repression—these have stopped many wars once people decide there is nothing righteous in killing their fellow humans.
The current war situation in eastern Ukraine and the decision of the government in Kyiv to begin a new, fourth wave of military conscription and mobilization is unleashing a firestorm of mass opposition and refusal to fight. Protest is rising in all the regions of the country. For sure, there are still nationalist fanatics and far-right militarists exercising violence and intimidation against antiwar protests, but their capacity to stamp out protest is diminishing.
Ukraine is historically a peaceful nation. For some time now, it has avoided military conflicts like those that have flared elsewhere in eastern Europe—Yugoslavia, Georgia, etc. That came to a crashing end last year when the Kyiv government launched its ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against the people in the east of the country. But from the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine has seen refusals by soldiers to fire on their fellow citizens, desertions from the army and refusals to show up for conscription. Women—the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of military conscripts—have held protests and even riots against the war or against force military service.
The protests have been sparked, first of all, by the fact that many Ukrainians do not accept the interpretation of the war as offered by the government. They don’t necessarily see foreign (ie Russian) aggression. They only know that when a Ukrainian soldier lifts his gun or artillery barrel, it is a compatriot, a fellow Ukrainian, who appears in the gunsight.
Secondly, many people don’t want to die for the current government which they view as composed of extreme nationalists and neoliberals. They are unwilling to be cannon fodder dying for the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs whose only apparent interest is to pursue a civil war, siphon Western financial aid and suppress opposition to their rule. A young woman recently voiced this sentiment searingly at a rally held in her village in south-central Ukraine.
Last but not least, many ordinary workers and farmers, (contrary to middle-class, urban dwellers), preserve entrenched, regional identities. They consider their homeland to be a region such as Donbas, Bukovyna, Transkarpathia or Volhynia as much as, or perhaps even more importantly, it is the entity called ‘Ukraine’. It is harder to sell to such people the war’s patriotic, pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia message.
The astonishing fact that almost no one is coming voluntarily to the military recruitment offices in this fourth, latest round of conscription is causing panic in the government and top army command of Ukraine. They are appealing, as always, to patriotic and nationalist sentiments, but this is falling increasingly on deaf ears.
Men of conscription age are fleeing in the thousands, crossing Ukraine’s borders in all directions, or taking cover internally, to escape the clutches of the military recruiters. President Poroshenko has been obliged to order that, henceforth, only those men of military age with papers confirming they are duly registered with their military registration office will be permitted to leave the country.
“Each day, new facts about mass, draft evasion are emerging” reports the Ukrainian daily Korrespondent. It writes, “In the first wave of military mobilization in 2014, 20 per cent of those who showed up for the conscription call did so voluntarily. In the second wave the same year, it was ten per cent.
“This year, only six per cent of those conscripts showing up for the call to service have done so voluntarily“.
In the Trancarpathia region in western Ukraine, entire villages have scattered across various borders to escape conscription of their menfolk. The head of the village council of Kosiv district in Ivano-Frankivsk region reports that the entire population of the village booked buses and have moved to Russia to wait out the war.
In the village of Colchino, authorities could find only three of the 105 eligible males to whom to serve papers.
Chief Recruitment Officer for Trancarpathia, O.Boyko, told Korrespondent, “It may seem a paradox, but from the western Ukrainian region of Ternopyl, people have fled to Russia in order to escape army conscription.”
Many people are selecting east European countries as temporary refuges. Yuri Biryukov,an adviser to the Ukrainian president, has admitted, “In the last 30 days, 17 per cent of the total number of reservists of the entire region of Chernivtsy (western Ukraine) have crossed borders into other countries”.
“According to unofficial sources, the hostels and motels in the border area of neighboring Romania are overcrowded with Ukrainian draft evaders.”
In the Volhynya region of western Ukraine, villagers have blocked the attempts by authorities to distribute call-up papers. A news report by 112.ua explained, “On January 24, the residents of the villages of Melniki, Zatishye and Pishcha in Shatsky district of Volhynya region blocked cars of the district administration as they arrived. Inside the vehicles were representatives of the local administration and the military recruitment office, arriving to deliver call-up papers for the military mobilization.
“Protesters forced the authorities to tear up the papers. They were then allowed to leave and the people went at home.“
Authorities in that case struck back. “Three criminal proceedings have been opened under Article 336 of the Criminal Code (evasion of conscription)”, reported a local police official.
The Odessa publication Timer reports that on January 23 in the village of Kulevchi in Saratsky district of Odessa region, the local population revolted against the military mobilization and kicked representatives out of the local recruitment office.
The population learned that 240 call-up papers were en route to be served in their village. Within minutes, Timer explained, some 500 people gathered on the village square. Six officers of the recruitment office arrived with the papers but they found a less than welcome reception among the local people. When officials declared that refusal of conscription is punishable by criminal prosecution, the people began to shout “No war” and “We want peace”. They reminded the officers that Ukraine has not declared martial law and that the Minsk ceasefire agreement of last September has not been formally renounced by the Ukraine government. They called the new wave of military mobilization illegal and the recruiting officers were forced to leave the village.
O1.ua news outlet in Odessa city reports, “In the village of Limansky (Reni district), a representative of the military recruitment office arrived with call-up papers accompanied by two armed gunmen. It nearly cost them their lives. The peasant villagers almost lynched the three.“
Before the trip to the village, the military commissar of the district, Igor Skrypnik, was aware of the hostile attitude of the civilian population toward the mobilisation process. So he asked for protection while distributing mobilization papers. Two policemen armed with weapons were assigned. But it produced the opposite result.
“When two gunmen in camouflage appeared in the village, it immediately attracted people’s attention and caused a spontaneous riot,” said the acting chairman of the local state administration, Sergey Barinov. “About 200 residents of Limansky village surrounded the representative of the military and the armed police officers and threatened to punish them.“
“Deputy Chairman Ivan Stadnikov of the Reni district state administration and Military Commissar Igor Skrypnik immediately went to the village. After difficult negotiations, a compromise was reached. But then the local residents seized the call-up papers, defiantly poured gasoline on them and set them alight – right before the eyes of the officials who had brought the papers to the village.”
In some villages in Ternopil region, the heads of local councils did not even >participate in the distribution of call-up papers. Even more, when representatives of military recruitment offices were due to arrive, some local authorities in the region tipped off residents in order to give them the opportunity to avoid conscription.
The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports on January 27, “Ukraine’s male population has massively started leaving abroad in search of jobs to dodge the current mobilization campaign.
“Entire villages are booking buses to dispatch their men as far as possible. Military committees are handing over the lists of fugitives to law enforcers to try and restrict the movement of men subject to conscription outside their native districts and areas”, TASS says.
Citing the Ukrainian Vesti news agency, TASS reported, “Natalya from Zaporizhia (south-eastern Ukraine) dispatched her son to Russia several months ago. The woman told Vesti on condition of anonymity that she had also sent her husband away (also to Russia) one week earlier. Men from western regions are leaving for Poland and Hungary. The city military committee in Ukraine’s capital Kiev is also complaining about draft dodgers.”
Anti-war protests are continuing in the areas of the Donbas region that are controlled by Ukrainian troops. In the city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region, women staged a spontaneous rally in late January chanting “No war!” In a video of the> protest, at the 1’45” mark, we get a glimpse at how desperate the recruitment tactics of the authorities have become. A woman asks the military officer present, “Why are they beating on our doors at night and taking our men away to the army?”
In recent weeks, the neighbouring, small city of Debaltsevo has become the epicenter of the military clash between Donbas self-defense forces and the Ukraine army and militias. Thousands of Ukrainian troops are at risk of encirclement and capture. Most of the town’s residents have fled. There are only some 6,000-8,000 residents who are left, and they are living without electricity, heating and water supply. They are reduced to cooking their food over open fires.
The online Ukrainian media outlet Expres.ua reports that the mayor of Debaltseve was recently arrested by the Ukrainian Secret Service, accused of having sympathies with the pro-autonomy forces of Donbas. In the face of all this, the people rallied at the end of January, blaming the Ukrainian troops for their plight and demanding that they leave.
A protest of mothers and wives of conscripts was recently held in the village of Belovodsk in a government-controlled part of Luhansk region. The authorities arrived under the protection of machine guns to explain the conscription policy. The villagers answered that they did not vote for President Petro Poroshenko and they had no interest in sacrificing themselves for the interests of the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky (a well-know Ukrainian billionaire and advocate of war).
Social networks are responding to the mobilization by creating memes with titles such as the “Elusive Battalion”. The message is that it’s only in make-believe worlds that the children of high-ranking officials, parliamentary deputies, politicians and businessmen are serving in the military.
Writing in the Ukrainian web journal Liva, journalist Roman Lyubar explains, “Due to conscription, Ukrainian authorities have managed to unite the citizens of the country who are everywhere joining to boycott the military draft and increasingly protest against it. This despite the threat of criminal prosecution and militarist propaganda…
“Now Ukrainians see more clearly than ever that the poorest citizens face being cannon fodder and dying in a war while government officials and rich capitalists escape such a fate.”
Yevgeny Kopatko, a Ukrainian analyst and founder of the Research and Branding Group, told TASS, “More and more statements are heard in Ukrainian society about a readiness [by ordinary people] to sit in prison instead of going to fight. In this situation, the decision on more military mobilizations is another test for the Ukrainian authorities“.
Sergei Kirichuk, a leader of Ukrainian left organization Borotba, writes in a January 29 commentary, “Even pro-government politicians and analysts are saying that the current mobilization has failed. Some people will not come to the draft board, and others desert after they are signed up. Thus are ever more drops added to the cauldron of popular discontent.”
Under such circumstances, the Kiev government may resort to the policy of mass terror (with the help of Ukrainian far-right paramilitary organizations), forcing people to go to war at the point of a gun and murdering antiwar activists. But based on the experience of revolts and revolutions in Europe in 1917-18 during World War One, we know where such policy can lead. When people are armed and forced to fight against their will, when they are indignant, facing dire economic circumstances and demanding peace and yet their will is ignored, then the prospects of governments and private capitalist interests deemed responsible for the mess are not very bright.
Dmitry Kolesnik is a Ukrainian journalist, left-wing activist and editor of the web journal Liva.com (‘The Left’). The journal has an English-language page where it translates and publishes some of its original articles from Ukrainian and Russian languages.