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Draft Dodging Challenges Zelenskyy And The West's Message Of Ukrainian Unity

Rhetoric vs. Reality

KYIV, UKRAINE - APRIL 11: Relatives of Ukrainian soldiers, who have been fighting for more than two years, hold banners near the Ukraine’s parliament building demanding the adoption of the demobilization law. Ukraine's parliament passed a law today on military mobilization that will boost the number of its troops. Soldiers serving for more than 36 months were originally slated to be allowed to demobilize and return home, but the provision was removed from a draft law. Photo by Vitalii Nosach/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images.

Speaker Mike Johnson, having caved on Ukraine, scheduled a House vote on Saturday to push through a $60 billion aid package for the beleaguered country. For months, Beltway politicians have been repeating the same old mantra: the war is at a critical stage, and unless America funds Ukraine, Russia will win and take its pursuits to neighboring countries, including NATO nations.

But news from the battlefront raised questions about a structural problem that American funds cannot solve. Are Ukrainians ready to fight and sacrifice their lives in a war that has now gone on for nearly 26 months? Are Ukrainians united in their mission to defeat the Russians?

Ukrainian politicians know that the idea of a 100% volunteer fighting force - the gold standard in all democracies - will get them nowhere. Against all democratic norms, all men in Ukraine above a certain age are forbidden to leave Ukraine, period. The government has been operating checkpoints and employing border guards to catch men trying to escape the country. The tactics are reminiscent of the East German Stasi (the Secret Police) that monitored the flow of citizens out of East Germany into West Berlin through gates like Checkpoint Charlie. The Stasi used landmines and watch towers with machine guns to watch for dodgers. The Ukrainian border guards are using infrared cameras, motion, and foot sensors to catch the "bad guys," those leaving their country so that they can live rather than be forced to fight. 

Despite these forced efforts—and because of the extraordinary toll that Ukrainian men have taken on life and limb—the average age of a frontline fighter is 42. Facing a 1:5 disadvantage in troop strength against the Russians, soon to be 1:10 when Russia mobilizes its armed forces, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy recently pushed through a controversial law that would lower the military draft age from 27 to 25. The idea was to demand unity through force.

As Reuters reported, the compromise legislation was watered down significantly to lower punishments for draft dodgers to civilian penalties - like confiscating vehicles or canceling driver's licenses - and increase incentives, such as offering financial perks for people who volunteer to fight in the army and sign an army contract. 

But the perks and the lowered penalties haven't resulted in young men signing up. Hidden in the law is a provision that says that once drafted, a soldier is forever committed to fighting for Ukraine and will not be released from service even after three years in the armed forces. A long story in the New York Times last week cataloged the stories of several dodgers who play cat and mouse with draft patrols and escape into neighboring countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania - rather than enlist to fight. 

The story is a sad commentary on the hidden side of war. Politicians with around-the-clock security sit in safe government buildings, debate policy, and make decisions that can harm people in the field. Adding to the hypocrisy, these government officials do not serve themselves - but force others, by government mandate with the power to prosecute, to make the ultimate sacrifice. 

Worse, some officials, although of draft age, escape the draft altogether either because of their connections or by tailoring documents that can get them an exemption. Many American political leaders, including Mitt Romney, former President George W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton, avidly support American funds to go to Ukraine to prolong the fight. But they are alleged to have dodged the draft when they were called upon to serve during the Vietnam War.

The new Ukrainian draft law has few exceptions for drafting beyond the bare minimum. Men who are the sole breadwinners for their families or who have a certain level of education or skill set may be exempt from military service. Additionally, men who have already served in the military or have some health conditions that prevent them from serving may also be exempt. The law is strict in its enforcement, and many men are still being drafted despite their attempts to claim exemptions. 

The Biden administration and the Washington Neocons are fond of reminding us that the brave Ukrainians are willing to fight - and if the American military-industrial complex gives Ukraine weapons, training, and logistical support, Ukraine can defeat Russia. In a recent commentary, lifelong NeoCons who serve on the Congressional National Defense Strategy Commission - former Congresswoman Jane Harman, Mara Radman, and Roger Zakheim - wrote: "Only the combination of the Ukrainian will to fight with the aid of U.S. military platforms will defeat Vladimir Putin."

But, tens of thousands of Ukrainians are not willing to fight and would instead take a chance drowning in a river crossing the border than die in battle. If Kyiv were to revoke the draft law so that there is no forced conscription, allow rotations so that current fighters can go home after serving for two years and let men freely leave the country, troop strength in the Ukrainian Armed Forces would plummet dangerously.

Ukrainian opposition MP Inna Sovsun, whose partner has been on the front lines of the war since Day 1, revealed the truth to CBC Radio. Sovsun, who did not vote for the draft law, said: "So I understand that those people are extremely tired. Their families deserve to get them back. That is why I understand the needs of those 500,000 families and soldiers to get people back. And that is why I had to abstain."

Zelensky's presidential term ends on May 19, 2024. Had he called for elections, millions of Ukrainians and the 12 million refugees who are unhappily resettled abroad would probably have voted him out of office. America is now in the undesirable position of sending billions to advocate for war under a democratic leader who, by government mandate, extended his term because "Ukraine is united in its fight against Russia." We are not so sure.

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