World Journal

Stories from the Front Lines: a different narrative of the war in Ukraine

Stories from the Front Lines: a different narrative of the war in Ukraine

Since the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, one of the major issues to arose on both sides was a critical shortage of soldiers. While President Zelensky immediately signed a presidential decree mandating national conscription of every male aged between 18 and 60 on 3 March 2022, the President of the Russian Federation announced a partial mobilization seven months later. According to the country’s state Military Media Center, Ukraine’s army is now composed of 850,000 troops, with plans to further extend that number after the 2023 counteroffensive. On the other hand, Russia announced on October 2023 that more than 335,000 people signed up so far to join the armed forces or the voluntary units in Donetsk and Luhansk, according to Defense Minister Shoigu. Even though the reality of war implies similar dramatic experiences for every soldier, major differences can be found in the motivations to enroll in the army for one’s own country.

Ukraine: among the bravest and the outcasts

The current situation in Ukraine paints a bleak picture for soldiers, particularly conscripts, who often endure a year without rotation, sleeping on makeshift mattresses, and without seeing their relatives for months. With the same soldiers in service for two years, the luxury of rotations becomes an unattainable respite. This translates into a lack of genuine breaks for rest. Soldiers find themselves on the front lines or in trenches during the day, returning to the base only at night. Infantry units, in particular, endure harsh conditions, spending 5 to 7 days in the cold trenches. The dire circumstances are further exacerbated by delays in the delivery of ammunition from international allies. The exhausted soldiers tend to guilt not only corrupted officials for this situation but also those citizens not willing to enroll in the army. But how is it possible for a Ukrainian civilian to avoid conscription?

Among the male citizens not still enrolled in the army, there is a growing phenomenon resembling the Japanese concept of ‘hikikomori’. Fearing deployment to the front lines, some have withdrawn from society, refraining from leaving their homes altogether. They no longer report to work, have relocated, and earn a living by selling homemade products online. They have adopted a reclusive lifestyle, rarely leaving their homes to avoid police encounters or being listed for mobilization. Amongst those who can speak English, some have found online employment in American call centers based in Ukraine. While deserters might be able to avoid the cold trenches, still they cannot escape social stigma, regret, and feelings of shame.

While hiding from recruiters is a common practice, another viable option for Ukrainians is to flee the country. The prospect of leaving is fraught with challenges, as the cost of crossing borders exceeds 7,000 dollars. Moreover, recent developments, such as the removal of the defense minister and corruption cases, have intensified the difficulties of those trying to escape the country. Other widespread ways to avoid recruitment, such as bribes to army generals, are becoming increasingly unviable too. Just last summer, a big scandal associated with some corrupt recruiters emerged; in fact, people could pay up to 5,000 dollars to be registered as “unfit for military service” and avoid their duty. Since then, the general level of surveillance has risen, both by increasing the level of control among officials and by further securing the borders.

RUSSIA: where conscription also means freedom

In October 2022, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, leader of the private military company Wagner, traveled to one of the Penal Colonies in the Russian region of Chelyabinsk, with the specific aim of offering money and freedom to convicts willing to fight in Ukraine. According to the New York Times, on that single occasion, more than 196 people accepted the offer, gambling their lives for their freedom. Even now, after Wagner’s annexation to the national army and the death of Prigozhin, inmates keep flowing to the Ukrainian disputed front, in an effort to stabilize a conflict that will probably endure indefinitely. While their freedom should be guaranteed after six months of military service, the reality is quite different on the battlefield. As described by many convicts, commanders disregard their lives, as they are pressured to re-enlist and used as flesh for slaughter on the first line. They are treated with no respect, often living under dehumanizing conditions.

Prigozin addresses Russian inmates in a video that circulated on social media (2022)

Many former convicts come from rural areas of the Russian Federation and are often incriminated for drug-related crimes or murders. Going to fight for their country had a twofold positive effect: for the prisoners, it denotes a tool to get freedom, a decent paycheck, and the possibility of social redemption in the eyes of their relatives and fellow citizens. On the other hand, for Putin, it represents a unique occasion to avoid another round of partial mobilization, which not only allows people in big cities to carry on with their normal lives but also makes it possible to avoid highly unpopular measures. Just within the Wagner organization, more than 50,000 inmates served in the ranks of the Russian forces; one in five eventually died, leaving behind their dreams of redemption and freedom.

After Prigozhin’s passing, the Russian Defense Ministry adopted the same recruiting method, offering salaries up to $2,000 and the eventual pardoning. However, there are many cases in which the inmates are used as bait to expose the enemy’s artillery, fomenting a sense of frustration. They often die in the battleground just to be identified as “missing” rather than “killed in action”. This bureaucratic formula has a concrete effect on their families, as they are attributed with no benefit or recognition. They face more than the enemy while fighting the war for their freedom; indifference and cruelty are among their very ranks. The stories of the former prisoners in search of redemption collide with those of the young Ukrainians still in the trenches or trying to escape mandatory conscription. Nonetheless, many of them share the same faith, dying on the battleground of an absurd war.

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