The Ukrainian military has announced plans to introduce a licensing system that would prohibit men eligible for conscription from leaving the region where they are registered.
The move, based on 1992 legislation, was designed to allow the country’s armed forces to more easily locate potential conscripts, but it sparked immediate backlash.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy criticized the announcement in his overnight TV address to the nation on Tuesday, saying the general staff should not make decisions without him. Two parliamentarians immediately tabled a bill that would scrap the army’s initiative, which they described as “obsolete”.
It remains unclear whether male movement permits will be introduced, but the military’s announcement highlights the precarious position facing Ukrainian men who could be called up to fight at any moment.
Since Zelenskiy declared martial law at the start of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 have been eligible for military service and have not been allowed to leave the country. There are a few exceptions, such as men in poor health, or fathers of three or more children.
“I don’t want to fight. I want to keep working,” says Roman, a 31-year-old software developer in Kiev. “But I don’t want to think negatively about it either, because a lot of my friends have been mobilized and it’s not fair to them. I try not to think that if I’m mobilized it means 100% that I’m going to die or get hurt or see a fight.”
When martial law was first announced, Ukrainian authorities said conscription would come in waves, starting with those with previous military experience, and would reflect the needs of the military, for example focusing on medics or people. with a scientific background. Women can also be mobilized if their professional experience is needed, but they cannot be coerced and not expected to fight.
Thousands of Ukrainians have volunteered to fight or be reservists. By March 6 alone, about 100,000 had served with the territorial defense force. But there are also those who worry that they will be sent to the front lines, where a horrific artillery battle rages and between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers are reported to be killed every day.
For some men, the prospect of conscription — and the uncertainty of not knowing when the call might come — looms oppressive.
“The worst thing is I don’t know how” [mobilisation] happening right now,” said Roman. “Is the draft notice coming to my house or is someone just stopping me on the street? Do I have to keep renting out my apartment? Shall I buy [military equipment] or not?”
Last month, a group of men were detained by police at Otel, a well-known nightclub in Kiev, for allegedly violating the curfew and subsequently being given conscription by the local military administration office.
Maks Yudin, Otel’s installation artist and technician, and Otel’s owner Pavlo Derhachov, were among them. Yudin described how they had held a daytime event – allowed within curfew rules – and were tearing down the set. He said he tried to open the back door at 11pm and found a crowd of police officers outside.
“There were about five police officers for each person,” said Yudin, who is originally from Russia but moved to Ukraine in 2019. “The police have demonized this club for a long time, even though we have been since the beginning of the war.”
Yudin volunteered to be an army medic at the start of the war, but despite a degree in medicine and previous military experience, he was rejected because of his Russian citizenship.
Otel still serves as a makeshift assembly point for aid distribution. Behind the bar are shelves of goods stacked with goods for various towns near the front lines, as well as some equipment for a battalion they support. On the other side of the dance floor is a crate of Molotov cocktails.
Police said 219 people found in the club have been given conscription, but Yudin and Derhachov say there are only about 10 to 15 people.
“The kind of conscription message they gave us is a bit like spam,” Derhachov said. “They are designed to encourage people to sign up to fight, but there is no system to follow up. Fortunately, there are a lot of those people who will respond and want to fight and that’s great.”
A second type of draft notice is delivered to someone’s home and mentions why the military needs it.
“Since the war started, I’ve experienced a kind of survival guilt syndrome because people die and I can’t feel well,” Derhachov said. “I’m actually glad they closed the borders [for men] because it forces you to confront what is happening, even if it is in a passive form. One way or another you have to participate.”
Derhachov said they still occasionally host daytime events, but not the “hedonic, techno raves” Kiev was known for before the war. “Every event has raised money for the war – the military, a specific battalion or humanitarian aid,” he said.
“We are not at the stage of total mobilization like in World War II,” explains Oleksandr Shulga, a former sociology academic at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, who volunteered to fight on the first day of the war. “There are plenty of people who are willing and preparing to be mobilized. What worries me is that after the war there will be a gap in society between those who did and did not fight.”