Ukraine cracks down on corrupt army recruiters

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered the sacking of all the country’s regional army recruitment chiefs after investigators discovered officials had been taking bribes to allow people to avoid the military draft on medical grounds.

Despite the patriotic fervour that has gripped the country 18 months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, some men are desperate to escape the military call-up and are willing to pay to get out of it

Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country ever since martial law was introduced in February 2022. Exemptions exist, however, for medical reasons, study abroad, being a single father, having more than three children or caring for a disabled person.

A recent government investigation uncovered corruption at recruitment centres in 11 different regions. The cost of bribes differed across the country, but many draft dodgers were asked to pay $6,000 for a medical certificate granting them an exemption from military service, the probe found.

The investigation was prompted by corruption charges brought against the head of the Odesa regional recruitment centre in July. Yevhen Borysov was charged with taking more than $5mn worth of bribes to approve exemptions.

Depending on his cut of bribes that varied between $2,000 and $10,000 per person, Borysov helped hundreds and possibly thousands of men avoid being drafted.

Yevhen Borysov appears in court in Kyiv, Ukraine. The former head of the Odesa regional recruitment centre was charged with taking more than $5mn worth of bribes to approve exemptions from service © Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Most of the proceeds, investigators said, were used to buy a €4.2mn villa in Spain in December and to illegally travel abroad for holidays, including to the Seychelles.

Borysov has denied the charges. His lawyers claimed he was unaware his mother had bought a property in Spain. They claimed he could prove the source of funds as well as the new cars he and his family were pictured driving.

When medical exemptions are too expensive to procure, fleeing via Ukraine’s porous western border is an alternative option.

A total of 13,600 men have been caught attempting to cross into neighbouring countries outside the official checkpoints and another 6,100 have been arrested using fake documents at regular border crossings, said Ukrainian border guard spokesperson Andiry Demchenko. The daily numbers have dropped in recent months, to about a third of what they were at the start of the invasion, he said.

The number caught crossing the border represents a minority of Ukraine’s potential recruits but it still the equivalent of about five brigades and it is impossible to know how many men managed to escape undetected.

A 40-year-old who goes by the moniker George Ivensiya on social media for fear of repercussions managed to cross illegally into Romania in late July. He wrote on his Telegram channel that the crossing was “difficult” and “not for the unfit”, without going into any specifics. He argued he was not willing to fight for the current Ukrainian authorities, describing them as corrupt and not working in the interests of Ukrainians.

Now in Czech Republic with his wife, George is selling his escape route to other draft dodgers for $1,000. He said he receives about a dozen messages every day from men, but also women who write on behalf of male relatives and friends, saying they too want out.

Videos of unwilling draftees being manhandled into cars by military recruitment officers, nightclubbers being served papers and stowaways on trains and trucks are a regular feature on Ukrainian news. Many towns have their own Telegram groups dedicated to the whereabouts of recruitment officers on patrol. A recent spate of corruption scandals shows that some are paying thousands of dollars for exemption papers. 

Young men aged 18-25 who never served in the military before and essential workers cannot be mobilised, but they are still obliged to register with their local recruitment office and notify them of any change in their status. 

In a bid to ease the friction and reduce corruption, MP Heorhiy Mazurashu introduced a draft amendment on Monday that would allow men to refuse the draft on personal or religious grounds. The idea would be to attract motivated citizens to the army while allowing those who do not want to fight to seek employment and keep the economy afloat. 

“Authorities need to stop shamefully chasing just anyone with conscription notices,” Mazurashu said. “It’s creating a nice picture for the enemy to spread and having a negative effect on the social-economic situation in the country and people’s psychological state.”

Ukraine’s armed forces said they could not comment on a parliamentary initiative.

A recruitment centre in Lviv, Ukraine. A recent spate of corruption scandals shows that some are paying thousands of dollars for exemption papers © Pavlo Palamarchuk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Part of the issue seems to be that Ukraine’s military recruitment system has not been modernised, with some officers still attempting to fill quotas in order to get promoted.

A recruitment officer in Vinnystsia region was filmed arguing with the mother of a disabled man who had been cleared by a military medical commission as fit to serve, even though he needed to be spoon-fed. The decision was later reversed.

Ukraine’s ground forces said there were sufficient numbers of men registered for current and future mobilisation purposes. Spokesperson Volodymyr Fito said that Russia was using the information space to spread fear among Ukrainians and to discredit military recruitment offices. Fito added they categorically condemn any violations by recruitment officers and investigate all allegations.

“We are interested in having motivated and professional servicemen,” Fito said. To reduce the number draft dodgers, he said, more attention needed to be paid to popularising military service and making citizens aware of the “necessity and irreversibility of fulfilling their constitutional duty”. 

Sasha, a 34-year-old man from Kyiv, said he registered a month before the invasion and was ready to fight if called upon. A few months ago, he was given a six-month exemption as an essential worker. He described the recruitment system as antiquated, full of handwritten documents, and not attuned to Ukraine’s current needs.

“They absolutely need to focus on motivated people who want to develop a career in the armed forces,” he said. He gave the example of a friend of his who is a surgeon in Zaporizhzhia region and who spent his first three or four months in the army building barracks “despite pointing out his skills could be used better elsewhere”.

“But we can’t reject [the idea of] general mobilisation because we won’t have enough people,” Sasha said. “We are fighting a huge neighbour with a bigger population.”

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