Fear of Mobilization: Myths and Reality

17 April 2015, 16:09

The minute every new round of mobilization goes into full swing, the Kyiv district recruitment offices (DROs) get endless letters from “well-meaning” residents hinting that, supposedly, this or that bad neighbor is avoiding the draft, while this other alkie/druggie/hooligan needs to get a call-up notice, go to war and straighten out his life or at least do penance.

Too many Ukrainians still perceive the army as a penal system, meting out punishment, not to distant Russian militants, but to those being called up to serve. “The way things are right now, no point in my joining the army” is the position of most reservists. Unfortunately, starting with the first round of mobilization a year ago, the many wrong steps taken by both the government and military leadership have been changing the broadly patriotic mood and desire to defend their homeland to growing skepticism and distrust in the purpose of joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Many are called, few show up

Before the fourth mobilization began, General Headquarters gave the DROs a clearly defined objective: to provide a far better quality of call in 2015 than the previous year. One of the key criteria was ensuring the proper level of professional skills and training among reservists being mobilized into the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The plan was that only experienced individuals with those military occupational specialty (MOS) needed by the given army unit would be put “under the gun.”

It turned out that to mobilize 1,000 men into the army, they would need to issue nearly 40,000 calls, numbers that recruitment offices said they had no means of vetting, realistically. Instead, they had to be satisfied with simply taking whoever wasn’t hiding from their local recruitment office and had normal results from their physical.

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But the numbers have not been good. In March-April 2014, 70% of Kyiv reservists ignored the call to show up at their recruitment office, by the second round, 80% ignored it, and by the third round 90% were no-shows. Today, starting January 20th with the fourth round, 95% of reservists in the capital are not showing up—at least, that’s what our sources at the Kyiv Municipal Recruitment Office registration and mobilization department tell us.

These individuals are not draft dodgers as such. These are reservists to whom notice to appear before the DRO has not even been delivered for any number of reasons: they may have gone abroad or be hiding on their balcony during mobilization, or they may simply live at a different address, be on a business trip, and so on. Poor efforts and even sabotage on the part of business owners, local officials, residential services and so on, who are also authorized to deliver DRO notices to individuals, are all part of the problem. And it’s virtually impossible to hold any of these 95% “evaders” responsible in any way.

“Because of the insufficient numbers of trained reservists who are not avoiding being mobilized, the General HQ of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has left only two criteria for recruiting men: normal health and the desire to defend Ukraine,” admits Valentyn Kozhukhovskiy, acting Military Commissar of the Kyiv recruitment office. So Ukraine’s army is taking in men who never served before and never studied in a military college, and is retraining reservists who are financial specialists to fill officer positions in intelligence platoons.

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2014 vs 2015: That was then, this is now

Nevertheless, the quality of the new troops joining the UAF in the fourth mobilization has considerably improved in quality, compared to 2014—and on a number of levels.

As one reservist reports, “I was awakened at 06:00 on a Friday morning in March 2014 by a phone call. The call was an automated message from, say, the Darnytsia DRO crisply stating: ‘According to Presidential Decree, you are to appear at your DRO at 09:00 this morning…’ There was no draft notice and no physical. ‘We were given our objective and our timeframe: do it—yesterday. And we couldn’t do anything else,’ said recruitment officers.

“That same evening, we were driven by bus to the First Separate National Guard Tank Brigade in Chernihiv Oblast. We were issued uniforms, boots, camouflage, ‘Belukha Mountain’ soviet underwear of the type worn during the civil war. At first, we had to sleep without pillows, blankets or mattresses on bare hardcase beds, covering ourselves with our pea jackets. Some of the men were clearly suffering from infectious TB, some even had epilepsy. We were torn without any warning from our families, our jobs, our businesses, our cities, and our farms.

“Most of us thought this was just a 10-day training tour. By the end of the first week, our unit had a real drunken mutiny, complete with an attempt to storm the arsenal. The terrified district recruiting officers called out by the brigade commander to explain the situation ran as fast as their legs could carry them. The situation in the military barracks—and not just in ours, incidentally—remained very tense for a few more days until higher command allowed some half-legal breaks to “recharge” and instituted “open house” days.

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“Getting the battalion combat-ready took less than three weeks, after which we were dispersed with substandard equipment to a number of checkpoints. Some were sent directly into the conflict zone…”

That was last year. Today, the mobilization process is quite different. Those who are called up are not sent directly to military bases but go to boot camp in Yavoriv, Rivne, Desna, and other places for basic training. Over the course of a month, they revive long unused skills or learn new military specializations. Those who are mobilized generally don’t get to the conflict zone directly or quickly. And some don’t get there at all. The military barracks smell just as rank, but the men get contemporary camo, Canadian boots, and completely different quality ammo than last year. The same is true of the food—all of it is thanks to the efforts of the Defense Ministry, volunteers and western donors.

Information wars: Bad news, good news

Why don’t reservists know about this? Because, for the entire duration of this armed conflict with Russia and its proxies, there has never been a comprehensive approach to building awareness among the general public and shaping the national mood. The information offices of the Defense Ministry have been swamped with useless “soldierly” clichés from the past. “MinStets,” the newly-formed Information Ministry headed by Yuriy Stets, has also proved hapless, along with the main state media with a similar remit, the National Broadcasting Company. Private media operate strictly based on corporate interests, chasing after cheap sensationalism, while some, like the free rag “Vesti,” quite openly provide the enemy with ideological ammunition.

Ironically, even those media that praise the noble feats of Ukraine’s fighters and offer the highest degree of frontline coverage for public consumption are also doing the country a disservice. War is a tragedy, at times hellacious battles take place, and even during supposed ceasefires, Ukrainian soldiers are getting killed. Heroes should be honored. But readers, whether it’s intended or not, are left with the impression that serving in Ukraine’s Armed Forces is one unending stream of “blood, sweat and tears,” a daily hell that only a miracle will bring you back home alive from. What nobody hears about is that not all of those mobilized are directly involved in the conflict and combat losses are actually only 0.5-1.0% of the total number of military personnel!

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Positive statistics are not the only good news the domestic press is not promoting. According to law, anyone who is mobilized continues to have a right to their job and is supposed to be paid the average salary for that enterprise or organization. While in the UAF, depending on their position, mobilized reservists are paid UAH 2,100-4,500 (USD 95-205) a month, an amount that is doubled while they are on active duty in the conflict zone. That is, if someone who works as a civilian is called up, they get two sets of pay simultaneously, in additional to annual vacations and additional cash benefits.

What’s more, soldiers are regularly sent home, to handle “social and domestic matters,” on a sequenced rotation that covers up to 30% of units at a time—over and above the annual 30-day vacation! Many are being deeded small parcels of land by their local governments as well. And of course, there are the benefits of being a veteran of the ATO and combat. If a soldier is wounded, compensation is provided, in line with the individual’s disability. And if a soldier is killed, the family is given a one-time UAH 609,000 (ar. USD 27,000) benefit.

All these social benefits add considerable weight to the individual’s honorable duty to defend the homeland. Who is responsible for informing Ukrainians everywhere about this aspect of going to war, not just reporting on its obviously terrible sides? Why are material incentives not being included with the moral aspects by the domestic press?

Making silk purse out of a “separatist’s” ear

Ukraine is unlikely to win this war if military reform is not undertaken in parallel to the ATO, including the mobilization component. The Main Administration of Defense and Mobilization Planning at the General HQ has finally begun to talk about calling journalists, not to carry a rifle, but to be press officers attached to military units—what’s called embedding.

The issue of a single State Registry of Reservists has also been raised at last, an area that is currently in disarray, as there is no unified system for electronic tracking, just rolodexes kept at DROs. The penalties for violating the law on military services are minimal, so an entire army of reservists isn’t registered in any recruitment office, which means it can’t be mobilized. Reservists are only tracked at certain enterprises, so people are genuinely surprised that someone has brought them a call-up summons at work and they are expected to get permission from their DRO to go abroad or to move to another city.

The recruitment system itself needs serious reforming and streamlining, as it currently offers the perfect soil for corruption to flourish, while the stream of meaningless paper trails, often just pulled out of the air, drowns what is most important: actual work with recruits and reservists.

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For instance, should DROs have an in-house psychologist? Of course, they should. But it was only during this fourth mobilization that such a position began to appear on district recruitment office staffing lists. Moreover, considerable time needs to pass for a checkmark in an HQ report to turn into a proper working unit: this psychologist needs to be a real professional, not just a serviceman who was given the position “because you’re our guy” when other positions at the DRO were cut. This psychologist also has to talk to every individual who is being mobilized and their professional assessment should weigh just as much as the assessment of the doctors who carried out the physical.

In the end, the Ukrainian Government and Armed Forces have to understand one thing. No amount of super-modern lethal weaponry supplied by the West will effectively repel Russia if no one is able to use those weapons, or if those handling such weapons behave inappropriately and have no idea what their mission is or why they are even there.

Expert opinion

Larysa Voloshyna, psychologist:

The first wave of mobilization, whose term is now running to an end, was a strange psychological cocktail of three main groups, each of which had problems with feeling motivated and psychologically prepared to serve in the military.

The first group was those who had enlisted in the Ukrainian Armed Forces during peacetime and, having made the decision to dedicate part of their lives to military service, they proved psychologically unprepared for the dangers of war or for the need to recognize their opponent as an enemy.  The second group was the volunteers, who consciously made the decision in a storm of patriotic fervor but weren’t prepared for the structure and order of an unreformed, still largely soviet, army. The third category were those who had never expected to link their lives with trenches and barracks and saw their own mobilization as the result of force or fatal circumstances.

Each of these groups adapted to military realities in its own way. So, especially at the beginning, it was easy to see misconduct, nervous breakdowns, desertion and so on. This type of behavior demonstrated just how enormous the psychological stress was, largely the result of lack of motivational readiness.

The current mobilization is bringing individuals into the army who are already aware of the dangers and are mostly making a conscious choice. They are moderate, responsible and careful, so their expectations of the military system, will be much higher than those of the volunteers who were ready to “find their guns in battle” or of those who “didn’t agree to this” when they signed their contract with the Armed Forces.

The exigencies of the first months of the war are in the past. Now is the time for systematic psychological work with both the newly enlisted men and those who are returning to civilian life after serving their terms… some 50,000 individuals.

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