Why Ukraine might run out of willing fighters: Press gangs roam the streets and send those who can’t pay bribes to the killing fields, writes DAVID PATRIKARAKOS. After 70,000 Ukrainians died defending their freedom… it could happen here too

The war in Ukraine has always seemed a strange blend of the contemporary and the historic. During my visits to various fronts, I have watched soldiers livestream drone battles on flat screens, explain to me how AI is helping them better target the enemy, and I have spent time in trenches that wouldn’t look out of place in World War I.

I was reminded of this when a Ukrainian friend recently told me about the growing problem of press gangs there.

Not too long ago, he and some friends got off at Kyiv train station and were immediately swarmed by a mob of masked soldiers checking the documents of all military-aged males and hauling off those without the necessary exemptions (these include being unfit to serve on health grounds, those in certain types of study, and those who have lost family members during military service) to various army facilities.

Many will almost certainly end up on the front, unwilling and undertrained.

CCTV footage believed to show Ukrainian soldiers removing men while enforcing conscription

Ukraine is once more throwing up things I thought existed only in history books and novels: one of them is the press gang. In its 17th- and 18th-century heyday in Britain, men would be grabbed by mobs of sailors and bundled on to ships to fight the country’s wars.

Back then, Acts of Parliament gave the Crown the right to seize men of seafaring experience. Our Royal Navy found such men in merchant sailors — whom it captured both by stalking the ports for those inebriated while on shore leave, and by boarding merchant ships at sea and hauling them off.

Nor were foreigners exempt. When the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, it cited the British practice of using press gangs to abduct American citizens (probably around 15,000) as justification.

In 19th-century England, low wages, perpetual desertion and the toll taken by diseases such as scurvy made naval recruitment a constant struggle. And that’s without the manpower demands of the war with Napoleonic France.

At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, more than half of men in the Royal Navy were estimated to have been ‘impressed’, which is a fancy word for what was essentially kidnap and military serfdom.

The only way to avoid the press gang was to fight them off or run. The same is true today in Ukraine.

My friend’s experience was not an isolated incident. I’ve heard stories of passports being confiscated, and press gangs turning up at offices.

An engraved illustration of the Royal Navy Press Gang snatching sailors in 1886

An engraved illustration of the Royal Navy Press Gang snatching sailors in 1886

Odesa market is a strange sight these days, bereft as it is of military-age men, many of whom are increasingly staying at home as more videos spread on social media of press gangs physically grabbing people in the streets and bundling them into vans.

It’s a sign of desperation. Ukraine is facing a severe recruitment crisis.

Kyiv claimed this week that 31,000 of its soldiers have been killed. But as far back as August, US officials estimated that there were 70,000 war dead and as many as 120,000 wounded.

Each time I go to the country, my list of dead friends and acquaintances grows. Each time, I see more wounded in the streets.

According to a December 2023 US intelligence report, Russia has suffered 315,000 casualties. But, at more than 140million, it has at least three times Ukraine’s population of roughly 40million.

On top of that, it is a dictatorship. It can snatch as many people off the streets as it wants — and it does. In one notorious example, more than 200 men from the Mipstroy1 construction company were sent off to fight in one go.

It swipes the immiserated from homeless shelters and, notoriously, from the country’s brutal prisons. One resource Russia never runs out of is people. And who is going to protest? Whose voice really matters?

Following Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, thousands joined up to expel the Russian invaders from their lands.

And for a long time they were successful. With the help of Western weapons, they beat the Russians back from Kyiv.

But since 2023’s failed counter-offensive, the war has begun to turn. Casualties are mounting. Morale is low, though the soldiers fight determinedly on. I have met far too many warriors in Ukraine to believe they will simply give up.

But the supply of Western weapons has been both tardy and incomplete. Friends who were desperate to join up in February 2022 now talk about refusing to die in ‘Zelensky’s war’.

Friends at the front tell them: ‘Don’t bother coming here, it’s chaos.’

‘How many more of our men will die?’ is the question being asked now. ‘And for what?’

Ukraine may be running out of willing fighters.

 In November last year, former UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that the average age of a Ukrainian soldier at the front was over 40 (other reports claim 43).

Military-age friends at the front tell them: ¿Don¿t bother coming here, it¿s chaos¿

Military-age friends at the front tell them: ‘Don’t bother coming here, it’s chaos’

Newly recruited soldiers celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv last year

Newly recruited soldiers celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv last year

I can confirm this from first-hand experience. It is an astonishing statistic, especially bearing in mind that male life expectancy in Ukraine is only 68.

Now contrast this with the average age of active duty members of US armed forces, which is 28, and the UK, at 31.

So far, Kyiv has hoped to avoid trading the lives of its youngest and brightest with those of Russian thugs and criminals on the battlefield. But under a new law the minimum conscription age will be lowered from 27 by two years, meaning that anyone above the age of 25 can be called up.

Legally, Ukrainian army recruitment officials cannot detain civilians, let alone physically coerce them. Call-up papers are sent online and distributed in person. But the country has been under martial law since 2022, which gives those officials the chance to abuse the system.

Sometimes the results are egregious, with reports of a man with a broken arm being forced to drive to a recruitment centre and another with severe mental health difficulties made to sign up.

Many cities now have Telegram messaging channels dedicated to monitoring the activities and movements of recruitment officials, or ‘olives’ as they are known, referencing the colour of their uniforms.

As we sat in a cafe in the centre of the city one morning, a friend showed me the Odesa group. Scrolling through videos and photos, I could see it had tens of thousands of members giving each other tip-offs about the areas where the olives are active.

The state is fighting back. In March 2023, Ukrainian security services blocked 26 of these channels, including those active in the cities of Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa. ‘Due to constant updates, the destructive platforms quickly built up numbers of subscribers exceeding 400,000,’ it announced. But new channels sprang up in their place.

Occasionally this stand-off erupts. In early February, 100 women in the village of Kosmach blocked an incoming road following rumours that the olives were coming to round up the remaining men there.

Anyone entering had to show their phones to prove they weren’t part of any recruitment operation. One woman who happened to come by from another town was falsely accused of being a ‘spotter’ for the olives and beaten in her car.

The situation is not helped by Ukraine’s perpetual corruption problem.

By law, healthy males between 18 and 60 are now banned from leaving the country. In reality, rich Ukrainians can pay for ‘letters of exemption’ to get round this.

Increasingly, the war is seen by some sections of society as one being fought by those without the cash to bribe their way out.

The Ukrainians are brave and patriotic — and they have far exceeded the expectations of almost everyone, including both Putin and the CIA.

But with Donald Trump raging against sending billions more in military aid to Kyiv, and now looking ever more likely to beat Joe Biden in this year’s election, many Ukrainians are wondering what is the point of going off to die when their allies no longer seem to care.

The truth is the Ukrainians have no choice but to fight. The country’s very existence is at stake. Don’t believe me? Believe Putin, who has said many times that there is no such country as Ukraine, only Russia.

Increasingly, the war is seen by some sections of society as one being fought by those without the cash to bribe their way out

Increasingly, the war is seen by some sections of society as one being fought by those without the cash to bribe their way out

The government in Kyiv understands all this. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak recently remarked: ‘Of course it [the war] is scary, it could mean death or disability. It’s the 21st century, you finished university, you were trying to get a job, and now you have to take a gun and defend your home. But the president is trying to talk to society, to explain what is at stake.’

This speaks to a wider problem, which we might loosely call the spirit of the age. Across the West, the young are no longer geared towards seeing military service as important, even in the event of a war.

In January 2024, a YouGov poll found that 38 per cent of under-40s in Britain would refuse to serve in the Armed Forces in the event of a new world war, and 30 per cent said that they would not serve even if Britain was facing imminent invasion.

Walking through Kyiv or Odesa and sitting in cocktail bars still filled with Ukraine’s well-dressed, multilingual and often absurdly coiffured and tattooed young, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this is a country in the midst of conflict.

But Ukraine is at war, and much of its youth did sign up. Many are now dead. Many more may have to follow — helped by us. We are doing what we can. By November 2023, as part of the UK-led Operation Interflex, 30,000 Ukrainians had been trained on British soil since June 2022, in the biggest training programme here since World War II.

But even that may not be enough. Last week, the British Ministry of Defence reported that Russia is preparing legislation that will raise the age of military contract personnel recruited before June 2023 to 65, and 70 for officers.

Given that the existing limit for soldiers is only 51, this is a substantial rise. Ukraine will need to respond — and this means an expansion of conscription.

General Kyrylo Budanov, head of military intelligence, has been clear. ‘This need is “a fact”,’ he said, ‘and it needs to be understood and recognised. With such volumes, no recruitment will cover our needs without mobilisation.’

It was conscription that enabled us to defeat Germany in two world wars, and Ukraine is facing a similar fight for survival.

Perhaps the next time I go to Kyiv I’ll see Ukrainian women handing out white flowers for perceived cowardice to those tattooed men who now sit drinking Negronis while their comrades are away fighting.

I have always said that the lessons of Ukraine are lessons for all of us. War has returned to Europe, and it requires vast numbers of citizens to fight.

The Ukrainians are dying on the fringes of our continent so that we don’t have to. Let’s give them everything they need — or one day, the press gangs might return here, too.

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