The Grim Business of the War in Ukraine: Making Profits on Human Despair



by Gennady Shkliarevsky, who is Ukrainian, is Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College


The war in Ukraine has entered its third year on a sour note. The Ukrainian military has suffered several major setbacks. The most important is the loss of Avdiivka—a strategic town in eastern Ukraine that has been the scene of fierce battles for almost two years. On the diplomatic front, although the West continues to back Zelensky’s government, this support brings few real results.

The Kyiv regime has failed to make Ukraine part of the European Union or win NATO membership. Although Europe’s assistance remains substantial, the significant military aid package remains stalled in U.S. Congress with little prospect of moving forward, leaving a huge hole in the capacity of the Ukrainian army to conduct effective military operations.

Perhaps the most significant challenge that Zelensky’s regime faces is securing human resources to prosecute the war. The Ukrainian army is exhausted and severely understaffed. It needs more soldiers. Russia, with a population of 144 million people, has a significant advantage in this respect over Ukraine, which has 44 million people. According to current estimates, Ukraine needs about 500,000 new conscripts to sustain its war effort. The Ukrainian parliament is in the process of discussing the new draft law on mobilization, but its Ninal approval is still pending. In the meantime, the problem with manpower in the army remains extremely acute.

The situation is so desperate that the Ukrainian authorities are resorting to extreme measures and policies. The government, for example, organized and enabled recruitment squads (Ukrainians call them “people snatchers“) to conduct regular searches and raids in Ukrainian cities to round up men who appear eligible for military service. These days, many Ukrainian males try to avoid venturing into public spaces and avoid being apprehended.

Numerous videos of these squads operating in the streets of Ukrainian cities are circulating in the media. They show members of these squads apprehending people, loading them into buses, and taking them to the local military registration and enlistment office or TTSK (territorial recruitment center). Human rights advocates consider this practice to be in significant violation of the rights of Ukrainian citizens.

These extreme methods indicate that the government is desperate and that many Ukrainian people are trying to escape conscription and not to go to war. This evidence contradicts assertions that come from the government and organizations that serve its interests, stating that over 90% of Ukrainians support the war effort and are willing to fight this war to a victorious end. There are many other indications that reveal the discrepancy between government policies and attitudes of ordinary Ukrainians.

The unwillingness of many Ukrainians to serve in the military has given rise to the practice of avoiding military service. This practice has become so common and so widespread that it constitutes what amounts to a de-facto branch of the economy that operates in illegal business. It sells opportunities to escape conscription by bribing those in positions of power. The size of this economy is hard to estimate.

One can only approximate its extent based on extensive, and one could add totally futile, efforts by the government to put an end to this practice by prosecuting its perpetrators. The sheer number of these cases, their diversity, and the amount of money involved in each case indicate that this economy is huge and involves billions of dollars.

Perhaps the most common example of this illegal practice is the situation in which military officials in charge of conscription demand bribes for a deferral of or a total release from the obligation to serve. Instances that involve corrupt officials are so numerous that even a very selected list of such cases over just the last couple of weeks will take several pages. One report from the city of Sumy tells about the arrest of the head of the local military administration for taking a $5,000 bribe for what is called a “white ticket”—a total release from service.

Online publications Antikor and New Voice have reported the detainment in two separate episodes: the arrest of the former chairman of the medical military commission in the local military registration office of the Chernihiv region and the conviction of the head of the Chernihiv regional office. Both cases involved bribery.

This is bribe money belonging to one of the Chiefs of the military registry and recruitment offices.

Authorities in the Lviv region arrested a local police officer for taking a bribe from an individual who tried to avoid being drafted. The level of corruption is so extensive that Zelensky’s government has had to undertake actions against entire networks of registry offices. Last August, the government fired all heads of regional military registry offices in Ukraine.

The cases prosecuted by the government give some idea about the extent to which the practice of bribery permeates the entire system of military conscription and the sums of money involved in the practice.

A scandal that erupted in the city of Odessa last year has led to the arrest of Yevghen Borisov, the head of the military registry in the Malinovskii district. With the money Borisov obtained from bribes, he was able to purchase exclusive real estate in Europe worth millions of euros and expensive cars., a Ukrainian news agency, published a list of some of the biggest scandals involved in the government’s anti-corruption campaign. However, many experts believe that these revelations represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Although the government tries to address some of the most egregious cases of bribery and corruption, there are instances showing that the system tends to protect its own. In one case, for example, the former official of the district registry office who was accused of taking bribes had to pay a Nine—a mere slap on the wrist under corruption charges.

At the same time, a case in a court in Lviv sentenced the mother to a $4,000 fine for arranging a scheme that would allow her son to escape from Ukraine to a European country. The two cases illustrate the existence of the two-tier system of justice in Ukraine. A resident in the Ternopil region was convicted of trying to escape military service by paying $500.00 to a local employer for listing him as his employee with the exemption from service.

Another way to avoid conscription is to bribe medical doctors who provide certifications of eligibility for military service. A member of the military medical board in the Khmennytskii region has demanded $5,000 to secure a decertification. In another episode, a surgeon from the military hospital in Lviv has received a bribe of $5,000 to certify an individual as unfit for service.

Many ordinary Ukrainians also try to escape from Ukraine to avoid conscription. Since the government does not permit citizens of the conscription age to leave the country, many turn to border guards for help in arranging the crossing of the border.

A court in the Volyn region has recently convicted a border guard who received a $6,000 bribe for arranging a crossing. In another episode, the police arrested a 28-year-old man in Lviv who engaged in regular smuggling of people across the border. Desperate Ukrainians turn for help, even to charity organizations, some of whom also take bribes to arrange escapes. Corruption affects even commanders of acting military units who can, for a bribe, arrange a leave of absence for members of their units. According to, a platoon commander in the Odessa region demanded bribes from his soldiers for permission to go home on leave.

These descriptions of various corruption schemes used by ordinary Ukrainians to escape from military service certainly cannot give a full idea of the extent of corruption that plagues the Ukrainian system of military service. However, the sheer number of these schemes and their diversity indicate that a significant segment of the Ukrainian population certainly does not support the war and does not want to serve in the army.

People are taking enormous risks to avoid going to the front. They have no faith in their government and are using all possible loopholes to escape its vigilant eye and hard grip The number of these people is hard to estimate, but given the cases reported in the media, one can easily see that the figure of 90% in support of the war exists only in the mind Zelensky and agencies and organizations in the service of his government. The war has produced an extensive network of resistance that is not visible but is nevertheless very real. This network has given rise to a true shadow economy that is making a profit from human despair.

Efforts by Zelensky’s government to prosecute for bribery and corruption in the military conscription system are disingenuous, if not a total sham. The war empowers precisely those very individuals who operate this repressive system. They have taken bribery to a whole new level; their illegal activities constitute an entire economy of corruption that profits on peoples’ fears.

By spreading their lies and propaganda, Zelensky and his government are trying to deceive, silence, and manipulate the Ukrainian people. They are trying to brainwash them into believing that this war is winnable. Their real purpose, though, is to retain their grip on the country by continuing this war and sending thousands of Ukrainians to die in it. The new mobilization law will sacrifice another 500,000 Ukrainians to this senseless slaughter. Zelensky has recently stated that the death toll in the Ukrainian army for the two years of the war is a mere 31,000 soldiers. This figure is patently untrue. Even the Western supporters of Zelensky and his government do not believe this number. Yet the Ukrainian government spreads this lie to deceive the Ukrainians and to sell them the new mobilization plan.

There is no way that a government that has this many people opposed to it and resisting its efforts can win. The façade of conformity and support that the government creates is an illusion. It conceals the existence of silent resistance that is largely inaccessible to direct observations. These are not enemies of Ukraine. They are the people of Ukraine, and they are disempowered and ignored by Zelensky and his government. This government cannot be oblivious to these obvious facts. Its members know that they are merely timeservers. They desperately try to stay in power for as long as they can.

If they remain in control and for as long as they remain in control, they will continue to suppress and exploit the Ukrainian people while at the same time enriching themselves at their expense. Supporting this government and providing it with military aid makes Western governments complicit in this diabolical scheme that brings nothing but suffering, death, and destruction to the country and its people.

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