Every military conflict these days has a class component; the soldiers directly involved in hostilities are usually drawn or conscripted from poorer social classes. The current conflict in Ukraine is no exception to this.
There are also differences in approaches between Ukraine and Russia to military staffing and individual freedom from military service. This difference is primarily due to the difference in the economic potential and human resources of the two countries.
This past Sunday in a village in the Kiev region, I saw about 100 conscripted young men gathered on the grounds of a kindergarten. Some were already in the uniform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, some were still in civilian clothes. A pack of cigarettes was enough to get them talking. Soldiers rarely have cigarettes these days and ask for them from passersby.
I learned that many of the conscripts were taken from their workplaces by military conscriptors. “I was working at the Epicenter hypermarket,” one man told me. “Two military men came in with the police, and the senior manager then pointed out a few people. They were taken, including me,” His other colleagues turned out to be construction workers, marketplaces sellers, and workers at a local furniture factory.
In Ukraine, the conscription of men between the ages of 18 and 60 has been in full swing since last year. Since February 24, 2022, all Ukrainian males as well as females of certain professions (military and medical personnel), have been prohibited from leaving the country. The only exceptions are employees of Western NGOs, some IT specialists, and critical infrastructure workers who cannot be replaced by women. Men who do not want to fight either hide or cross the Ukraine border illegally at night. Even those previously recognized as restricted from military service, for example, due to handicap, are being subject to conscription.
There are various corrupt schemes for helping men to escape to EU countries or to obtain forged papers. The rates for such services vary from 5,000 to 12,000 euros (one euro equals US$1.09). Ukraine is the poorest country on the European continent; only its wealthy citizens can pay such money. Consequently, the trenches at the military fronts are filled with inhabitants of the poorer regions of Ukraine.
Farmers are particularly valued for military service in Ukraine because of their experience in operating tractors and agricultural machinery. They can be more easily trained to operate tanks and other military vehicles.
If a Ukrainian can afford to pay $5,000 every six months, he can simply buy a deferment each time and go on with his usual life. Medical boards check his health condition and decide if the man is eligible for military service. Having a treatable disease gets six months of deferment.
Travel outside of the country is allowed for several categories of residents of Ukraine, including those who work for Western NGOs, those working on collecting financial donations abroad for the Ukrainian army, and fathers of at least three underage children. Forged papers for such categories are bought; especially valuable are those bought from those working for Western NGOs.
The other day in Odessa, the head of the military registration and enlistment office, Yevgeny Borisov, was detained. He is accused of corruption by the State Bureau of Investigation for giving instructions to subordinates not to touch certain people, ie those who had paid bribes to avoid military service. Earlier, regional media reported that Borisov owned a car worth $250,000, imported to Ukraine under the guise of humanitarian aid and that his retired mother has purchased a residential property worth more than $3 million in the Spanish resort town of Marbella. She purchased the property last December. In fact, many Ukrainian military commissars are becoming like landlords, collecting tribute from enslaved Ukrainian men.
Many wealthy Ukrainian celebrities, including famous actors and singers, regularly pose for photos in military uniforms, but we hardly ever hear of such people being injured or killed. Rather than directly serve, most of them are assigned to raise funds and other aid to the AFU, where their status is more useful. Thus we see that having a high social status as well as high income earned from theatre performance, musical recordings and music concerts more or less automatically exempts a person from being drafted into the army. Some celebrities have also been able to illegally evacuate their children from Ukraine by paying large sums of money. For example, the grandson of People’s Artist of Ukraine Sofia Rotaru was detained last year while trying to cross the Dniester River by boat to Moldova. Despite being detained, the grandson still managed to end up in France, having found a different way to escape Ukraine.
Full-time students are also exempt from conscription, as are students of European universities. In Ukraine, however, only the middle and upper classes can now afford to send a son or daughter to university.
One of the most de-motivating factors against service in the Ukrainian Armed Forces that is becoming more and more visible has been the spread of cemeteries in the country. Long rows of standardized graves of fallen AFU stretch out. Videos of these graves and cemeteries are going viral, discouraging the enthusiasm of potential Ukrainian servicemen. Although both sides in the conflict guard their casualty numbers as classified information, the Russian army is using five times as many shells every day, according to the secretary general of NATO. This obviously affects the corresponding casualty rate of the AFU. Just recently, at the end of April, the Kiev city council decided to set aside 100 hectares for a new military cemetery in the city in which 50,000 people could be buried, not counting the columbarium (a structure used in cemeteries to store and often display urns containing cremated remains, typically a wall). This will add to the already-overcrowded military cemeteries.
In Russia, meanwhile, according to Russian comrades and to Ukrainians traveling there to whom I have spoken, the situation for ordinary citizens is almost unchanged. In Moscow or Novosibirsk, there is no indication that Russian soldiers are fighting somewhere. In a large country, this effect is blurred rather than concentrated as in Ukraine. Last year, Russia announced partial conscription, after which thousands of Russian men left for neighboring countries (Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan) and did so quite legally and freely. Many of them remain there today. Most of them were from the middle classes in Moscow and St. Petersburg –IT specialists, media workers, some small and medium-sized entrepreneurs.
Pavel Pryanikov, a Russian opposition journalist and critic of the current Russian government, argues in his blog ‘The Tolkovatel’ that the main fear of Russians’ is not the military situation in Ukraine but the possibility of a return to the years of the economic collapse of the 1990s. Pryanikov writes, “All sociological studies and general observations show that the main fear of Russians is not the country’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine but the fear of a return to the empty shelves of the late Soviet Union. They fear total impoverishment and, in general, a return to the terrible 1990s.” He stresses that Russians intuitively sense the likelihood of a return to that terrible, neoliberal period of economic collapse should they lose in the current conflict in Ukraine.
The Russian military presence in Ukraine is dominated by people from the poorer regions of the Russian Federation – the republics of the North Caucasus, the Far East, and Transbaikalia. In the Russian Federation, the level of average salaries varies greatly from region to region. The level of salaries paid to contracted or conscripted soldiers in the conflict in Ukraine is much higher than the salaries they would earn in their own regions. The high income earned by the Russian Federation from the export and sale of its natural resources covers military expenditure by the government. This is not the case in Ukraine.
The minimum, monthly salary of an ordinary Russian soldier serving in the military zone is about 200,000 rubles (2,375 euros, or US$2,600). There are additional bonuses available for those with specialized military skills. This is several times higher than the salary of a Russian soldier posted to Siberia or elsewhere in the Russian Far East. In other words, the Russian Federation relies more on financial motivation of its servicemen rather than coercion, although, as in Ukraine, poor people are more likely to end up at the warfront.
By comparison, in Ukraine, a conscripted private is entitled to 20,000 hryvnias (about 500 euros). On February 1, salaries were cut by 30 percent at the request of the IMF, as one means to fight the country’s budget deficit. The pay cuts caused discontent among many Ukrainian servicemen. Ukrainian General Mikhailo Zabrodsky says in a recent interview that there is simply no room for additional funds to permit a return of salaries to their previous levels.
NATO countries, primarily the U.S., regularly allocate billions of dollars to Ukraine for military needs. These funds maintain the Ukrainian army and state. A significant part of the funds allocated by the U.S. under the description “aid to Ukraine” does not actually leave the U.S. at all. It is serving to replenish the U.S.’ own arsenals from what is supplied to Ukraine and to maintain and build the facilities of the U.S. military-industrial complex. In other words, it can hardly be considered to be aid to Ukraine.
As shown by their online comments, many Russian servicemen are convinced they are fighting a proxy war against NATO and in favour of a multipolar world. They believe that when Ukraine’s forces are exhausted, NATO will throw in soldiers from Poland, Romania and other countries of eastern Europe. Russian servicemen more often perceive their actions in Ukraine as a regular job. They don’t voice bitterness, but neither do they express much enthusiasm.
A minority of Ukrainian armed forces personnel–holding ultranationalist views– believe they are fighting to defend Europe from Asian hordes coming from Russia. But ordinary soldiers tend to view the military hostilities as a kind of fate – they were unlucky and did not have time to hide, but fate can still help them survive if they are lucky enough to find a basement to hide somewhere on the front line.
I am sure that after the cessation of hostilities, the ordinary masses of Ukrainian soldiers (not the ultranationalists) will quickly and easily find common ground again with their Russian compatriots in struggling for a better country and better world. This will not even require a long period to heal moral wounds.