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Ukrainians express worries over conscription following Russia's invasion


Ukraine has always had military conscription. It's a legacy of the Soviet Union. But until Russia invaded Ukraine this year, some men could defer military service. Now a travel ban on men between the ages of 18 and 60 has people who never wanted to enlist or who might have gotten deferments feeling trapped and afraid. NPR's Ashley Westerman has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: A quick trip to Kyiv's main train station shows the spectrum of opinions about mandatory military service to fight this Russian invasion. Ivan Kovichinski was out front, waiting to pick up a friend who's been serving in the East. I asked him if he supported conscription.

IVAN KOVICHINSKI: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: "It's war," he says. "If you don't want to go, too bad. It's war." A few feet away, Anastasia Petrova says conscription is probably necessary.

ANASTASIA PETROVA: We have to be prepared to, you know, be the country like Israel, where even women are ready to serve, because, you know, like, we have a neighbor who's insane, so we kind of all have to be ready.

WESTERMAN: But Maxim Ponomarenko, who says he has several friends who have been recently drafted, disagrees.

MAXIM PONOMARENKO: No, I don't think is that the forcing of prescription is the right thing. I believe it has to be voluntary.

WESTERMAN: Not only is conscription not voluntary, the exceptions have been suspended under martial law and a travel ban put in place that prevents most men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, effectively trapping them inside Ukraine. Charli Carpenter is the head of the Human Security Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which recently surveyed thousands of Ukrainians about the travel ban. A majority said they do not support requiring men to stay.

CHARLI CARPENTER: They gave a variety of reasons, some of them ethical - human-rights based - and some of them very practical.

WESTERMAN: Like that some men could better support the war effort working abroad and sending money home or that many wouldn't make good soldiers because they aren't trained properly or do not wish to fight, she says. And she says closing the country's borders for men could have some human rights ramifications.

CARPENTER: There's a human rights law that says everybody has the right to leave their country and return to it if they want. And that is a rule in treaty law that can be suspended in time of national emergency, but only when it's strictly necessary, which it's hard to argue this is.

WESTERMAN: When the travel ban was announced by the Ukrainian border service, experts saw it as a move by Kyiv to bolster the Ukrainian resistance.

ROMAN GORBACH: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: Colonel Roman Gorbach is the head of personnel for Ukraine's ground forces. He says so far they've primarily called up men with current military contracts, previous combat experience or relevant training. And while he wouldn't talk numbers, the colonel says less than 10% of conscripts who have been called up have been immediately sent to fight and that rumors that men are being randomly picked up off the street and drafted are lies. Regardless of what the government is saying, Anton Waschuk with the Western NIS Enterprise Fund says a good portion of Ukrainian men would still rather leave the country than fight now or later. He says how the war resolves itself will dictate how many people end up leaving.

ANTON WASCHUK: So if there is a good peace deal, then a large proportion of Ukrainians will remain within Ukraine. If there is a further negative outcome, whether that's, you know, further loss of territory or the loss of job opportunities, we can expect anywhere up to 50% of the current population to uproot itself.

WESTERMAN: Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "YOUR POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.