Ukraine's new draft shocks young people

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky likely changed the fate of thousands of Ukrainian men when he signed a law lowering the conscription age to 25 from 27 this month, more than two years after Russia began its full-scale invasion .

Ukrainian forces are struggling to hold back the much larger Russian army and desperately need to replenish their ranks. Now many of the young people who remain in Ukraine – thousands of others have fled the country illegally – worry about their future.

New York Times reporters spoke with Ukrainian men who may be affected by the change.

Yegor Khomchenko, the owner of a communal bakery in eastern Ukraine who turns 25 next month, said he had many friends who had gone to war.

But he said his wife, Amelia, told him he would “do everything I can to keep them from taking me away” if he was drafted.

“I'm worried, even a little scared,” Khomchenko said. “But everything will go as God wanted.”

Mr. Khomchenko lives in Druzhkivka, an industrial city in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Russia has bombarded the city with missiles and artillery, but life goes on, although the rumble of front-line fighting can still be heard nearby most evenings. At the beginning of the war, his wife, then pregnant, went to the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine. She returned home after giving birth to their son.

“It feels quite calm here because our family is close. We cannot imagine living apart, and we do not know how people separated by war for months and years can face this ordeal,” she said. “Of course, when there are bombings in Druzhkivka, Amelia is afraid, but together we are strong,” she added.

Nestor Babskyi, 23, a physiotherapist at a rehabilitation center in western Ukraine, sees several Ukrainian soldiers wounded and maimed by the war every day. He said he felt guilty for not having served himself and a sense of fear about what awaited him.

“At first,” Babskyi said, “I was terrified at the thought of going to war, but now I'm calm about it.”

The wounded soldiers “played their role and went back to living their lives, so I'm waiting for my time to come.” And he adds: “I realize that I will certainly be more useful there than here. This thought reassures me.”

Oleksandr Manchenko, 26, a journalist from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, who covered the war, noted the tough calculation President Zelensky had likely faced in lowering the draft age.

“Young people are the future, no matter how banal it may seem,” Manchenko said.

“Maybe he thought that Ukraine could do without youth mobilization, but apparently the military situation does not allow us this luxury,” he said.

Mr. Manchenko said he respected the courage of those who enlisted in the early days of the war. “It is thanks to them that we survived,” he said, adding that he doubted his courage and did not want to fight.

“Also, I want to continue doing what I'm doing because I think my work is important too,” he said. “But I have no intention of running away from the mobilization to hide. So we'll see how my destiny unfolds.”

Maksym Sukhyi, 27, a dental technician from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, had already reached the minimum age for the draft when the new law was signed on April 3. He said that he had been training to go to war since August 2022 but that he had not yet enlisted.

He was looking for a unit to join while learning weapons and tactics at a camp on weekends and going to the gym.

Training in Ukrainian military units is often uneven at best, and men who are drafted – rather than those who enlist voluntarily – are often assigned to the infantry. Those ground troops usually have the most difficult job: staying in trenches under heavy bombardment and attacking enemy lines if necessary.

Mr. Sukhyi said he is preparing for such possibilities.

“I have to be as professional as possible. If I go to war, I want to be a professional there too,” she said. “I am therefore preparing for possible mobilization to the extent that time and financial resources allow. If I end up in war, I don't want to be someone who knows nothing.”

Vasyl Vanzhurak, 24, is a sawmill worker in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. He said he wanted to enlist but his father went to fight, leaving him to care for his mother and other relatives in the first months of the war.

“I'm worried? Yes and no,” Mr. Vanzhurak said. “My parents are more worried than I am about me going to the military.”

He said he realized that with such a brutal war going on, “they still need people there.”

Denys Yemets, an electrician at a steel mill in southern Ukraine, turned 25 last month. He said he wasn't too concerned about the change in the draft age since he believed it was more needed in the steel mill than in the army. But, if he recalled, he would go to fight, he said.

“I have already gotten used to the idea that this war, unfortunately, will last a long time,” he said. “At first we all hoped that everything would end quickly, but then it turned out that the reality is much harsher.”

Mr Yemets said his uncle and stepfather, who had fought in the war before, had discouraged him from fighting. “They really didn't want me to follow in their footsteps and serve in the Army,” he said.

“I am the only male descendant left in the family and they are very worried that I am not well,” he said. “They would definitely want me to stay at the plant and continue to support my mother, aunt and grandmother.”

Generations of Ukrainians were shocked by the Russian invasion. As the war continues with no end in sight, Ukraine's youngest are increasingly in danger, risking being drawn into the carnage of ground combat as they defend their homeland.

On the front line, their fate will be decided by, as the English World War I poet Wilfred Owen once wrote, “the strange arithmetic of chance.”

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