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Ukraine: 2023 Was A Year Of Disappointment

Ever-Present Corruption, Military Failure, And Flight From The Country.

Dmitri Kovalevich is the special correspondent in Ukraine for Al Mayadeen English. He writes a monthly situation report as well as occasional special reports. This is his situation report at the end of 2023.

For Ukraine, the year 2023 was far from comforting, notwithstanding the efforts by the country’s government and heavily-censored media to uplift the spirits of the population with promises of economic improvement and military victories in the new year.

The news at the end of the year makes clear, even to optimists, that everything promised by the West and by the Ukrainian authorities during the past two years has been mere words. The sole purpose of all the year-end, optimistic statements and promises is to induce Ukrainians to continue to suffer conditions of war and economic upheaval… for the interests of the NATO countries. The Western press would have the world believe that the conflict in Ukraine is all about the country’s independence and sovereignty. But in reality, Ukrainians have become the cheap foot soldiers of the Western imperialist countries. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of our compatriots did not live through 2023 and see the dawning of the year 2024.

Compulsory military conscription

One of the most difficult and controversial issues of the past year in Ukraine has been the country’s compulsory military conscription. As resistance to the war has grown, conscription has come to increasingly resemble slave markets of yore. At the end of 2023, Ukrainian authorities and deputies to the Rada (national legislature) are discussing changes to the conscription law to require military registration by women, the elderly, and youth aged 18 or higher. Russian senator Igor Kostyukevich, who represents the Kherson region, recently told the Russian state broadcaster RIA Novosti of cases he has learned of children in orphanages being taken into military service in Ukraine.

draft law likely to be adopted early in the new year lowers the age of military service from 27 to 25 years and it introduces compulsory, military training of three months duration for Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 24.

The amended conscription law will strengthen the power of authorities to identify those of the age of military service age and track down those who have managed to avoid it. The draft law introduces easier procedures to summon conscripts, including by email and through employers providing information directly to recruiters. Presently, conscripts are summoned by letter or by a visit from a police or conscription officer.

Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 60 will henceforth need to carry a military registration document with them at all times and present it when requested by an officer.

A catastrophic war by Ukraine

Ukrainian experts are comparing the present conflict to the Paraguayan War of the 1860s, notorious for killing some 70 percent of the country’s population of the day. Ordinary Ukrainian children are writing letters to Santa Claus asking him to protect their parents. “Please don’t let them take my dad and mom to the army to die. Otherwise, I will become an orphan,” a Telegram posting writes, displaying a note written by a six-year-old named Olya.

2023 was a year of Ukraine losing the war on all fronts. This was stated in late December by Kirill Veres, commander of the ‘K-2’ battalion of the 54th brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, speaking to the ICTV television channel. “If we talk about the war on all fronts, we are losing. Where are we winning? I don’t know, I can’t say. We are surviving. These are two different things: doing something to win, and acting to simply avoid perishing.”

“It is a very difficult time for us,” said Veres. He believes that overheated expectations from the summertime ‘counter-offensive’ of the AFU helped lead to the present situation. He says that Ukrainian men who are forcibly conscripted are very bad at fighting.

Even the head of the Defense Ministry’s intelligence service, Kirill Budanov, has admitted that conscripted Ukrainians do not want to fight. He says the effectiveness of forcibly conscripted Ukrainians “is almost zero“.

The Associated Press reports on December 18 that as winter approaches, Ukrainian soldiers “worry that Russia is better equipped for battle and are frustrated about being on the defensive again in a grueling war. Some doubt the judgment of their leaders.

“Discontent among Ukrainian soldiers — once extremely rare and expressed only in private — is now more common and out in the open.”

Even among those Ukrainians who previously shared pro-Western sentiments, frustration and fatigue have been increasingly evident. Men are fleeing the country dressed as women, mothers smuggle their sons out in trunks, and at the front, deserters who do not want to fight but cannot return home are living for months at a time in the ruins of buildings.

In the Poltava province of Ukraine, located east of the Dnieper River and app. 125 km southwest of Kharkiv, conscription has netted only 13 percent of eligible men; in Sumy region, it is only eight per cent. This despite routine raids by conscription officials of enterprises, gyms and parks, and dwellings.

During the summer and fall counteroffensive, almost all units, including the most combat-ready ones, suffered high casualties. Some brigades have endured three changes in personnel.

In late December, Taras Chmut, a Ukrainian ultranationalist and head of the Turn Live Foundation, acknowledged in a broadcast interview that there are virtually no people left in the country to recruit to the military. “We need to think how to make sure that we (Ukrainians) do not run out of army personnel,” he warns.

“There are no people. Many have left the country, while many others were drafted into service but were killed or wounded. If we throw away the lives of recruits, and sometimes that happens, then unfortunately we will just mathematically run out of bodies.”

Also, in his opinion, the Russian military is technologically superior to Ukraine’s military. “Russia produces airplanes, ships, submarines, helicopters, tanks, artillery, ammunition, gunpowder, explosives, aircraft ammunition, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles. What do we have? Unfortunately, much less.” says the Ukrainian rightist.

Lose territory, of lose a country?

For this reason, even former Ukrainian MP and far-right nationalist Ihor Mosiychuk is raising the question of what is more important: recapturing territories lost to Russia’s army, or preservation of the Ukrainian nation. He is calling for negotiations. “We have all our strategists talking about the liberation of territories, but I want to put the question in a different way: why are we not talking about the preservation of the nation? After all, it is clear that territories can be returned, but a nation that loses itself cannot.

“Of what use are territories to a lost nation?” asks Mosiychuk.

Rumors of an imminent military coup against the current governing regime in Ukraine and of revolts by military units whose funding has been cut significantly are running rampant in Ukrainian society. Even many pro-Western Ukrainians are acknowledging that in the eyes of the rulers of the Western countries, Ukrainians will never be equal, no matter how contemptuously the latter may regard and treat non-European peoples.

“Maybe it is time to recognize that the whole course of 30 years since the beginning of Ukraine’s independence, in which Euro-Atlantic integration is our national idea, has failed. A national, civic dream –call it a religion – held out the prospect of joining NATO and the European Union. But that has exhausted itself.

“The dream of Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the European Union has led to war, a war between the West and Russia over Ukraine,” said Ukrainian political analyst Vadym Karasev recently in a broadcast by the ‘Novini live’ internet channel. He added that Ukraine’s new strategic culture may not be pacifist, but it should not be militarized either.  We should work, work, and work, not fight”.

A war by the West and for the West

Ukrainian society has actually forgotten how to work and create. It has been pushed for many years towards warfare, paid for by Western countries. As a result, Ukraine’s infrastructure is crumbling and Ukrainian experts are thinking about the countries from which the workers of the future may be drawn (to be paid, for sure, by Western partners).

Many of our officials, even at the level of small towns, have become habituated to living off Western financial injections. All of them are making plans to enrich themselves for years to come, comforting themselves with the belief that the West owes a large debt to Ukraine because it has been fighting on behalf of Western interests. (This does not apply to many government officials who have already enriched themselves and have already managed to send their children or other family members to schools and universities in Western Europe and the United States.)

Ukraine’s infrastructure crumbling

Reconstruction is in full swing in the Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine. The city of Mariupol, for example, was all but destroyed in the spring and summer of 2022. Today, it is rising from the ashes not only with new housing and commercial buildings to replace those destroyed but also with an entire plan to makeover of the city, dominated for decades by highly polluting steelmaking right in the heart of its heart. A road and railway corridor along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov from the Rostov region all the way to Crimea (and beyond?) will be built or restored.

Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, are dealing with a crumbling subway (‘metro’) system in Kiev, to take just one example of infrastructure in serious need of repair. The Degtyarevsky Bridge over the Dnieper River in the capital city recently collapsed during repairs that were unrelated to any military action by Russia. The city’s Metro Bridge, carrying vehicle traffic and the ‘Red Line’ of the metro system (one of three lines), is facing lengthy closure for urgently needed repairs. City council official Andriy Vitrenko calls the situation “catastrophic” because the city already suffers from a shortage of bridges across the Dnieper River.

Six stations of the city’s ‘Blue Line’ metro closed earlier this month for an expected six months due to flooding and unstable soil conditions surrounding them.

There have been far too few repairs and maintenance of the Kiev metro system since Soviet times (more than 30 years ago). Investigations are said to be underway to determine how much outright negligence may be responsible for the recent line and station closings.

Ongoing corruption and the rising discontent it is causing

Unable to win a military clash with Russia, and with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers having perished, irritation and discontent may at some point drive large numbers of Ukrainians to protest this continuing war. The regime of Volodymyr Zelensky will be hard-pressed to mobilize its security apparatus to suppress such protests.

Ukrainians are particularly irritated by the numerous corruption scandals that have haunted the country throughout the past year. Corruption has flourished precisely due to the ongoing military actions against Russia and the obligatory conscription that ‘feeds’ these. Reports are widespread in Ukraine of military conscription officials accepting bribes to assist potential conscripts to avoid military service, notably by issuing fraudulent medical certificates. Some military officers are buying up real estate in Europe thanks to earnings from bribes received from those seeking to evade conscription. The situation became so bad this year that in August, the regime of President Zelensky replaced the officials in charge of conscription in every region of the country.

Corruption in purchases using Western aid funds has also become huge. Food for the military is purchased at prices 200-300% higher than market prices, while overpriced items not particularly needed in military shelters are being purchased (such as trendy frying pans for $19,000 each). It’s also worth noting that individuals do not actually purchase items using foreign aid funds. In fact, many military personnel buy their own food, and civilian shelters may remain stay closed even during air raids. (See: Corruption exposed: the disturbing reality of Kyiv shelterspublished in Voice of Europe, June 6, 2023.) Conditions of war also allow many civilian items of value purchased as civilian aid to be stolen and written off as if destroyed by war.

During this year’s Christmas vacation period, vacation operators say that the resorts and hotels in the Carpathian Mountains region in the west of Ukraine country have sold out all of their very expensive rooms (suites), while ordinary hotel and resort rooms selling for exorbitant prices are also full. These and many more such examples are evidence of a colossal stratification taking place in Ukrainian society between a very poor majority and a very rich minority. Even in the streets of Kiev and Lviv, one sees many, very expensive luxury cars, imported under the guise of humanitarian aid, while in a number of regions, public transport has stopped running, typically because drivers have been drafted into the armed forces.

And conflicts over military service

By the end of 2023, irritation and conflicts between the neo-Nazi paramilitary units (now formally incorporated into the armed forces) and units composed of conscripted soldiers are on the rise. Neo-Nazi leaders routinely refer to citizens seeking to avoid military service as “creatures” and “subhumans”. ‘Right Sector’ leader Dmiytri Yarosh stated in late November, “I cannot call them anything but an abomination that discredits the Nation.”

The scale of evasion of military service is really impressive. Every day, Ukrainian border guards catch dozens of illegal fugitives along the country’s western border. Dozens more are handed over each day by the border guards of neighboring, eastern European countries. Added to this are the estimated 6,000 men of military draft age who have left Ukraine legally. This was reported by the head of the Department of organization of Border Control of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine Igor Matviychuk.

The scheme of leaving Ukraine following marriage to mothers with many children has become popular recently. Fathers with three children or more under the age of 16 are exempt from military service and can even leave the country. Men of military age may also leave the country while acting as escorts for the disabled, and many do so. Disabled persons are reportedly being escorted out of the country multiple times by different people. Some male escapees go so far as to change the gender in their passports and dress as women to fool border guards.

At the end of December, an MP of Zelenskyy’s party, Maryana Bezuglaya, decided to conduct an Internet poll, inquiring into whether those evading conscription should be stripped of their civil rights. She conducted a survey asking whether men would be willing to lose their Ukrainian citizenship as the price of refusing compulsory military service. Of those surveyed, 74 per cent replied ‘yes’.

Such ambivalent attitudes to the country and its citizenship are increasingly common in Ukraine these days, even among radical nationalists. Growing numbers of Ukrainians are realizing that they are fighting and suffering due to NATO’s expansion policy, not for the independence and betterment of their country. Many look with envy at neighboring Belarus, which in 2020/2021 prevented a pro-Western,’color’ revolution similar to the one that occurred in Ukraine in 2013/2014 and culminated in a violent coup. The leaders and the people of Belarus have preserved the country’s industry and prevented internal strife along national grounds because they rejected the promises and siren songs of Western leaders.

In a published survey in 2019, well before the Russian military operation began in Ukraine, most Ukrainians considered the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, as the best foreign leader, beating out the then-chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel.

In 2024, against a background of anticipated, continued, military setbacks by Ukraine and reductions of Western aid funding, anti-Russian sentiments may be expected to ease in Ukraine while anti-Western sentiments and dislike for the NATO military alliance will grow. Let us hope this year will see an end to the military conflict with Russia and the reformatting of Ukraine into an independent country on the model of neighboring Belarus.

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