KIEV (Reuters) - War-weary Ukraine is struggling to recruit soldiers to fight pro-Russian separatists in the east, with enthusiasm sapped by reports of ill-equipped troops and poor treatment of families of missing soldiers.
When fighting began in mainly Russian-speaking east Ukraine almost two years ago, patriotism soared and recruitment offices in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, were inundated with volunteers.
Now, with a year-old ceasefire barely holding and the death toll still rising, Ukraine’s military faces a battle to find replacements for about 40,000 servicemen expected to be demobilised in March.
Any sign that the war effort is flagging will play into the hands of both the rebels and President Vladimir Putin. Although Russia denies it has a direct role in the conflict, propping up the separatists is costly when it is being throttled by an oil price crash and suffering under Western sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.
Kiev’s last recruitment drive in August 2015 attracted little over half the 25,000 soldiers the military wanted. While it is illegal to dodge the draft, potential recruits can do so by bribing officials or simply leaving the country.
The low numbers are no surprise to one veteran, who served in an infantry brigade between Feb. 5 and Dec. 4 of last year and said those risking their lives were expected to buy a lot of their own equipment.
“There’s no desire to return,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There were many things we had to buy ourselves, or volunteers donated them.”
“Officially they gave us two pairs of socks for the whole period, useless old boots, a uniform from flammable fabric, which is freezing in winter and sweaty in summer.”
Anti-Russian feelings still run high in much of the country, but war fatigue has set in and 79 percent of respondents in a December poll by the Democratic Initiative Foundation think tank said the government’s priority should be ending the conflict.
“Now it’s a big problem - the evasion of mobilisation and conscription,” said Dmytro Tymchuk, a lawmaker and defence expert. “There’s been negative publicity from the conflict zone ... There were problems with nutrition, medicines and the winter uniform. Patriotism is falling.”
A military spokesman offered no immediate comment.
At the start of the conflict in April 2014, when the separatists rose up against Kiev’s rule following the seizure of Crimea by Russian forces, one in eight servicemen was a volunteer, but that number has since fallen to one in 10.
Some of those who do enlist end up feeling disillusioned with the way they were treated by their superiors.
Families like that of sniper Dmytro Kulish, one of hundreds of soldiers who went missing at the front line, seethe at what they see as the incompetence of military officials.
Kulish disappeared after a battle in September 2014 and was kept in a prison for nine months in Donetsk, the rebel-held main city in eastern Ukraine. When his wife saw a captured and badly beaten soldier being paraded by separatists in an online video, she instantly recognised her husband.
“First she was crying. Then she started fighting for my release. Unfortunately a significant part of the battle was with Ukrainian bureaucrats,” Kulish said.
Another nine months passed and eventually the head of a Ukrainian volunteer battalion engineered his release in a prisoner exchange. “Officials from the Army, the National Guard and the State Security Service did almost nothing,” Kulish said.
Lyubov Yanchuk was not so lucky. She spent a year cajoling officials to find the body of her 28-year-old son, who was missing presumed dead, and bring him home for burial.
She does not blame the government for sending her son to war but cannot forgive the rudeness of the officials who refused to help her.
In the end, she turned to members of a volunteer group called Black Tulip. They crossed into separatist-held territory and collected his remains from a shallow grave close to the town of Ilovaisk, the site of a crushing military defeat for government forces in August 2014.
“Those volunteers found my child ... I do not know how I would have managed without their help. Perhaps I would have had to wait for the war to end,” she said by phone from her village in western Ukraine, her voice cracking with emotion.
President Petro Poroshenko, who said he would try to end the war when he was elected in May 2014, stated during a visit to a military school on Jan. 29 that 2,269 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed “defending Ukraine from Russian aggression”.
Though he says the rebels have been able to fight on only because they have Russian support, a charge denied by Moscow, the inability to end their rebellion is one of several factors that threaten his popularity and that of the government.
Others are the ailing economy, a failure to end corruption and widespread disillusionment with the lack of improvement in life in Ukraine since Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in street protests in February 2014.
Ukraine, which has announced several waves of mobilisation since the conflict began, has not said how many more soldiers it wants. But to keep troop numbers at the present level of around 250,000 it would need to mobilise about 40,000 to replace those likely to leave the forces after serving the mandatory one year.
The next recruitment drive starts in March and the exact requirements will depend on the security and political situations at the time.”We see in particular at the Donetsk site of the security zone a rapid deterioration of the security situation, with the incredible amount of ceasefire violations that we have registered,” said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission to Ukraine.
Poroshenko accused Russia this week of amassing troops on the frontline despite the ceasefire.
The authorities say they have raised the salaries of those serving at the front to at least 7,000 hryvnia ($275) per month from 2,341 hryvnia to encourage soldiers to sign up or re-enlist. That could be a big incentive - some recruits would as civilians earn the minimum wage of around 1,400 hryvnia.
Poroshenko’s government has also taken steps to improve conditions for those sent to the front. Last year it spent 5 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product on the military, enabling the army to revamp its creaking Soviet-era hardware.
Scandals over corruption and incompetence in the military are now less frequently splashed across the media, but have not disappeared. The Defence Ministry has highlighted cases of soldiers receiving socks and tents not fit to withstand the winter and said boots intended for the army had been found for sale on market stalls.
Another problem is the fate of returning veterans who struggle to find jobs in a country deep in recession.
It takes a mountain of paperwork for ex-servicemen to register with the state employment centre and almost all the jobs on offer are low-paying positions, said Anton Kolumbet, who helps run Kiev’s veterans association.
“How can a person who quit their job as a deputy director (of a company) to go to war, how can they suggest he earn 1,500-2,000 hryvnia as a supermarket guard? It’s insulting,” he said.
($1 = 25.5000 hryvnias)
Additional reporting by Sergei Karazy, Margarita Chornokondratenko and Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Matthias Williams and Timothy Heritage