The Times Sat Sept 23rd.
‘Go back to the front? I would rather shoot myself in the leg’
Anger at corruption in the Ukrainian army is growing, Anthony Loyd writes in Lviv
Prosecutors say Yevhen Borysov took $5 million in “white ticket” bribes
The first wound Andrii suffered was a shot in the shoulder fired by a Russian infantryman in eastern Ukraine last spring. The second came minutes later, as the 20-year-old sergeant lay writhing in pain in the mud: he was hit in the back by shrapnel from an exploding Russian shell.
If he is ever wounded again, he says, it will probably be by his own hand.
“I am absolutely ready to shoot myself in the leg rather than ever go back to the front,” said Andrii, who deserted from his unit after he was discharged from hospital with bullet fragments in his left shoulder and ordered to return to the front.
“I was a contract soldier, a professional,” he said from his refuge in Lviv, speaking on condition that his full name was withheld. “But after seeing so much corruption and incompetence involved in the system that paid no attention to me or my wounds, why should I go back to be meat in a trench?”
His voice is rare in a society whose civilians and soldiery remain largely committed to President Zelensky’s aim of driving Russian forces out of Ukraine. But his account of disaffection and desertion highlights the problem Ukraine faces as it tries to preserve its veteran units and mobilise thousands more soldiers for a long war ahead, while public anger over corrupt officials, draft dodgers and the treatment of exhausted soldiers grows.
Andrii, who saw repeated action until he was wounded, with all but one other man in his six-man team killed in action, blamed much of his anger on the way he was handled by a Ukrainian military medical commission.
Most of the bullet passed in one side of his shoulder and out the other, but it fragmented against bone, leaving shards of metal pressed against the joint. An operation to remove the fragments at a hospital in Vinnytsia was only partially successful, and months later he still had persistent pain and numbness down his left arm.
A doctor suggested he pay a bribe to have himself released from the army.
“The doctors said that they couldn’t take all the bullet fragments out without the risk of damaging nerves so badly that I’d lose the use of my arm,” said Andrii, who had joined the army as an 18-year-old volunteer. “One doctor offered to write me a certificate saying I was unfit for future service if I paid him $1,500. But I didn’t take his offer. At the time I was still angry, keen to fight the Russians and to get my revenge for my dead friends.”
Ukraine’s military medical commissions, which assess the fitness of mobilised men for active service, became the focus of a corruption scandal this year.
It is alleged that a system of kickbacks paid by unwilling draftees or soldiers to doctors to issue “white ticket” exemptions from service enabled the head of Odesa’s regional military mobilisation office, Yevhen Borysov, to buy a $4.35 million villa in Marbella.
Borysov was arrested in July and is under investigation.
Ukraine’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption said Borysov acquired illegal payoffs totalling $5 million — and he was far from alone.
Subsequent investigations have caused Zelensky to sack the head of every regional mobilisation office.
Anti-corruption activists investigating the military’s medical commissions after Borysov’s arrest were appalled at what they found. Valeriy Bolhan, an associate at the Centre for Public Investigations, an anti-corruption NGO in Odesa, told The Times that more than 50,000 white tickets exempting men on medical grounds had been issued by commissions under Borysov’s jurisdiction.
“We don’t know how many of these have been issued illegally,” said Bolhan.
“Until the scandal broke, the price for an illegal white ticket was around $7,000. Now it’s more like $20,000.”
The flaws with Ukraine’s military medical commissions and mobilisation departments cut both ways. On the one hand, corrupt officials take money to allow men to escape the draft; on the other, eager to retain experienced troops, they often ignore legitimate medical concerns among wounded soldiers like Andrii.
“We’ve discovered many instances of soldiers who should have been released due to their injuries being asked to pay bribes to get out,” Bolhan said. “In some cases men who want to fight but are not healthy enough pay bribes to be allowed into the army.”
Since martial law was declared in February 2022, most men between 16 and 60 are forbidden from leaving the country. Theoretically, any man in that category can be drafted to fight.
Exceptions include parents with three or more children under 18, carers of disabled dependents, and those deemed medically unfit. However, last month a change in the law extended military eligibility to Ukrainians with viral hepatitis, thyroid gland diseases, clinically cured TB, mild mental and neurotic disorders, and those with HIV but no symptoms. From next month, Ukrainian women in selected medical professions will also become eligible.
Since the Russian invasion, this policy has allowed Ukraine to gather an army of 700,000 soldiers, in addition to a force of border guards, police units and National Guard units of about 250,000. But the need for fresh troops is constant: in August, US officials estimated that nearly 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 120,000 wounded so far.
“I had heard that I could get my arm properly operated on in Germany to regain its full use,”Andrii said. “I started planning to go there. But then I was not allowed clearance to leave the country.”
The authorities considered Andrii to be neither badly wounded enough to be discharged, nor deserving of extensive surgery abroad. Instead, he was ordered to return to his combat unit on the front in Donbas.
He asked his battalion commander for help. “But he told me to f*** off and not to bother him about my injuries,” he said. “My wounds were not being properly dealt with. My commander couldn’t care. That’s when I started to question ‘why am I doing this?’ “That finished it for me. I suddenly realised that of the six friends I had joined up with, all but one was dead. My arm was messed up, my home lost.
Some doctors wanted money I didn’t have to let me out. Others insisted I was good to fight despite my injuries.
“So why should I go back to the front? I stopped caring. They know where I am.
Let them come for me. I’ll never fight again. I won’t be their meat anymore.