Conscription fears as young Ukrainian men stopped from leaving occupied areas

<span>Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Young Ukrainian men attempting to leave occupied areas are being turned back by Russian soldiers, as fears grow that they may be conscripted into Russia’s army, it has emerged.

At the only crossing point between the occupied areas and the rest of Ukraine, Russian soldiers have told dozens of men aged 18 to 35 there is a ban on letting them leave, according to older men who have successfully crossed, as well as two NGOs involved in helping people evacuate and local Telegram groups.

The Ukrainian authorities believe Russia will try to mobilise young men in the recently occupied areas to fight against Ukraine – as has been the case in parts of eastern Ukraine under Russian control since 2014.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has told Ukrainians in the occupied territories to hide from mobilisation by “any means”, adding that if they are forcibly conscripted they should sabotage Russia’s military operations from within and “at the first opportunity, switch to [Ukrainian] positions”.

Oleksandr, a 37-year-old resident of Kherson, said he managed to leave the city last week but witnessed two cars of people being turned back because they had men who fitted the 18-35 age category. One was a 35-year-old man who was with his wife and two children, he said.

“Out of the young people I know [in Kherson], they have all been sat at home over the last week with the doors locked,” said Oleksandr. “They are trying not to go out anywhere. The fear is very real.”

The occupying authorities have not yet announced mobilisation in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and other areas occupied since the invasion. But the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces claimed on Saturday that men in the occupied territories who had accepted Russian passports were receiving conscription notices.

In a move widely seen as an escalation, Russia announced the mobilisation of 300,000 men last week, after Russian soldiers were forced to retreat from the Kharkiv region. The decision has led to protests across Russia. Russian conscripts who refuse to fight will face prison sentences.

The occupying authorities in Ukraine are carrying out staged so-called referendums on joining Russia – after which, leading Russian figures say, Moscow will consider any attack by Ukraine in those areas a direct attack on Russia. According to Russian state media, Moscow plans to announce the annexation of the occupied territories on 30 September.

NGOs involved in evacuating people from the occupied territories said young men had been turning to them after being stopped at the crossing point at Vasylivka, a town in Zaporizhzhia region. The checkpoint is the only place where civilians can cross the 800-mile-long contact line to leave the Russian-occupied areas.

The number of applications from young men looking to leave has increased by 50% over the last week, according to Dina Urich, the evacuation coordinator of the NGO Helping to Leave. But unfortunately, said Urich, it is not possible to help men who come under the 18-35 age bracket because of the alleged ban.

In one Telegram chat, where people trying to cross the checkpoint share information, a woman said her group had included men aged 18 to 35 but they managed to pass through. “There was some sort of [order] about letting out men, but the women pleaded and cried and made a fuss,” she wrote. Another woman who was travelling with a 21-year-old man in her group said he was let out because he had a health exemption.

However, reports in other Telegram chats were negative, with one man writing: “I’ve called three [drivers] and they all said that they are not letting 18-35-year-olds out.” “It’s a lie that they are letting anyone out … we tried yesterday,” wrote another woman.

The results of a survey on who managed to get through the checkpoint will be posted on Monday evening, according to the Telegram group’s administrator. One man, posting under the nickname Konstantin, pleaded with his 8,000 fellow members of the group to remain calm until the facts were known.

“I myself am sitting on [my] suitcases, wanting to [ask] every hour what’s happening [at the checkpoint] and whether they are letting people through or we should wait,” he wrote.

Ukrainian officials have described the potential mobilisation of men in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions as an act of genocide.

Helping to Leave and Kherson Evacuations, another NGO helping people to get out, also said buses, including those not carrying any men, had been turned back at Russian checkpoints since Thursday. But those with their own cars were able to cross into Ukraine.

“For the buses, they are asking for this special Russian licence and turning them back but no one knows how to get said licence,” said the head of Kherson Evacuations, who asked not to be named because his team and relatives live in occupied Kherson.

“We already see that in the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk areas, almost all the male population has been mobilised, we expect them to announce mobilisation in [Kherson and Zaporizhzhia] regions once they ‘annex’ them,” said Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, in an interview.

“So, thousands more Ukrainians will die, Ukrainian citizens. It’s a straightforward genocide – these people have no training and no equipment; they are just sent to die.”

Rights organisations for Crimean Tatars say members of the minority ethnic Muslim group have received the overwhelming majority of conscription notices in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Zelenskiy, commenting on the conscription of Crimean Tatars as well as that of minority ethnic Russians in occupied parts of Ukraine, described the move as “criminal” and “another element of Russia’s policy of genocide”.

Videos have appeared of protests against mobilisation in Dagestan and in Yakutia, republics in southern Russia and Siberia. A group of women protesting in Dagestan told a police officer: “We are not blind … it was Russia who attacked Ukraine.”