Ukrainian recruits with the Aidar Battalion train in the eastern Donbas region.

Ukrainian recruits with the Aidar Battalion train in the eastern Donbas region. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

KYIV - With Ukraine desperate for soldiers to reinforce its crumbling defenses against Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian embassies have temporarily suspended consular services for fighting-age men, placing new pressure on them to go home to fight.

The suspension of citizen services, such as passport renewals, is intended as a preliminary step to a new mobilization law that will go into force on May 18. It will require all men ages 18 to 60 to update their personal information with a local draft office within 60 days.

Martial law, in effect since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, prohibits men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country. But many men who were afraid of being sent to the front have fled. Thousands of others were already living abroad. Now, all of them face pressure under the new rules, which could restrict their movements.

“We all felt like the ground was pulled out from under us,” said Oleksandr, a 42-year-old from Kyiv now living in Austria. “That Ukraine no longer wants to support us.” Like other men interviewed for this article, Oleksandr agreed to speak on condition that he be identified only by his first name because he feared being ostracized or facing other repercussions.

Supporters of the mobilization law say men living outside Ukraine - potentially numbering in the tens of thousands - are not sufficiently supporting their country in its time of greatest need.

Ukrainian officials insist that the mobilization law will add “fairness” to the draft, removing many exceptions and streamlining the conscription process. They also say the government urgently needs accurate information about those citizens who are eligible for military duty.

In Ukraine, men who provide their information to a draft office will receive documentation, which they then must show when conducting any official business in Ukraine, such as registering a marriage or obtaining a driver’s licensee. Those living abroad will need the same documentation to receive consular services.

Speaking in a telephone interview, Oleksandr, who has lived in Austria since before the invasion, said he felt persecuted, as if the Ukrainian government was hunting him. “It was done as a ‘go to hell’ move - ‘we will now catch you, to make you feel bad, punish you,’” he said.

“I am not afraid to die,” Oleksandr added. “My biggest fear is to be captured and experience torture.”

Other men targeted by the policy expressed similar anger. And the requirements of the mobilization law are casting new light on a deepening rift between those men who have gone to the front lines and those who have not, between families whose loved ones are at risk every day and those who are living safely, in some cases many thousands of miles away.

If successful, the mobilization law could provide hundreds of thousands of new soldiers for the war effort - troops desperately needed to halt Russia’s recent advances, Kyiv officials say.

“There will be no restrictions or forced return of Ukrainian citizens of any gender or age to a country that is at war,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna said in remarks published by Deutsche Welle on Tuesday. But she added: “There are no easy solutions to war issues, and let’s not forget that the war is ongoing, and we have to win it.”

How many Ukrainian men could be denied consular services is unknown. Many men left Ukraine legally - for medical treatment or to study, among other reasons.

Officials at Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry say they are trying to compile a total number of those living abroad. On Saturday, in an interview with Polish broadcaster TVN24, Ukraine’s ambassador in Warsaw, Vasyl Zvarych, said Ukrainian authorities “estimate that there are tens of thousands of people of military age in Poland alone.”

Andriy, 38, who lives in Poland, said he thought the Ukrainian government was acting impetuously. “I feel like the country I love and cherish is behaving like an immature, offended teenager,” Andriy said.

“I have always positioned myself, and will continue to position myself, as a Ukrainian in all situations,” he said. “But if the state considers me a traitor, I must admit it’s not a pleasant feeling for me at the moment.”

Weeks after Ukraine’s parliament adopted the mobilization law, the measure continues to raise as many questions as answers, and many Ukrainian men are struggling to understand what it might mean for them personally.

The law presents separate problems for thousands who fled to avoid the draft, potentially leaving them stuck where they are, forced to apply for asylum or in legal limbo.

Some said they feel betrayed, while others said they fear that the Ukrainian government could resort to even more draconian measures to fill the country’s military ranks - possibly by forcing men living outside the country to return to Ukraine.

Some men said they understood the government’s position. Savelii, 35, who is living in London, said the government was forced to choose from a range of bad options.

“Some of this is about restoring some kind of balance,” Savelii said. “It’s unfair that men in Ukraine have to live like this right now.” He added, “There is a sense that we men who live outside the country have more privileges and liberties.”

“But the situation is not black-and-white,” he added. “There are also people still living in the country who pretend that there is no war right now, and people living outside who work every day to support Ukraine.”

European officials appear divided over the prospect of trying to compel Ukrainian men to return home to fight.

Anneli Viks, an adviser to Estonia’s interior minister, said Tuesday that her country has “no plan for the forced repatriation of Ukrainian citizens legally residing in Estonia who fled because of the war,” local media reported.

But others were less categorical. “We definitely won’t protect draft dodgers,” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Szejna said on Polish television.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described the restriction of consular services as a matter of basic equity, but even some men who were not immediately affected by the new rules said they were unhappy.

Olexander, 53, who lives in Britain, said his passport was valid for three more years. “This hasn’t caused me any inconvenience personally, although it’s insulting because I haven’t violated existing laws of Ukraine,” Olexander said.

“But I don’t exclude the possibility that services may be needed. What to do then, there’s no plan,” he added.

Olexander said he has “never stopped being Ukrainian” and “would like to return and be useful” in the future. But he has “serious doubts about returning,” at the moment because he’s “not ready to entrust my life” to the current government.

Vladyslav, 36, who is living in Spain, said he left Ukraine legally, under an exemption for men with three or more children. When the new electronic registry begins to operate, Vladyslav said, he “will immediately register” and provide his details.

Still, he said he worries that more restrictions on those living abroad could lie ahead, such as blocking access to Ukrainian bank accounts.

“If they suddenly start blocking, just like that, then it won’t be okay for me personally,” Vladyslav said. “Because I conduct business in Ukraine and pay taxes there.” He added: “If I suddenly lose access to banking services, then I’ll have to fully transition to E.U. residency.”

Vasily, 40, who lives in Germany, said he applied for a second passport but now wonders if he will receive it. Vasily said the law’s greatest danger is that it will sow divisions among Ukrainians. “Russia won’t destroy Ukraine on its own, until Ukrainians help it,” he said.

“With such actions,” he said, the government had “simply burned bridges for many whose lives fit in a suitcase - including women and children.”

Vasily said he often thinks of a friend serving on the front lines - “a dialogue without words,” he said. The friend is “the only person in front of whom I feel ashamed,” he said.

“Maybe he won’t want to talk to me,” Vasily said. “But I want him to understand me.”

Kostiantyn Khudov contributed to this report.

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