Wounded Ukrainian soldier turns hated mobilisation 'monster'

Military recruitment officers say they are subject to regular abuse from the public (Sergei SUPINSKY)
Military recruitment officers say they are subject to regular abuse from the public (Sergei SUPINSKY)

Decorated Ukrainian soldier Pavlo Pimakhov twice was wounded fighting Russian forces on the front line, but when he ambles through Kyiv, passersby scatter, throw suspicious glances or hurl insults his way.

That is because the 35-year-old is now a feared and reviled military recruitment officer, a lightning rod for a painful debate in Ukraine over how to replenish the army's ranks after two years of costly fighting.

The problem at stake is clear: outnumbered Ukrainian forces are losing village after village in the east to better-armed Russian forces, and the army needs more troops.

Pimakhov, with a generous smile and stilted gait, has the unenviable task of carrying out spot checks on the papers of unsuspecting men and handing out army summons. Given the choice, he would rather be fighting.

"There's camaraderie on the front, something like a brotherhood. Here, we're just facing constant abuse. I was a hero there. I'm a monster here," Pimakhov told AFP, setting off on his rounds in a Kyiv suburb.

Fighting-aged men disperse from the parks and leafy streets where Pimakhov -- once a used car salesman -- walks his beat with fellow recruiter Yuriy Pikhota, carrying their tell-tale black clipboard and accompanied by a police escort.

- 'Grab people off the street' -

The public backlash points to accumulating war fatigue in Ukraine, concerns over how its army might regain territory from determined Russian forces, and fear that being sent to the front after a short stint of training amounts to a one-way trip.

Iryna, a 34-year-old employee of a nearby shopping centre looked on in disbelief as the recruiters approached a wide-eyed man in shorts sipping coffee on a park bench with his wife, ultimately ordering him to report to his local military office.

"They come in the morning, and they're here until the evening. They really just grab people off the street. It's terrible," she said, shaking her head.

The officers later stop a 30-year-old man in flip flops, who claimed his papers were stuck in territory occupied by Russian forces in the southern Kherson region.

A lengthy and heated exchange followed before angry passersby -- some filming the standoff and shouting at the officers -- pressured police to release the man.

A woman with her child chastised the recruiters for not searching for servicemen missing on the battlefield instead. Another demanded to know why men conscripted from the street never returned home.

"They've completely lost their minds," the released 30-year-old said, making a brisk exit.

Social media has been flooded in recent weeks with amateur footage showing Ukrainian men being hauled off the street and recruitment officers receiving a litany of abuse.

Those videos are also broadcast across state media in Russia, where gloating officials claim to have deployed more than 600,000 troops to Ukraine and ordered the military to further expand.

- 'A hole in my heart' -

"I have a giant hole in my heart because of all of this. We stood in long queues to join the army. And we see how people are running away. I just can't make sense of it," Pimakhov said.

Pimakhov said he had been pinned down by sniper fire last year during street battles in east Ukraine, and jumped from a second-storey window to escape, breaking his leg.

Pikhota, who was also wounded in combat, rushed to Ukraine from Israel to enlist at the beginning of the war. He showed AFP videos of combat on his phone, and pointed to faces of fellow servicemen now wounded or killed in battle.

Both hope to return to the front later this month after fully recuperating.

"It's really difficult to control myself emotionally and psychologically sometimes," Pikhota said, describing the accumulated stress of receiving so much vitriol.

President Volodymyr Zelensky in a recent interview to AFP acknowledged morale issues within the military and said the army needed more recruits.

After weeks of debate, he introduced new legislation last month lowering the draft age and requiring men to register with military offices.

Resentment over the widening recruitment drive has been fuelled by reports some Ukrainian men have paid bribes to avoid being conscripted.

Other desperate men have sought to avoid service by crossing inhospitable mountains and rivers into neighbouring Romania or Moldova. Several have died making the illegal journey.

Pimakhov, despite public anger, insults and day-to-day grind of his work, remains unmoved.

"I know I'm doing the right thing. My brothers fighting need to be replaced. They need to rest. They need to see their families," he said.