The investigative unit of the BBC World Service, known as BBC Eye, has disclosed that nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men have employed various means to escape their country and avoid conscription following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In the investigation titled “Ukraine’s Draft Dodgers,” BBC Eye interviews men who have successfully evaded the war, detailing their unique circumstances, choices, and the challenges they faced while leaving Ukraine and seeking asylum in neighbouring countries. The undercover reporting by BBC Eye identifies smugglers advertising their services on a messaging app.

After Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian men aged 18-60 were prohibited from leaving the country without an exemption. However, BBC Eye, by obtaining data on illegal border crossings from Romania, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, reveals that 19,740 men illegally crossed Ukraine’s borders into these neighbouring nations between February 2022 and August 31, 2023.

According to Ukrainian authorities, out of the 21,113 individuals attempting to escape, 14,313 were caught trying to walk or swim across the border, while the remaining 6,800 attempted to use fraudulently obtained official paperwork claiming exemptions.

The 1200km-long border between Ukraine and Moldova emerged as the most popular route, with over 11,000 men illegally crossing into Moldova since the start of the war. Some crossed by foot, while others made dramatic escapes, such as a man swimming across the Dniester river towards Moldova, encouraged by Moldovan border guards.

In a refugee centre in Northern Moldova, BBC Eye interviewed Erik, a 26-year-old musician from Kharkiv, who crossed into Moldova by walking through Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region and swimming across a river. Erik eventually reached the US, reuniting with his wife and daughter.

The BBC report highlights fatal outcomes, including individuals who drowned while attempting to cross the Tisa river between Ukraine and Romania. A video shows Ukrainian guards pulling the bodies ashore.

For those with sufficient funds, an alternative to conscription is available – paying for fake paperwork granting exemptions based on medical issues, caring responsibilities, or having three or more children.

Undercover reporting by a BBC Eye journalist posing as a Ukrainian seeking to leave the country exposed at least six groups on the Telegram messaging app offering services to help individuals escape. These services included presenting oneself as a volunteer, adding children to one’s family for exemption, providing routes to bypass border checks, and obtaining a medical exemption (“white ticket”) for army service.

In August 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized the “corrupt decisions” of the country’s medical military commissions, resulting in a ten-fold increase in exemptions since February 2022. He emphasized that bribery during war constituted “high treason” and announced the removal of all regional officials overseeing military conscription, with more than 30 facing criminal charges.

Fedir Venislavskyi, a member of parliament and the president’s parliamentary representative, acknowledged the widespread corruption issue, stating that while the government is making efforts, eradicating corruption is challenging. He reassured that the number of men leaving or attempting to leave has not critically impacted the country’s defence efforts.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister, Rustem Umerov, reported in September 2023 that over 800,000 of the country’s 1-million-strong defence forces are in the armed forces.

One of the young Ukrainians, who evaded serving in his country’s army, told BBC Eye: “Because I still believe that… each person chooses their life’s purpose, their metaphor for life. For some, the meaning is in defending their territories, for others, it’s about protecting themselves and their families. Some want to create, build businesses, create jobs, generate income, and contribute to the state’s economy. And some are ready for the battlefield. I believe that no matter what, my role isn’t on the battlefield.”

He said he hoped that the Ukrainian authorities would encourage those who have left to return when the war ends, rather than punish them: “Because people are the economy. Without people – moreover, without smart people who earn good money and pay good money to the treasury, it is harder for the state to exist.”

However, concerns were raised about individuals returning without having fought. “Ukraine’s Draft Dodgers” is available for viewing in the UK on BBC iPlayer and internationally on the BBC World Service YouTube channel. The documentary can be accessed in Ukrainian on the BBC News Ukraine YouTube channel.