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Should Ukraine allow male students to study abroad?

It is no secret that the time of martial law in Ukraine has forced the authorities in Kyiv to make unpopular decisions. One of the most outrageous is certainly the one regarding the ban on leaving the country of men of recruiting age. Students of international universities are a particularly problematic subcategory in this regard.

October 13, 2022 - Wojciech Siegień - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Ukrainian border guard at Boryspil airport back in 2015. Photo: Sovastock / Shutterstock

The end of summer on the Ukrainian front brought decisive changes in favour of the Ukrainian army, which began to move eastwards, displacing and often defeating Russian forces. The exemplary blitzkrieg conducted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Kharkiv direction was also used well for propaganda purposes by the Ukrainian media which in turn led to the panic of Russian propagandists. TV presenters and commentators Olga Skabeyeva and Vladimir Solovyov had to somehow swallow the official reports of the Russian General Igor Konashenkov who explained the unprecedented defeat in the Kharkiv region as “a well-organised regrouping of troops.”

The activities on the front are therefore accompanied by very active campaigns on the information front, which are crucial for the general morale of society and which, in turn, has an impact on support for the military and, ultimately, for the leaders. It is no secret that the time of martial law in Ukraine has forced the authorities in Kyiv to make further unpopular decisions. One of the most outrageous is certainly the one regarding the ban on leaving the country of men of recruiting age, with a few exceptions, such as having three or more children to support.

Students are a particularly problematic subcategory of male citizens in this regards. This is due to the fact that students enjoy a different status – they are exempt from conscription as long as they study full-time. However, a certain controversy arises around the question: if male students are not obliged to serve in the military, why can’t they go abroad? This argument is sometimes reinforced by the general remark that students should be treated differently in general, which means that they should be allowed to leave the country for educational purposes. In the Ukrainian media, one often finds arguments based on some projection of the future. In this projection, after the victory, it is the students who will take the initiative to rebuild the new Ukraine, that is, one whose structure is based on western, and not post-Soviet, thinking. Hence the European experience that the students are gaining in western universities is indispensable.

These arguments cannot be denied rationally, but the matter, as usual, is more complicated than that. Controversies over the issue of Ukrainian students leaving the country are reinforced by the chaotic and non-transparent policy of the authorities themselves, based largely on the chronology of decisions in this matter. Already at the beginning of March 2022, Ukraine’s parliament (the Verkhovna Rada), adopted provisions on mobilisation. These provisions exclude the category of students. Soon after, the command of the state border guard sent a letter to units stating that under the conditions of martial law, people leaving the country in order to obtain secondary and higher education, university assistants and trainees, as well as doctoral students and doctors, may obtain permission to leave. Hence everything seemed fine and the projection of the European future of Ukraine had a chance to come true.

This is confirmed by a letter from General Valerii Zaluzhnyi himself, who requested special permission for students of foreign universities to travel. In April, however, the council of ministers abolished the changes to the rules of crossing the state border, removing the category of Ukrainian students of foreign universities from the list of those who can cross the border. At the same time, no differentiation is made regarding the date of starting education abroad, (i.e. before or after February 24th).

However, these changes did not translate into directives for Ukraine’s border guard, which still classified students as “outgoing”. Then an institutional and legal mess began to take place which only got worse in the months following which included serious ambiguities related to the required documents needed for students of foreign universities to leave the country. This only intensified the chaos. Despite letters, interpellations and the changes in regulation, only students who started studying at a foreign university before February 24th 2022 were allowed to leave Ukraine.

This is where the information war comes into play. On the Meduza website, considered by some to be liberal and by others as related subcutaneously with the Kremlin, there is material on the problem described above. One author named Tymosh Orlyk describes the cases of men who tried to “break through” the Ukrainian border, and despite the documents they had, were turned back. The tone of the article is dramatic and paints a picture of the Ukrainian social reality straight from Kafka: the authorities, including the president, do not respond to the letters addressed to him; one of the protagonists, simply named Oleksandr, says that he was traumatised at the border and will never return to Ukraine. At the police station he was taken in for questioning where they called the prosecutor’s office and wanted to take him somewhere (probably for intimidation purposes). During the interrogation, Oleksandr’s phone was confiscated and he was asked personal questions. At the next crossing, the commander told him: “Well, you have eaten yourself, Jew” and at the next crossing his passport was thrown on the ground and he was told: “You will study in Kyiv, not in Spain.” Apparently Oleksandr only crossed the border through a fourth border crossing. And this is how he managed to get outside Ukraine.

Of course, one cannot deny the massive corruption within the Ukrainian border and customs services of Ukraine, which is a fact, nor defend any claim of high culture of the border officials, who are generally callous. The point is that these anonymous stories seem straight out of a folk tale were published in Meduza or other portals and are immediately distributed online and become part of the arguments undermining the actions of the Ukrainian authorities, especially the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Another example is the comment by a doctor who criticises the authorities for the situation with students, citing, among others, Meduza (“Even Meduza writes about it already”). Again, it is not just the criticism, which the incompetent authorities deserve, but also its vector. If you look at the arguments contained in the entry and the compassionate comments, we get the following picture: a ban on students leaving abroad is nothing more than a return to the Soviet Union and a new Iron Curtain. This is slavery; a European North Korea, it is proof that Ukraine is a prison state in which it is ruled by the regime of martial law democracy, that is … junta.” And in this simple way one can go from criticising the state’s ineptitude to the well-known rhetoric of Kremlin propaganda.

The essence of what we are dealing with must be found in context, and this is of course the context of war. I am writing the obvious, but it is precisely such obvious issues that seem to elude in this situation. Another cliché of this order would saying that the war situation is dynamic and completely unpredictable. All this is best seen in the reactions of Oleksiy Arestovych, the advisor to the Zelenskyy, and who is famous today. A few months ago, he approached the matter in a purely military manner, claiming that there is no soldier of a person who does not want to fight, that all those who do not want to fight must be released, and he was in favour of projecting the future of the new Ukraine modernised by educated young Ukrainians returning in large numbers. In other words, the brain drain now guarantees them a brain surge in the future.

However, a few weeks ago, Arestovych’s rhetoric changed. The usually haughty advisor suddenly became humble and began to argue that the ban on leaving the state for students was a deliberate decision of the president and General Zaluzhnyi. Everything became clear on September 21st in the morning, when Putin announced mobilisation in Russia. And this creates the context for the decisions of the Ukrainian state authorities and says a lot about how the media sphere is built.

I would put forward a thesis that the Ukrainian authorities had known about the Kremlin’s decision for some time and were preparing themselves to respond to the new situation, or rather were ahead of the Kremlin’s decisions. Meanwhile, the public discussed whether Ukraine was North Korea or Stalinist Soviet Union as if there were no hostilities and no need to defend the country. After all, what kind of brain surge would be needed if Ukraine itself no longer exists?

Coming back to the obvious – in the face of the Kharkiv defeat and the advancing offensive in the south, in the face of massive Russian losses and the wasting of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary Wagner army, Putin has no other solution but to announce mobilisation. And that means Ukraine has to be prepared for that. The case was closed on September 14th and the spokesman of the State Border Guard, Andriy Demchenko, informed on September 22nd. From now on, the departure of students studying at foreign universities will be prohibited. Apparently, this is due to also to massive fraud and document counterfeiting attempts (600 cases during July and August).

An acquaintance of mine, a professor from Kharkiv, put it accurately when he said that he was not thrilled with this situation but that he understood the position of the Ukrainian authorities. After all, Ukraine is in a state of martial law, and this means restriction of civil liberties in favour of the state’s defence. Nevertheless, the “scandal with students” clearly shows that this war is fought on two levels at the same time – the physical one, where we have real military movements, and the displacement of people and information, which is equally real and sometimes even depends on the former.

 Wojciech Siegień works in the department of social sciences at the University of Gdańsk. His main interests include educational ideologies and the different processes of militarisation in post-Soviet countries.


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