Tucked away in the hills in southwestern Ukraine, the small city of Khust couldn’t feel more removed from the war raging on the other side of the country. Life carries on here pretty much as normal.
But Khust became something of a social-media sensation over the weekend when a video appeared on Twitter showing a few dozen women protesting the mobilization of their husbands for military service. In the video, the women can be heard shouting at soldiers in front of the local recruitment office. Various comments online described the group as “demanding explanations why their loved ones are sent to the front line without necessary training and equipment.”
The protest was surprising because there have been few, if any, public displays of opposition in Ukraine to the war with Russia. People instead appear eager to volunteer for combat duty or to contribute in some other way to the war effort.
At first glance, Khust seems unlikely to be a hotbed of anti-war sentiment. This is a city of 30,000 in an economically depressed part of Ukraine that relies mainly on tourism and food processing for jobs. It’s about as distant as you can get from the fighting, and many in this region, called Transcarpathia, have long felt disconnected from Kyiv.
On Monday, people strolled the Khust’s streets and parks in the warm spring sunshine and there was little indication that the nation was at war. Everything was also calm at the recruitment office, to which young men continued to report; around noon, the lobby was packed with a dozen waiting for instructions. A few of the building’s windows had been broken during the protest, and local police said people had been fined. But it was hard to sense that there was broader sympathy with the protest.
Just down the street from the recruitment office, an 80-year-old shopkeeper named Hana shrugged off the demonstration. She’s run a small convenience store for 30 years and has never heard anyone complain about the military until now. Since the war began, “a lot of people have volunteered for the army,” she said.
“Everybody wants to sit at home and demand peace,” she added. “But they are just sitting and hiding.”
The Globe and Mail is not disclosing the full names of residents such as Hana because they fear retribution amid the war.
Andrii Akimov, a press officer for the Transcarpathia War Commission, called the protest “a shame.” He said the protesters had been whipped up by misinformation and that officers from the recruitment centre met with the group to discuss their concerns; the protesters were told that new conscripts weren’t sent to the front line and they received two months training and a full set of equipment.
Ihor Shynkariuk, the deputy chair of the Transcarpathia Military Administration, said he was convinced the protest was the work of Russian agents who spread false information online in the hope of stirring up trouble. He said Russian intelligence has been for years trying to destabilize the region by preying on the ethnic Hungarians in the area, who represent about 10 per cent of the population and tend to be pro-Russian.
The disinformation campaign was just another facet of war, Mr. Shynkariuk added, and police were working to track down who was behind the protest.
“It’s good that this happened now actually because we know exactly that we need to stop it and not give Russia a chance to destabilize the region,” he said.
Others aren’t so sure Russian operatives were behind the demonstration.
“People are afraid and they don’t feel war here,” said Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy who lives in Transcarpathia. The call up means “they finally understand the war is here. That’s what caused the panic,” he said, adding it was up to local officials to do a better job of explaining what mobilization means.
However, Mr. Tuzhanskyi also said there has been a long history of separatist agitation here, led mainly by the Hungarian community, which has been encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has been pushing the notion of “Ruthenians” as an ethnic community in Transcarpathia. In his eyes, “Rusyns” are distinct from Ukrainians and deserving of a homeland.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is self-governing but still falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, has also played a role over the years in fomenting pro-Russian dissent, Mr. Tuzhanskyi added. When war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, several demonstrations were held in areas across the region where the church had a strong following. In this war, too, the Russian church has been supportive of Mr. Putin’s actions.
There have been other signs of disgruntlement at the mobilization in Khust that also don’t appear to be inspired by Russia.
In March, businesswoman Viktoria Alexovich complained on Facebook about military officials calling up 30 workers from her company, Wood International.
“The production company cannot exist without working hands,” she wrote. She added that while she understands many businesses in the country have lost everything, the government was supposed to be encouraging companies to stay afloat. “What’s the point of actually stopping a business when there are so many jobless people and volunteers willing to take up arms?”
Ms. Alexovich has been a strong supporter of the Ukrainian army and an active fundraiser for various humanitarian causes in the country, and some of her workers were later sent back.
Whatever the controversy over the recent protest, seeing loved ones head off to war can be emotionally wrenching for the residents of Khust.
On Monday, a woman named Oksana and her daughter rode up to the recruitment office on their bicycles to give some belongings to Oksana’s husband, who had just been called up.
“It’s very hard,” Oksana said, holding back tears. “I just said goodbye to my husband.” She shook her head at the mention of the protest and added: “I want our victory.”
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