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Ukraine needs up to 500,000 additional soldiers to replenish exhausted troops, and there are nearly 770,000 male refugees over 18 living in EU countries, with thousands more in Canada, Britain and the U.S.

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Oleksandr Kolesnyk, 39, has been living in Warsaw for five years and he’s torn about going back to Ukraine. He’ll return if he’s conscripted and if the military gives him a day and time to show up, but he won’t go back voluntarily.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Oleksandr Kolesnyk checks the news out of Ukraine frequently from his home in Warsaw and he’s worried about recent battlefield setbacks and the shortage of troops. Like a lot of Ukrainian men living abroad, he’s also torn about whether to go back and fight.

Mr. Kolesnyk, 39, has been living in the Polish capital for the past five years with his wife, Oksana. He’s completing a PhD in history and works in the library of Ukrainian House, a local cultural centre where Ms. Kolesnyk also has a job assisting refugees.

“It’s a difficult question,” he said about returning. “From one side, people understand that it is necessary. But from other side, everybody has hope that this problem will be solved not by them.”

He’s prepared to go back if he’s conscripted, but not voluntarily because he feels he’s making a contribution by helping Ukrainians in Poland. “It’s a very bad idea to return all men because maybe in future Ukraine will need them to rebuild,” he said.

The thought of heading home to fight has left many Ukrainian expatriates feeling similarly conflicted. By some estimates, there are nearly 770,000 male refugees over 18 living in European Union countries, and thousands more fled to Canada, Britain, the United States and elsewhere.

Some are facing a moral quandary about being outside the country especially as Russian forces advance along parts of the front line and Western military aid dries up.

“They do feel guilt,” said Petro Rewko, chair of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain who often counsels Ukrainian men in Britain. “You will return and you will help rebuild the country,” he tells them. “That’s when you can really make a difference.”

Some times, that reassurance isn’t enough.

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“It’s just stress all the time,” said Maksym Voitov who left Kyiv last October with his mother and lives in London. Mr. Voitov recently turned 18 and he worries about his father who is serving with Kyiv’s air defence force. He’s thought about going back, but he doesn’t want to leave his mother who has a disability.

He’s also afraid to go to war. “If I go back, I’ll have to go to the army,” he said. “I want to stay here and go to university.”

There’s little doubt that Ukraine’s army is running low on fighters. Military commanders have said they need up to 500,000 additional soldiers to replenish exhausted troops who have been serving for two years. But mobilizing more troops through conscription is controversial.

Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are already banned from leaving the country. Those between the ages of 18 and 26 are encouraged to volunteer and individuals 27 and older can be drafted. Women can volunteer but they have been excluded from the draft. And there are exemptions for male students, the disabled and men who have three or more children.

The Ukrainian parliament has been hotly debating legislation to lower the draft age to 25 and impose tougher penalties on draft dodgers.

The proposed law also targets Ukrainians living abroad. Ukraine’s embassies will be instructed to withhold consular services, such as renewing passports, from draft-age males unless they can prove they have registered with a military recruitment centre.

The emotional pressure of being outside the country can be especially intense for boys under 18 who left Ukraine when the war started and are approaching adulthood.

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Oksana Voznyuk, 54, is a psychiatrist from Ukraine who now works with a charity in Warsaw. She counsels teenagers, especially boys struggling with adapting to a new country, and she has a 17-year-old son who has faced similar issues.

Oksana Voznyuk, a Ukrainian psychiatrist in Warsaw who counsels young people, said all teenagers face challenges adapting to a new country, but Ukrainian boys have the added burden of possibly being called up to fight one day and confronting questions about why they haven’t gone back to join the war effort.

Many of her teenaged patients have fathers in the Ukrainian army and they feel compelled to join them. But during counselling sessions, most boys tell Dr. Voznyuk that they don’t want to return to Ukraine because they’re afraid of dying. “They just want to enjoy life, not die,” she said.

Dr. Voznyuk has personal insights into the issue as well, as a mother. Shortly after the war started, she left Lviv for Poland with her teenage son. He’s now 17 years old and has experienced the same emotional turmoil about leaving Ukraine. At first he felt guilty, she said, but he has slowly come to terms with the likelihood that he’ll be in Warsaw for a while and he’s made plans to attend university.

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A group of teenagers gather in a room at the Polish Women Can Do Everything Foundation in Warsaw. The gatherings are social, and the kids chat and play games. Psychiatrist Oksana Voznyuk (middle) watches their body language carefully for signs of withdrawal or depression, and she gently offers counselling.

While she accepts that Ukraine needs more soldiers, Dr. Voznyuk believes the country’s future depends on protecting the next generation who will be critical in rebuilding Ukraine.

“If mothers escape with children, they save the new generation,” she said. “We are fighting for the new generation, that’s why we need healthy teenagers.”

Mykyta Kasko and Dmytro Andriianov, both 16, are among a group of teenagers who meet regularly with Dr. Voznyuk at a Warsaw-based charity called Polish Women Can Do Everything.

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Dmytro 'Retti”' Andriianov, 16, from Zolote, Ukraine, now lives in Warsaw. He has thought about returning to Ukraine to join his father who is a soldier on the front line. Dymtro doesn’t want to return as a fighter, but as a paramedic.

Dmytro is from Zolote, in eastern Ukraine, and he came to Poland with his grandmother in June, 2022. His mother is living somewhere in occupied territory and he’s not sure if his father, who is a soldier, is still alive.

Adjusting to life in Poland has been difficult and he has few friends. But he has found time for some volunteer work helping Ukrainian refugees, and he some times sports a pair of cat ears to cheer up children and get a laugh from Dr. Voznyuk’s group.

A year ago, Dmytro felt certain he would go back to Ukraine and join the army when he turned 18. Now, he’s not so sure. He wants to be a paramedic and if he was conscripted, he’d only serve in a field hospital. “I want to be a lifesaver. But a soldier? Not really,” he said.

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Mykyta Kasko, 16, left Odesa with his father shortly after the war started and they now live in Warsaw. He and his father get asked all the time about returning home to fight. But his father has a nervous disorder and Mykyta helps care for him.

Mykyta also doesn’t want to fight when he turns 18. He left Odesa with his mother and was later joined in Poland by his father, who has a nervous disorder.

Some of his friends in Odesa have come under pressure to join the army and Mykyta and his father have been confronted by people in Warsaw who want to know why they haven’t gone to war. Mykyta tries to explain that he’s too young and that his father has a disability, but the questions keep coming.

Before the war, he dreamed of becoming a sailor, but now he wants to study psychology. “Because if you’re a psychologist, you can join the army and help people without killing anyone,” he said. “I’m not against going to the army. I just don’t want to kill people.”

He earns some money from translation work and every month he sends a donation to the Ukrainian army. That helps ease some of the pain he feels about being in Warsaw. “I don’t have guilt about being here. But I just have this emotional state that I need to help them. I just can’t be without this.”

Many Ukrainian men share the view that they can make more of a difference outside the country.

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Denys Verteletskyi, 25, is from the Donbas region and he has been living in Poland since 2020. He founded Voices From Ukraine, a charity that helps Ukrainian refugees.

Denys Verteletskyi came to Poland from eastern Ukraine in 2020 to study in Warsaw. When the war began, he got ready to enlist, but his parents urged him to stay put. “They told me, ‘Your position right now is just to tell people what they should do to help,’ ” he said. Mr. Verteletskyi  also has trouble walking, which he believes would disqualify him from Ukraine’s military draft.

Mr. Verteletskyi, 25, moved to Warsaw and launched Voices from Ukraine, a charity that offers a range of services to Ukrainian refugees. He’s also an outspoken advocate for increased Western military aid.

Sending people like him into war would be pointless, he said. “I can go tomorrow to the front line, but I will die.” He added that his lack of experience would also put other soldiers in danger.

Whenever he’s asked about why has hasn’t returned to fight, Mr. Verteletskyi turns the question around. Why shouldn’t Poles, Germans or other Europeans also go?

“We are right now fighting not for Ukraine,” he said. “We are fighting for all of Europe.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Denys Verteletskyi studied in Krakow and moved to Warsaw. In fact, Mr. Verteletskyi studied in Warsaw. He also has trouble walking, which he believes would disqualify him from Ukraine’s military draft. This version has been updated.

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