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Ukraine cancels its consular services for all military-aged men living abroad

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Ukraine has canceled its consular services for all military-aged men living abroad. This means all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 who reside outside of the country are currently not able to renew their passports or receive other important government documents such as marriage certificates. It's making things more difficult for people such as 37-year-old Igor Kovalenko (ph).

IGOR KOVALENKO: It's a bit of a problem because my passport ends in three months, and I need to get a new one.

MARTÍNEZ: The move comes on the heels of new mobilization laws that require all Ukrainian men to register with the country's military and lowers the conscription age to 25. Ukraine has faced challenges in replenishing its ranks as the war with Russia drags on and experts warn of a new spring offensive. The government in Kyiv says that the suspension of consular services and the new mobilization laws will distribute the burden of the war more equally. But Kovalenko disagrees with that assessment.

KOVALENKO: It's useless because, honestly, what do you want achieved by that? Let's say you have couple thousand people who escaped illegally from Ukraine. Even if you take their documents, they won't go back.

MARTÍNEZ: Kovalenko is not among those who illegally fled the country to avoid mobilization. He has three children, and that means he's exempt from fighting and allowed to leave Ukraine. Kovalenko never intended to leave because things were good in Kyiv.

KOVALENKO: I was pretty happy. I had a lot of friends. I had my church. I thought it's a great life. Probably it was the best what I had ever in my life.

MARTÍNEZ: But when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, everything changed. After stops in several European countries, Kovalenko, together with his wife and three children, made it to the U.S., where they applied for a program specifically for Ukrainian refugees. They now live in Washington state and are slowly starting to settle into their new lives in America.

KOVALENKO: We have food, we have clothes and it's getting better. So it's a country full of opportunities to work and grow.

MARTÍNEZ: But of course, he still worries about his home, Ukraine. And now with this new decree suspending consular services, he is also worried about his own future.

KOVALENKO: I have my passport. It's my main document, and I cannot use it. So that's my fear. I cannot renew it.

MARTÍNEZ: You see, to renew his passport, he would have to go to Ukraine. And once there, he fears he might not be able to leave. This fear has reverberated throughout the Ukrainian diaspora, driving many Ukrainian men to run to their nearest embassy or consulate in an attempt to retrieve documents, only to be turned away with few answers or no explanations. Kovalenko believes that this decree is simply an attempt by the government to show support for the men on the front lines.

KOVALENKO: I think it was made just for those soldiers, to make them feel like they are supported. For people who is outside, it's madness.

MARTÍNEZ: And he says it only further alienates him and other men outside of Ukraine from his countrymen at home.

KOVALENKO: We have a gap, and it's growing. Everyone who is fighting is a hero, everyone who is not is a betrayer.

MARTÍNEZ: And voices from Ukraine echo that sentiment, such as 25-year-old Polina Slashkova (ph), who works in IT in Kyiv.

POLINA SLASHKOVA: I think that men who left, they should just have their Ukrainian passports taken away, and that's it.

MARTÍNEZ: Kovalenko hopes that once the new mobilization laws go into effect on May 18, things will change and consular services will resume. But even if that's not the case, he has no intention of returning to Ukraine.

KOVALENKO: So I want to stay here anyway, without a passport. I don't care.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR has reached out to Ukraine's foreign ministry for clarification about the decree and its impact, but we have yet to receive an answer. The U.S., for its part, says it takes no position on the new rules for Ukrainian men abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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