Zelensky’s Travel Ban on Ukrainian Men Could Damage War Morale

New survey data shows a majority of Ukrainians do not support the travel ban in its current form.

By , a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of Human Security Lab, and , an undergraduate research fellow at Human Security Lab and a senior political science major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
A man carries his son on his shoulders as they walk past graffiti on a wall depicting a Ukrainian serviceman making a shot with a U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system.
A man carries his son on his shoulders as they walk past graffiti on a wall depicting a Ukrainian serviceman making a shot with a U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system.
A man carries his son as they walk past graffiti on a wall depicting a Ukrainian serviceman making a shot with a U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 29. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

This article was developed with research support from Kristina Becvar, Liam Harney, Camryn Hughes, Nicholas McCurrach, Nhu Thieu Le, and Astrid Paz.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law and submitted a notice to the United Nations announcing his intention to derogate from his country’s obligations under various human rights treaties for the necessity of national security. Among these derogations was the right to freedom of movement: Ukraine implemented a travel ban that restricts most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

More than eight months later, the ban remains in effect, with millions of men (and transgender women) subject to its provisions. Even male residents of other countries, such as international students home on winter break when the war started, have been trapped behind the front lines. With unemployment at 34 percent, many men are unable to work, with savings and food running out. They are at risk of death by bombardment or massacre if they stay in eastern cities and face the psychosocial harm of being separated from and unable to protect their families in flight.

This article was developed with research support from Kristina Becvar, Liam Harney, Camryn Hughes, Nicholas McCurrach, Nhu Thieu Le, and Astrid Paz.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law and submitted a notice to the United Nations announcing his intention to derogate from his country’s obligations under various human rights treaties for the necessity of national security. Among these derogations was the right to freedom of movement: Ukraine implemented a travel ban that restricts most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

More than eight months later, the ban remains in effect, with millions of men (and transgender women) subject to its provisions. Even male residents of other countries, such as international students home on winter break when the war started, have been trapped behind the front lines. With unemployment at 34 percent, many men are unable to work, with savings and food running out. They are at risk of death by bombardment or massacre if they stay in eastern cities and face the psychosocial harm of being separated from and unable to protect their families in flight.

Activists inside Ukraine have mobilized against this policy on human rights grounds, arguing that it contradicts international treaties guaranteeing gender equality and the freedom of movement for all civilians. Human rights scholars agree: University of Newcastle law professor Amy Maguire writes that the law likely violates the nonderogable right to freedom of conscience by failing to carve out an exception for conscientious objection. Pia Lotta Storf, a Ph.D. candidate in international public law at the University of Münster, makes a similar case, arguing that Ukraine did not meet the bar for a derogation from the “right to leave one’s country” rule.

But there may be another reason to end the travel ban: New survey results show it’s unpopular among a wide swath of Ukrainians, many of whom not only cite human rights but also say it is counterproductive to the war effort.

This summer, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Human Security Lab conducted a random survey of more than 3,100 Ukrainians to examine their views on the travel ban. The survey was conducted using the global consulting firm RIWI’s “random domain intercept technology,” whose methodology allowed any internet user in Ukraine a random chance of coming across the survey online. Respondents were asked whether they believed civilian men should be permitted to flee, required to stay, or something else—and to then explain their response.

The results found that a majority of respondents did not support the travel ban in its current form. Less than half (44.7 percent) supported the current law, with the other 55.3 percent split between outright opposition (28.3 percent) and something “different” (27 percent). Outright opposition to the travel ban was most concentrated among women, younger men, those without college degrees, and Russian speakers. Mixed, nuanced views (where participants chose “different”) were most prominent among wealthy, highly educated, and younger people. But even among those Ukrainians who said men should be required to stay, many of them stated in their open-ended comments that they disagreed with the current law.

The 692 open-ended responses—visualized in the tag cloud below—provide insight into why different Ukrainians see the issue as they do. Participants were asked not only to choose a response but also to explain their answer, and many typed in detailed responses—showing much more overlap than might be expected across Ukrainian society in views on how this travel ban might be changed. Human Security Lab analyzed and coded the data and identified a range of arguments, many of which had similarities.

A tag cloud showing analytical categories from the open-ended comments. The font size corresponds to the frequency of responses.
A tag cloud showing analytical categories from the open-ended comments. The font size corresponds to the frequency of responses.

A tag cloud showing analytical categories from the open-ended comments. The font size corresponds to the frequency of responses.

Of the 45 percent who preferred that men be required to stay in the country, many responded with some version of “The law is the law and should be obeyed.” Some respondents simply wrote some variation of “Screw Russia.” The most common reason given was a sentiment that citizens have a duty to defend the country: “It is our duty to the state in which we were born, whether we like it or not,” one respondent wrote.

But some respondents who supported the travel ban also pointed out that keeping civilian men in a shooting war may not be the best way to discharge this civic duty. In particular, some pointed out that most of the men being forced to stay are not actually being conscripted or trained to fight: Indeed, recently Ukraine ceased conscription altogether. Others argued that only those with combat experience belong in the service anyway: “There are specially trained and prepared people for military operations. There may not be any benefit from the unprepared.” Others who chose “require men to stay” emphasized a range of policy alternatives, such as a much more limited age range for the ban. For example, one wrote, “Ukraine needs healthy, brave, and strong soldiers, not children who have just turned 18.”

Ukrainians who said men should be “permitted to flee” also seemed less interested in avoiding the war effort so much as supporting it in a different way. Many pointed out that untrained men can’t fight effectively and thus it is not only unfair to send them to the front but also counterproductive. Many left remarks such as, “Everyone must have a choice because not every man can be useful at the front.” Another said, “A person forcibly taken into the army will not only not be useful but can bring problems to others.”

In addition to skepticism that untrained, unfit, or unable men make good fighters, some respondents argued that civilian men can actually support the war effort better from abroad:

My opinion is that those who are not military have to go abroad and work to bring money to the country and support the economy. If we don’t work, there will be nothing to dress, feed, and pay our defenders. If men can leave, work in another country, and pay money (taxes) to the country, we are more likely to win this war.

Many others made similar remarks: “Give the opportunity to earn money abroad to feed the army and your family!” “Let them go abroad, work, and send money to Ukraine, to their relatives, and pay taxes to the state.”

Finally, a third reason some gave for choosing the “permit men to flee” option is that women and children fleeing a war are better protected by keeping their men with them. One respondent wrote, “[Women] do not benefit from the fact that men sit in a safe place without work, without the opportunity to feed their families.”

A significant proportion of all respondents—both those who supported and those who opposed the travel ban—listed a range of ideas for how the policy could be usefully modified, suggesting that opposition to the current rules is even higher than the numbers indicate. Moreover, a great many respondents argued that men (and women) would willingly return to Ukraine when called up for actual training and service but that, until that point, they should be free to support their families and send remittances to the army from abroad. As one respondent put it, “Everyone has a connection and telephones. Forcing citizens to sit in the country if they are not urgently needed is pointless.”

There was also a shared sense among the various respondents that the duty to defend the country should not fall to men alone. Among the “permit men to flee” group, gender egalitarianism was sometimes mentioned: “Women are not worse than men, sometimes even better, they can defend their homeland! Prohibit childless women from leaving, they are also potential protectors!” But even among those who argued men should be required to stay, only a small proportion of those who espoused a “duty to defend the nation” as a reason specified this as a duty of men: Many of them specifically mentioned that this was a duty of all citizens, and some pointed out that women should also be conscripted to serve. One said: “I think that women with medical education, those who do not have children, should also be considered for mobilization.”

Public opinion on the mobilization can have a large impact on Zelensky’s war effort in at least two ways. First, the travel ban—and especially its gender-specific component—may be affecting morale. The Human Security Lab survey data shows that some civilians who would otherwise support the Ukrainian war effort find the travel ban, whether aimed at only men or all citizens, inconsistent with Ukrainian ideals. One respondent wrote, “This law is not for free people.” Another stated, “This is a law that betrays Ukraine, makes the flower of the nation die for the sake of foreign countries, and does not bring any benefit to the country.”

This echoes a sentiment by some Ukrainian citizens who have explicitly drawn a comparison between Ukraine and Russia on the basis of the travel ban. A commenter on a March petition calling on Zelensky to “allow men aged 18-60 without military experience to leave Ukraine” wrote: “If a country has to force their citizens to fight for it – it shouldn’t exist at all, Russia does that, Ukraine please show, that you are not like Russia. Be humane, let your civilians flee.” That petition garnered nearly 60,000 signatures and has been one of several launched to challenge this law.

There is also the question of international public opinion. Ukraine has received strong sympathy and support from the U.S. government, the American public, and many Western nations, but policies that violate international human rights law, especially those without popular support from the Ukrainian people, may harm Ukraine’s international reputation without providing much strategic benefit. Modifications to the travel ban would also better align with European Union and NATO views on human rights and gender equality, which could bolster Ukraine’s bid for membership.

Ukraine was able to seize the moral high ground from the start by fighting a defensive war largely in line with international humanitarian law and to protect democracy and human rights. Maintaining the travel ban on civilian men may be inimical to those goals.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and director of Human Security Lab. Twitter: @charlicarpenter

Hunter Fairchild is an undergraduate research fellow at Human Security Lab and a senior political science major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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