Zhenia’s unit of volunteers were outnumbered by five to one when the order came through to lay down their weapons and surrender to the invaders.
It was the beginning of a seven-month ordeal in Russian captivity, including physical and psychological torture.
Prisoners of war like Zhenia were supposed to be exempt from returning to battle under planned legislation, but just five months after his release, the 41-year-old is about to rejoin his brothers-in-arms in one of the hottest areas of the conflict.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “Did we not do enough? Because, of course, we are bringing [back] PTSD and need time to recover psychologically.”
Zhenia’s recall to service is part of Kyiv’s desperate push to replenish its battle-stricken military ahead of a looming counter-offensive to recapture territory from the occupying Russian forces.
Braced for the fight ahead, officials have launched a sweeping recruitment drive in the hope of plugging the gaps created by tens of thousands of battlefield casualties.
Kyiv has been sent vast amounts of Nato-standard hardware, from Britain’s Challenger 2 tanks to long-range Storm Shadow missiles, but rank-and-file infantry will be key in overcoming Moscow’s troops when the assault is launched.
The stakes are high for Ukraine.
Zhenia, who had never picked up a gun before he signed up with the army on the first day of the Russian invasion, believes the conflict could soon freeze over and last for many years if there is not a breakthrough soon.
“They have more ammo, weapons, people, money – so they think they can finally win in a longer war… I don’t want to believe in decades, of course, but I am quite positive about years,” he said in a small Kyiv cafe.
Similar calculations have been made by senior policymakers in the Ukrainian government, if the highly-publicised counter-offensive does not garner any significant results in favour of Kyiv in the coming months.
But, for now, their focus is on ensuring generals have enough men available to oust Russian forces from heavily fortified positions in Ukraine’s south and east.
The scale of the challenge facing recruiters is vast.
There are no official estimates of how many Ukrainians have been lost since Vladimir Putin ordered his invasion some 16 months ago.
A single briefing among a trove of leaked US intelligence documents suggested the number of Ukrainian servicemen killed or wounded since the start of the conflict could be over 130,000.
Zhenia said he worried that Ukrainian propaganda had been too effective at convincing people that the country has the upper hand in the war.
“I don’t want people to think it’s easy and the job is already done,” he said.
Vladimir Putin has launched multiple waves of mobilisation, including the call-up of some 300,000 Russians, to bolster his forces.
Recruiters for Ukraine are also in overdrive. In recent weeks, they have dropped the old, soft-touch tactics for delivering draft notices in favour of more aggressive ways to hit recruitment targets.
Military summons were once sent exclusively by post to people’s front doors. But now, men in uniform routinely knock on those doors and carry out random checks on the streets in order to check civilians’ draft eligibility.
It was this crackdown on those avoiding the call-up that stalled a plan to bring in legislation to exempt former prisoners of war from service, leading to Zhenia being drafted into the army for a second time.
Zhenia’s first ill-fated stint in Ukraine’s armed forces began when he joined a 700-strong queue of volunteers for the country’s Territorial Defence Force.
He was handed a rifle and a grenade launcher before he was even issued a uniform, such was the chaos of war’s early days, when Russian forces were bearing down on Kyiv.
Fluent in English, his initial training involved reading a US military field manual, later organising medical and basic tactical exercises with his unit in their spare time.
Having successfully chased Russian troops north out of Kyiv and over the border with Belarus, Zhenia’s unit was recalled for its first official training sessions, before being sent off to the frontline in the eastern Luhansk region.
Within weeks, he was captured as the towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk collapsed and fell into enemy hands.
The Ukrainian army has long relied on volunteers like Zhenia to fill its ranks, but now more are needed as the war with Russia moves into a new phase.
Back in Kyiv, the volunteer was told by his commanders he is not free from military service.
The only obstacle that might stop the former charity worker from being deployed again is the compulsory medical inspection every soldier in Ukraine’s armed forces undergoes.
With Ukraine’s large population of more than 40 million people, there is no shortage of military-aged men that could potentially sign up to fill his place in the armed forces.
But 16 months into Russia’s invasion, the situation is complicated for Ukrainian recruiters.
Under martial law, which has been in place since February 2022, men of fighting age between 18 and 60 are barred from leaving the country without a valid reason.
Ukraine’s mobilisation rules say that theoretically any man within that age range can be called up to fight.
Little to no training
One source close to the Ukrainian military said many would-be volunteers fear being sent to battlegrounds such as Bakhmut with little to no training.
Some deliberately avoid being called up by staying at different addresses than where they are officially registered. Ukraine’s security services have launched a crackdown on channels on the Telegram messaging app advising people to avoid or even sabotage recruitment officers’ attempts to hand out draft notices on the streets.
While others have stopped short of signing up because of overly-positive messaging from Ukraine’s government, which says the country is on the brink of winning its war versus Russia.
There are also several exemptions, including for students, parents with three or more children, men caring for disabled dependents and those considered medically unfit to serve.
One territorial defence unit visited by The Telegraph on the outskirts of Kyiv took those exemptions further, preventing brothers from serving on the frontline together.
Ready to go to the front
Valerii, a local government official in the Khotiv region on the outskirts of the capital, was barred from serving in Bakhmut for that very reason.
“I am ready to go to the frontline,” he said, despite being held back to protect critical infrastructure in the capital while his brother served on the eastern front.
Many soldiers, like Zhenia, are unconcerned by those who have yet to come forward, because Ukraine’s troops are fighting to preserve democracy and freedom of choice.
“But, of course, I have more complicated feelings about those who are trying to avoid recruitment,” he added.
“They are just moving themselves to the lowest level of hierarchy, because after the war, all of those who didn’t escape from their duties will insist that our voices are heard.”