When Russian troops and tanks invaded Ukraine in February 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainians rushed to serve in the army in a fit of patriotic fervor. The influx of fighters who obediently responded to their recruiting notices or enlisted as volunteers helped repel Russia’s initial attack and thwarted the Kremlin’s plans to decapitate the Ukrainian government.
But after nearly two years of bloody fighting, and with Ukraine once again in need of new troops to defend itself against a new Russian attack, military leaders can no longer rely on enthusiasm alone. More men are avoiding military service, while calls grow to demobilize exhausted frontline soldiers.
The change in mood has been particularly evident in the heated debates over a new mobilization bill that could lead to recruiting up to 500,000 troops. The bill was introduced in Parliament last month but was quickly withdrawn for review.
The bill has catalyzed discontent in Ukrainian society over the army’s recruitment process, which has been denounced as rife with corruption and increasingly aggressive. Many lawmakers have said some of its provisions, such as preventing evaders from buying real estate, could violate human rights.
The biggest obstacle has to do with the extremely delicate issue of mass mobilization. The measures that would facilitate recruiting have been seen by experts as paving the way for large-scale conscription, the kind that several military officials have recently said is necessary to offset battlefield losses and withstand another year of fierce fighting. Many in Ukraine fear that such measures could spark social tensions.
President Volodymyr Zelensky does not appear willing to take responsibility for instituting a major conscription and has instead called on his government and military to present more arguments supporting this move. “I haven’t seen details clear enough to say we need to mobilize half a million” people, he said in a statement. recent interview with Channel 4a British station.
The military has suggested that mass mobilization is a problem for the civilian government, a response that could exacerbate tensions brewing between Zelensky and his top commander, Valery Zaluzhny. The Ukrainian president rebuked General Zaluzhny in the fall after he said the war had reached a stalemate.
“It’s a hot potato,” said Petro Burkovsky, director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Ukrainian think tank.
“Political leaders decided to avoid the question of mobilization” for most of the war, Burkovsky said. But with troops exhausted after two years, ignoring it is not sustainable, “and right now, someone has to be politically responsible.”
The challenge of raising enough troops is just one of many facing Ukraine as foreign military and financial aid becomes harder to come by, threatening to weaken kyiv’s ability to hold the front line and support its economy.
The need to replenish the Ukrainian armed forces has been evident for months. While kyiv has kept its casualty count secret, US officials this summer put the toll at nearly 70,000 dead and between 100,000 and 120,000 injured.
Russia’s casualties, U.S. officials said, were nearly double, a result of sending waves of troops on bloody assaults to capture cities, regardless of the human cost. But Russia has a much larger population and has swelled its ranks with tens of thousands of prisoners.
By contrast, Ukraine’s efforts to rebuild its forces have lagged behind.
Soldiers at the front said they had noticed a steady decline in the quality of recruits. Many are older, suffer from injuries from years ago and are not motivated to fight. More men are also trying to avoid the draft, escape the country or hide at home. Desertion, said a Ukrainian soldier stationed in the east, is also becoming a problem.
That has led military recruiters to adopt more aggressive tactics, forcing men into recruiting offices, detaining them, sometimes illegally, and forcing them to enlist. Lawyers and activists have spoken out, but there are few signs of change. Many Ukrainians have compared recruiters to “people thieves.”
General Zaluzhny said in a rehearsal in November that it was necessary to review the hiring process “to increase our reserves.” But he and other officials have offered few alternatives to large-scale mobilization.
Zelensky has said his army chiefs have asked him to mobilize between 450,000 and 500,000 men. “This is a significant number,” he said last month, adding that a plan needed to be worked out before a decision could be made.
Experts say that is the main goal of the mobilization bill, which does not specify how many troops should be added. It would lower the draft age from 27 to 25, limit deferrals for minor disabilities and restrict the ability of draft evaders to obtain loans or buy property. It also gives local authorities greater responsibility for conscription.
Viktor Kevliuk, a retired Ukrainian colonel who oversaw mobilization in western Ukraine from 2014 to 2018, said the bill was “specifically aimed” at facilitating the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of people.
“The state is taking a firm stance on how quickly it can staff its defense forces with such a large number of personnel,” Kevliuk said.
But many lawmakers, including those in Zelensky’s party, have expressed concern about measures such as those affecting the disabled and those evading mandatory military service. They also say that reliance on local governments can exacerbate problems. Regional recruiting centers have been plagued by corruption, with officers accepting bribes to allow men to evade the draft.
“Taken together, that made this bill unacceptable in its form,” said Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of parliament from the opposition European Solidarity party.
Honcharenko added that the introduction of the bill in parliament had been “disorderly”, reflecting the government’s desire to “avoid political responsibility”. The bill was introduced on Christmas night, which some critics saw it as an attempt to fly under the radar, and on behalf of Prime Minister Denys Schmyhal, and not Mr. Zelensky.
After several days of debate this month, lawmakers returned the bill for review.
“I clearly understand that the task of the military is to achieve success on the front,” said Ruslan Stefanchuk, speaker of parliament. he recently told Ukrainian media. “However, we must work together to regulate processes as important and sensitive as mobilization.”
Rustem Umerov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine, saying the government was already working on revisions. He expressed frustration with lawmakers’ decision and said the mobilization had been “politicized and stalled.”
Honcharenko said a broader debate on Ukraine’s military strategy was needed. No one had clearly explained why up to half a million people now needed to be recruited, he said, leaving civilians confused.
“If our strategy is to attack through Russian minefields, with Russian air superiority, then, I don’t know, 500,000 people may not be enough. Maybe one million, or even two million, is not enough,” he stated. “We cannot compete with Russia in terms of the number of inhabitants. They will always win this competition; “They’re just bigger than us.”
Burkovsky, the political analyst, said Ukrainian authorities had failed to “plan the pace of recruiting, training and resupplying troops” in the first year of the war, forcing them to rush through the recruiting process without addressing problems. underlying issues that cause concern in Ukrainian civil society.
The bill, for example, leaves open the possibility of demobilizing troops after three years of service. But relatives of the men who have fought since the war began say this is too long and they need to be replaced now. In recent weeks, Ukrainian cities have seen an increasing number of Protests calling for immediate demobilization.a rare display of public criticism in times of war.
Zelensky has also highlighted the cost of the mobilization for Ukraine’s weakened economy.
The draft means fewer taxpayers covering a larger military payroll. Zelensky said last month that mobilizing more than 450,000 people would cost 500 billion Ukrainian hryvnias, about $13 billion, when the continuity of Western financial aid is in doubt.
“Where will we get the money?” Mr. Zelensky asked.
Daria Mitiuk contributed with reports.