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regular-article-logo Thursday, 30 May 2024

After two years of bloody fighting, Ukraine wrestles with conscription

More men are avoiding military service, while calls to demobilise exhausted frontline soldiers have grown

Constant Meheut, Thomas Gibbons-Neff Kyiv Published 29.01.24, 05:13 AM
President Volodymyr Zelensky.

President Volodymyr Zelensky. File picture

When Russian troops and tanks invaded Ukraine in February 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainians rushed to serve in the army in a surge of patriotic fervour. The influx of fighters who dutifully answered their draft notices or enlisted as volunteers helped to repel Russia’s initial assault and thwart 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 fresh troops to fend off a new Russian push, military leaders can no longer rely solely on enthusiasm. More men are avoiding military service, while calls to demobilise exhausted frontline soldiers have grown.

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The change in mood has been particularly evident in the heated debates over a new mobilisation bill that could lead to drafting up to 500,000 troops. The bill was introduced in Parliament last month — only to be quickly withdrawn for revision.

The bill has catalysed discontent in Ukrainian society about the army recruitment process, which has been denounced as riddled with corruption and increasingly aggressive. Many lawmakers have said that some of its provisions, like barring draft dodgers from buying real estate, could violate human rights.

The biggest sticking point concerns the highly delicate issue of mass mobilisation. Measures that would make conscription easier have been seen by experts as paving the way for a large-scale draft, of the kind several military officials have recently said is needed to make up for losses on the battlefield and withstand another year of fierce fighting. Many in Ukraine fear that such measures could stir up social tensions.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has appeared unwilling to take responsibility for instituting a major draft, instead asking his government and the army to come up with more arguments supporting this move. “I haven’t seen clear enough details to say that we need to mobilise half a million” people, he said in a recent interview with Channel 4, a British broadcaster.

The military has suggested that mass mobilisation is an issue for the civilian government, a response that could exacerbate brewing tensions 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, the head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Ukrainian think tank.

“The political leadership decided to avoid the issue of mobilisation” for most of the war, Burkovsky said. But with troops depleted after two years, ignoring it is not sustainable, “and right now, someone has to be politically responsible.”

New York Times News Service

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