After two years of bloody fighting, Ukraine fights against conscription

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When Russian troops and tanks invaded Ukraine in February 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainians rushed to serve in the army in a burst of patriotic fervor. The influx of fighters who dutifully responded to their conscription notices or enlisted as volunteers helped 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 while Ukraine once again needs fresh troops to repel a new Russian push, military leaders can no longer rely solely on enthusiasm. More men are avoiding military service, while calls for the demobilization of exhausted front-line soldiers are growing.

The change in mood was particularly evident in the heated debates over a new mobilization bill this could lead to the enlistment of up to 500,000 soldiers. The bill was introduced to Parliament last month – only to be quickly withdrawn for review.

The bill catalyzed discontent in Ukrainian society with the military recruitment process, which has been denounced as riddled with corruption and increasingly aggressive. Many lawmakers have said some of its provisions, such as banning holdouts from buying real estate, could violate human rights.

The biggest sticking point concerns the very delicate issue of mass mobilization. Experts say measures that would make drafting easier would pave the way for large-scale conscription, of the kind that several military officials have recently said are necessary to offset battlefield losses and weather another year of fierce fighting. . Many people in Ukraine fear such measures could fuel social tensions.

President Volodymyr Zelensky appears unwilling to take responsibility for instituting a major conscription, instead asking his government and the military to present more arguments to support the move. “I have not seen details clear enough to say that we need to mobilize half a million” people, he said in a statement. recent interview with Channel 4a British broadcaster.

The military suggested that mass mobilization was a problem for the civilian government, a response that could exacerbate simmering tensions between Mr. Zelensky and his commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny. The Ukrainian President » reprimanded General Zaluzhny in the fall, after declaring that the war was at a stalemate.

“It’s a hot potato,” said Petro Burkovsky, director of the Foundation for Democratic Initiatives, a Ukrainian think tank.

“Political leaders decided to avoid the issue of mobilization” for most of the war, Mr. Burkovsky said. But with troops exhausted after two years, ignoring it is not viable, “and right now, someone has to be politically responsible.”

The challenge of mustering enough troops is just one of many challenges Ukraine faces as foreign military and financial aid becomes more difficult to obtainthreatening to weaken kyiv’s ability to hold the front line and support its economy.

The need to replenish Ukraine’s armed forces has been evident for months. While kyiv has kept the number of casualties secret, U.S. officials this summer estimated the figure at nearly 70,000 killed and 100,000 to 120,000 injured.

Russian casualties, according to U.S. officials, were nearly double — the result of sending waves of troops into 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.

In contrast, Ukraine’s efforts to rebuild its forces have lagged behind schedule.

Soldiers at the front reported seeing a steady decline in the quality of recruits. Many are older, nursing wounds from years ago, and unmotivated to fight. More and more men are also trying to avoid conscription, flee the country or hide at home. Desertion, said a Ukrainian soldier stationed in the east, is also becoming a problem.

This prompted military recruiters to turn to more aggressive tactics, forcing men to go to conscription 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 compared the recruiters to “thieves of people.”

General Zaluzhny said in a essay in November, that it was necessary to review the recruitment process “to build up our reserves”. But he and other officials have offered few alternatives to large-scale mobilization.

Mr. Zelensky said his army leaders had asked him to mobilize 450,000 to 500,000 troops. “It’s a significant number,” he said last month, adding that a plan needed to be developed before a decision could be made.

According to experts, this is the main objective of the mobilization bill, which does not specify the number of soldiers who should be added. It would lower the conscription age from 27 to 25, limit deferments for minor disabilities and restrict draft dodgers’ ability to get a loan 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 conscription of hundreds of thousands of people.

“The state is taking a firm stance on how quickly it can provide its defense forces with such numbers of personnel,” Mr Kevliuk said.

But many lawmakers, including those in Mr. Zelensky’s party, have expressed concerns about measures such as those affecting the disabled and draft dodgers. They also say that relying on local governments can exacerbate problems. Regional recruitment centers were plagued by corruptionofficers accepting bribes to allow men to avoid conscription.

“All in all, this makes this bill unacceptable in its form,” said Oleksiy Honcharenko, an MP from the opposition European Solidarity party.

Honcharenko added that the presentation of the bill to Parliament had been “complicated”, reflecting the government’s desire to “avoid political accountability”. The bill was introduced on Christmas Eve, which some reviews seen as an attempt to go unnoticed, and in the name of Prime Minister Denys Schmyhal, rather than Mr. Zelensky.

After several days of debate this month, lawmakers sent the bill back for review.

“I clearly understand that the task of the army is to succeed on the front,” said Parliament Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk. recently told Ukrainian media. “However, we must work together to regulate processes as important and sensitive as mobilization. »

Rustem Umerov, Ukrainian Defense Minister, said the government was already working on revisions. He expressed frustration with the lawmakers’ decision, saying the mobilization had been “politicized and blocked.”

Honcharenko said a broader debate was needed on Ukraine’s military strategy. No one has clearly explained why it was now necessary to recruit up to half a million people, he said, which left civilians confused.

“If our strategy is to attack through Russian minefields, with Russian air superiority, then, I don’t know, 500,000 people might not be enough. Maybe a million, or even two million will not be enough,” he said. “We cannot compete with Russia in terms of the number of inhabitants. They will always win this competition – they are just bigger than us.

Mr. Burkovsky, the political analyst, said Ukrainian authorities failed to “plan the pace of troop recruitment, training and resupply” during the first year of the war, leaving them to rushing through the conscription process without addressing the underlying issues that cause concern to 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 start of the war believe that it has lasted too long and that they must be replaced now. In recent weeks, Ukrainian cities have seen an increasing number of demonstrations calling for immediate demobilizationa rare display of public criticism in wartime.

Mr Zelensky also highlighted the cost of mobilization to Ukraine’s flagging economy.

Conscription means fewer taxpayers to cover a larger military payroll. Mr Zelensky said last month that mobilizing more than 450,000 people would cost 500 billion Ukrainian hryvnias, or around $13 billion – while continued Western financial aid is in doubt.

“Where are we going to get the money from? » asked Mr. Zelensky.

Daria Mitiuk reports contributed.

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