Desperate for soldiers, Ukraine weighs unpopular plan to expand the draft

Feb 21, 2024, 9:17 PM

Newly recruited soldiers shout slogans as they celebrate the end of their training at a military ba...

Newly recruited soldiers shout slogans as they celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. As the third year of war begins, the most sensitive and urgent challenge pressing on Ukraine is whether it can muster enough new soldiers to repel – and eventually drive out – an enemy with far more fighters at its disposal. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

LYMAN, Ukraine (AP) — When the Russian army mounted a full-scale invasion two years ago, Ukrainian men zealously rushed to recruitment centers across the country to enlist, ready to die in defense of their nation.

Today, with Russia in control of roughly one-quarter of Ukraine and the two armies virtually deadlocked along a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line, that spirit to enlist has faded: Many Ukrainian men are evading the draft by hiding at home or trying to bribe their way out of the battle.

Along the frigid and muddy front line, commanders say their army is too small and made up of too many exhausted and wounded soldiers. As the war enters its third year, the most urgent and politically sensitive challenge pressing on Ukraine is whether it can muster enough new soldiers to repel an enemy with far more fighters at its disposal.

Russia’s population is more than three times as large as Ukraine’s, and President Vladimir Putin has shown a willingness to force men to the front if not enough volunteer.

The lack of soldiers isn’t Ukraine’s only predicament – it is also desperate for Western military aid, which has been harder to come by as the war drags on. But mobilizing enough soldiers is a problem only Ukraine can solve.

To replenish its ranks, the Ukrainian government is struggling to find a balance between coercion and persuasion.

The parliament is considering legislation that would increase the potential pool of recruits by about 400,000, in part by lowering the enlistment age from 27 to 25. But the proposal is highly unpopular, forcing elected officials to grapple with questions that cut to the heart of nationhood: Can they convince enough citizens to sacrifice their lives? And, if not, are they willing to accept the alternative?

A Ukrainian soldier fighting near the city of Avdiivka — where soldiers retreated last week to save lives — said his unit was recently outnumbered by about 5 to 1 when dozens of Russian soldiers stormed their position, killing everyone but himself and two others.

“We were almost completely defeated,” said Dima, who refused to provide his last name for security reasons.

Roughly 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, a 42-year-old man hides at home outside of Kyiv, distressed. “I feel a sort of a guilt for being a man … I cannot feel myself free,” said Andrii, who insisted on using his first name only to speak about dodging the draft.

Tens of thousands of other eligible Ukrainian men are estimated to be evading the draft, at home or abroad.


Because there aren’t enough new recruits, soldiers on the front line aren’t getting enough rest in between rotations. Two years of grueling battles have left men fatigued and more susceptible to injury. When there are new recruits, they are too few, too poorly trained and often too old, according to interviews with two dozen Ukrainian soldiers, including six commanders.

Commanders say they don’t have enough soldiers to launch offensives, and barely enough to hold positions amid intensifying Russian assaults.

Brigades of 3,000-5,000 soldiers are typically fighting with only 75% of their full strength, according to Vadym Ivchenko, a lawmaker who is part of the parliament’s national security, defense and intelligence committee. Some brigades have as few as 25%, he added.

Dima, the soldier fighting near Avdiivka, was among a dozen men treated recently at a field hospital near the front. Doctors there said their work was like a merry-go-round: Soldiers sent back to fight after being treated often reappear weeks later with fresh wounds.

Igor Ivantsev, 31, has been wounded twice in the span of four months. His body aches when he carries his machine gun, but doctors deem him fit to serve. Ivantsev said that of the 17 men he enlisted with, most are dead; the rest are like him, wounded.

Ivantsev’s commander, who would only provide his first name, Dmytro, said his exhausted and depleted company is working overtime to dig deeper trenches and build better locations from which to counter constant Russian artillery. “We have no people, nowhere to get them from,” Dmytro said.

At the start of the war, soldiers were rotated every two weeks for one week of rest, he said. But now his soldiers fight for a month, then get four days of rest.

“We are not made of steel,” said Ivantsev.

The average Ukrainian servicemen is in their 40s, according to Western officials. Commanders say the older the soldiers, the more they experience chronic illness, such as ulcers, hernias and pinched nerves.

Dima’s assault company recently received seven new recruits ages 55 to 58.

“What positions are they going to storm?” he asked sarcastically. “If he walks 4 kilometers with a backpack full of gear and weapons, he will fall down in the middle of the road.”

Nearby, Alyona Yalunka, a medic, cares for a 42-year-old injured soldier who goes by the battlefield name Kolmyk. She feeds him a piece of chocolate.

“I will kiss these guys’ feet to the bitter end, as long as they just stand, take up arms and protect my daughters,” Yalunka said.

Kolmyk looked up at her with glassy eyes as his painkillers started to kick in. “Now, I can rest,” he said.


In Kyiv, the parliament is grappling with legislation that would enable the military to draft more men so that those already in battle can get more rest or even be relieved of duty.

An estimated 300,000 Ukrainian soldiers are currently fighting along the front line, while others serve elsewhere, lawmakers said. Putin has said twice as many Russian troops are in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military seeks to mobilize up to 500,000 more men, but realizing how unpopular such a move would be, lawmakers are treading carefully. Over a thousand amendments have been attached to draft legislation that even President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has yet to publicly endorse.

Under the draft legislation, any individual who fails to respond to call up notices could potentially have their bank accounts frozen and their ability to travel outside the country restricted — provisions that Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman has called unconstitutional.

Lawmakers critical of the legislation, including Ivchenko, say the military hasn’t adequately explained how a surge in conscription will meaningfully change the outcome of the war. The two countries have been at a near standstill for months following a failed counteroffensive by the Ukrainians over the summer. But the Russians have recently taken the initiative.

“Will this law be enough for the armed forces to change the situation on the battlefield?” asked Ivchenko.

While the legislation envisions a pool of at least 400,000 new recruits, a more realistic figure may be half that after accounting for draft dodgers and those with legitimate claims to defer enlistment, said Oksana Zabolotna, an analyst with the Center for United Actions, a government watchdog in Kyiv.


The legislation’s toughest sell are men like a 35-year-old website creator who insisted on anonymity to discuss his decision to hide at home in a suburb of Kyiv rather than join the war effort.

He refuses to fight, he said, because he doesn’t want to kill people; his plan is to raise enough money to escape Ukraine, which currently forbids men younger than 60 from traveling abroad.

The legislation being considered in parliament would, in theory, leave less room for men like him to hide by requiring all draft-eligible citizens to check in with the government via an electronic-tracking system. This system could also help balance a disparity in which recruitment patrols disproportionately target poor, rural areas to force draft dodgers to enlist.

“Everyone understands it isn’t equal,” said Ivchenko, the lawmaker.

While some bribe their way out of the draft entirely, others cut deals to be placed at a safe distance from the fighting, Ivchenko said. After an investigation into corruption, Zelenskyy last year dismissed all the regional heads of recruitment.

The website creator hiding outside of Kyiv said he senses the government closing in, as if authorities are out to get him, one way or another.

“It’s a feeling that everyone wants to throw you in a meat grinder,” he said.


At a recruitment center in Kyiv, men are examined by doctors to determine their fitness to serve.

Rustem Mineev, a 36-year-old railway worker, assumed he would be exempt from duty because his job is essential to the war effort. He was shocked when his workplace ordered him to get checked. “Of course, I am very scared,” he said while waiting to get an X-ray.

Dr. Olga Yevchenko, who is in charge of medical exams for new recruits, said some do try to bribe their way out.

“It is difficult to make a decision,” she said. “If a young man (comes), and he is completely healthy, you always know how it ends.”


Blann reported from Kyiv. Volodymyr Yurchuk and Dmytro Zhyhinas in Kyiv contributed to this report.


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Desperate for soldiers, Ukraine weighs unpopular plan to expand the draft