Ukraine needs 500,000 new recruits. Can it raise them?

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In the two years he’s served on Ukraine’s battlefield, Ilya has had just 25 days of leave.

“Two years without a break, without rotation — of course, morale is low and it’s killing motivation,” said Ilya, who serves in an assault brigade. “We need either rotation or normal vacations to rest properly.”

The soldier said Ukraine’s open-ended service was among the reasons men tried to avoid being drafted to the front. But, he said, “if people don’t come, we can’t rest”, adding that the personnel shortages were so bad in his unit that upcoming leave had been cancelled.

A new mobilisation law — due to be put to a parliamentary vote on March 31 — seeks to update the country’s legal framework ahead of an anticipated recruitment wave this year in which up to 500,000 people could be drafted.

The effort was mostly aimed at replacing the 330,000 exhausted troops currently on the battlefield, the Ukrainian defence ministry told the Financial Times. The remaining recruits would replace casualties and meet other military needs, depending on the battlefield situation, the ministry said.

But the law is proving controversial, with more than 4,000 amendments submitted by Ukrainian lawmakers on the first draft.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022, many Ukrainians volunteered to defend their country. But that pool has been exhausted and a large proportion of the men of fighting age are unwilling to be deployed to the front.

In a public announcement about war casualties, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last month said 31,000 soldiers had died so far but real number is likely to be higher © Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

So far, only men aged 27 or older have been recruited, with men serving on the battlefield being on average in their 40s. Ukraine has a narrower pool of millennials and Gen-Z compared with other nations, given a drop in birth rates after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A proposal to lower the recruitment age to 25 has sparked a fierce backlash from politicians who argue that it would be suicidal for the nation to send its youngest into the trenches.

In a first public announcement about war casualties, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last month said 31,000 soldiers had died so far. The real number is likely to exceed that, with several US officials previously estimating it to be at least more than double Zelenskyy’s figure.

Data on Ukraine’s male population, shared by the parliamentary economics committee, shows that of 11.1mn Ukrainian men aged between 25 and 60, only an estimated 3.7mn are eligible for mobilisation. The other men are either fighting, disabled, abroad or considered critical workers.

Authorities are also conscious of the need to tread carefully to avoid pushing taxpaying citizens to flee abroad or go into hiding, depriving Kyiv of much-needed revenue.

A February survey by Info Sapiens, a Ukrainian social research organisation, found that 48 per cent of men were not prepared to fight while 34 per cent were. The rest said it was hard to say.

“I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t want to die,” said Yaroslav, who tried to flee Ukraine last summer but was turned away at the border when he presented fake medical exemption papers.

“You have to decide what you love more, your family or your country,” said the 32-year-old father of a young child.

Since 2022, men between the ages of 27 and 60 have been banned from leaving the country, with a few exceptions on medical grounds or for sole carers of children or disabled family members.

Aside from the fear of death and disability, according to the Info Sapiens study, the main concerns of those seeking to avoid mobilisation were insufficient training, unclear length of service and the lack of weapons and ammunition.

The new mobilisation law seeks to address those issues. The initial draft proposes a service term of three years and a minimum of three months’ training. Some brigades have begun to advertise that volunteers can choose positions tailored to their skills, in a bid to boost recruitment.

But delays in US and EU military aid, which have forced soldiers to ration ammunition and retreat from frontline positions, are beyond the control of Ukrainian lawmakers.

“We have many people who are willing to do it, but the demotivating factor is this general context — when Ukrainians cease to feel reliable support from the west,” said Anton Hrushetsky from Kyiv’s Sociology Institute, a marketing research firm.

Half of the 90 per cent of respondents to Info Sapiens who said they believed Ukraine could succeed with the support of western allies now think the west is tired and will push Ukraine into a compromise with Russia, Hrushetsky said.

Soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard attend a military training. Some brigades have begun to advertise that volunteers can choose positions tailored to their skills, in a bid to boost recruitment © Sergey Kozlov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The new law seeks to lower the mobilisation age by two years, to 25, and oblige men to register via an online portal. Failure to do so could result in yet-to-be-decided penalties. Evaders are likely to be subject to home visits from military recruitment officers and have their driver’s licences suspended, according to parliamentarians involved in the final draft.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the changes is the introduction of a so-called economic reserve system, which would exempt men considered critical to the economy. The system was intended to be included in the new law but given the outcry it sparked it will now be introduced separately, either by a government decree or a new piece of legislation.

Ukraine already has between 550,000 and 700,000 critical workers who are exempt from mobilisation. Under the new system, they will have to contribute to the war effort financially, either by funnelling part of their pay or through a monthly levy.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal declined to give details last week but said that “people should be divided into two categories: those who fight [and] those who work to fill the budget”.

Oleksandr Zavitnevych, head of the parliamentary defence committee, who is overseeing the bill, said officials needed to be “careful [about] how we talk about this”.

“Every penny is needed, but it needs to be part of a wide discussion. There are people who see it will divide society into rich and poor,” said Zavitnevych, as the ones who can’t afford the fee will have to be drafted.

Estimates suggest the fee model put forward by the parliament’s economic affairs committee would generate between $5.2bn and $13.1bn annually, based on calculations that up to 2mn men would be able to afford to pay the proposed $520 monthly levy.

The committee’s chair, Dmytro Natalukha acknowledged his proposal had received negative feedback, with people pointing to the fact that those who would be unable to pay would get drafted. But he argued that whatever approach was chosen, Ukraine needed to generate funds.

“It may sound counterintuitive, but the [economic reserve] scheme is not [designed] to save people from mobilisation, but to generate as many financial resources as possible so that we can mobilise troops,” said Natalukha.

Ukraine’s finance ministry and army have said the new wave of mobilisation will cost Ukraine about $20.8bn in 2024, broadening the gap left by US House Republicans blocking fresh aid for Kyiv. That figure comes on top of Ukraine’s estimated $41bn budget deficit for 2024.

Businesses had questioned why civilians had to be recruited when Ukraine had thousands of security service personnel and police who already had basic training, said Glib Buriak, an economics professor at the Ukrainian-American Concordia University in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s ministry of defence said the police and security services were carrying out “essential work” and some were already fighting in interior ministry battalions.

Buriak said clarification from the new law was key, as businesses and workers were “in dire need of predictability”.

“One of the reasons people leave their jobs at the moment is due to the failed recruitment campaign,” said Buriak. “There are so many questions that are not communicated properly to the population.”

Nikita Batozskyi contributed to this report

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