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Many Critics, Few Enthusiasts As Ukraine Moves To Fill The Ranks For The Fight Against Russia's Invasion

A child holds a sign saying "demobilization" in Ukrainian during a protest by soldiers' families in November 2023.
A child holds a sign saying "demobilization" in Ukrainian during a protest by soldiers' families in November 2023.

KYIV -- Dmytro Yasynok showed up at the recruitment office of the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion two days after a Russian bomb hit the center of his hometown of Bilopillya. The 27-year-old civil-law lecturer came to Kyiv from Sumy, more than 300 kilometers east, near the Russian border, to join the ranks of a popular unit that promises recruits real training and decent service conditions.

His hands shook as he went through a 20-minute interview with a recruiter, held in an art-deco drama theater in the capital. He'd prefer to be a sniper, a drone operator, or a combat medic. But with no military experience, he will most likely have to serve in a basic infantry position, the recruiter, Maksym, told RFE/RL.

Dmytro Yasynok (right) meets with Maksym at the recruitment office of the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion in Kyiv.
Dmytro Yasynok (right) meets with Maksym at the recruitment office of the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion in Kyiv.

Yasynok will soon spend a trial week at a training center, and then officially join up or head back home. As the third spring since the Russian full-scale invasion blooms, millions of Ukrainians like him struggle to find their place in a stark wartime reality that's getting harder and harder for civilians to escape.

"Perhaps it's not a rational decision, but I am determined to join the army," Yasynok, who is exempt from military service as a university employee, said after the interview as he walked down a busy street.

WATCH: Ukrainian Army units have launched their own recruitment campaigns for combat soldiers.

Ukrainian Army Units Launch Recruitment Campaigns Amid Mobilization Problems
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On April 11, after months of delays and heated debate, the Ukrainian parliament approved a mobilization bill seeking to replenish the country's army and address some of the burning issues. The legislation, which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected to sign, comes as the depleted Ukrainian forces suffer setbacks on the front lines amid a shortage of ammunition and a lack of new U.S. weapons supplies leaves the country increasingly vulnerable to Russian attacks.

With many of the initial proposals on sanctions for draft evasion watered down and other widely expected measures excluded from the bill -- above all a framework for the demobilization of exhausted soldiers -- its many critics argue it will not fix a recruitment system that is widely regarded as broken.


The method of recruitment offered by the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion, which unlike most other units carries out its own recruitment campaign -- the slogan: "Everyone will fight" -- bears little resemblance to the realities of the draft in Ukraine. The days when volunteers were lining up in front of the military enlistment offices after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022 are long gone.

A month ago, Tymofiy, 28, was working as a project manager in the IT industry in the western city of Lviv, which has been targeted in missile attacks but is far from the front. Now he lives in barracks in central Ukraine and is training for the war.

He wouldn't be here if not for a trip to the Carpathian Mountains, where he was stopped by conscription officers -- most of them veterans with visible war wounds -- who bundled him onto a bus and drove him to an enlistment office. Within a few hours, he had been interviewed, photographed, and examined by a medical commission.

"It's what people call 'busification,'" Tymofiy told RFE/RL -- one of the ways the military snares mobilization-age men off the streets as it struggles to fill the ranks.

New recruits celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv in September 2023.
New recruits celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv in September 2023.

He said that while he was treated respectfully overall, he considers what happened "a failure to comply with the law and procedures on both sides." Like many Ukrainian men, Tymofiy did not fulfill his obligation to get a draft card and enlist on a military register. Despite the way it unfolded, he is now "at peace" with being drafted and wants to get as good training as possible.

"I did not have enough courage to join the army, but I also did not actively do anything to avoid the draft," he said. "Ultimately, we are victims of Russia's military aggression."

Yuriy, 34, was drafted in February during a business trip to Chernivtsi, a city about 40 kilometers from the Romanian border. He said he was approached by men in uniforms and told he needed to register at the draft office, as he was in the border area.

As an employee of a pharmaceutical company working with the Health Ministry, he had a document exempting him from military service, but recruiters at the draft office said they couldn't open the file on their computer. The medical commission qualified him as fit for service despite his severe nearsightedness.

Yuriy said he would not exercise his right to question the draft decision in court, partly because he believes the courts are too slow. But he also told RFE/RL he intended to join the army anyway and had made some preparations but was delaying a final decision.

He keeps a high spirit although he believes that most people around him were drafted unwillingly, their morale is low, many of them have weak health, and the army organization is poor. He recently finished military training abroad. He wanted to operate a drone, but he would operate anti-tank weapons.

"The mobilization cannot be carried out like this, but we are all responsible for the status quo and I am not sure we are ready to change it," he told RFE/RL on a day before the adoption of the new mobilization bill.

Worth The Wait?

Conscription reform had been in the works at least since last summer, when Zelenskiy reacted to a series of corruption scandals by dismissing senior military recruiters nationwide and vowing to shake up the system. But after that -- with the presidential administration, parliament, and the military seeking to hand responsibility off to one another -- the mobilization bill turned into a political hot potato. An initial draft, widely criticized, was scrapped in January.

Disagreement over the reform was apparently one of the reasons for Zelenskiy's dismissal of the top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy -- a drawn-out process that exposed tensions among Ukraine's leaders as a major counteroffensive launched in June 2023 sputtered and fizzled out. Before he was ousted in February, Zaluzhniy reportedly requested 500,000 recruits to strengthen the army ranks, replace expected losses, and demobilize soldiers who have served for years.

Zelenskiy dawdled, resisting the request amid concern over a public backlash. And more recently Zaluzhniy's replacement, General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said that as a result of an internal audit conducted by the Defense Ministry, the recruit number had been "significantly reduced."

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko speaks to members of National Guard's 3rd Svoboda (Liberty) Battalion, Rubezh (Frontier) Brigade during rotation in the Kyiv region on April 11.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko speaks to members of National Guard's 3rd Svoboda (Liberty) Battalion, Rubezh (Frontier) Brigade during rotation in the Kyiv region on April 11.

The bill that was passed on April 11 received 283 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, where Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party holds a majority, with 49 lawmakers from opposition parties abstaining. Over 4,000 amendments were proposed before its final adoption. It will come into force a month after Zelenskiy signs it.

Before the vote, General Yuriy Sodol, who commands the troops in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions and was one of more than a dozen commanders present in parliament for the vote, told deputies it was crucial the law be passed despite any flaws or misgivings.

"We are maintaining our defenses with our last strength," he said, adding that Russian forces outnumber Ukraine's up to 10-fold on the battlefield in the east.

New Draft Measures

According to Fedir Venislavskiy, a lawmaker from Zelenskiy's faction in parliament, the main goal of the law is to register all conscripts and update their data so that the state clearly understands who can be mobilized, who has the right to postpone being drafted, and who can enter the reserves.

In practice, within 60 days men between the ages of 18 and 60 will need to update their personal information with draft officials. Moreover, those who previously held "partially eligible" status will need to go through mandatory medical checks.

The bill introduces new sanctions for avoiding the draft, such as the potential revocation of driver's licenses or, in the case of military-age men abroad, the right to consular services. It also increases fees for draft-related misdemeanors such as not carrying one's draft card.

Inna Simakina, a lawyer from the human rights advocacy organization Yurydychna Sotnya, told RFE/RL that the organization had been flooded with questions from men concerned about the bill since long before its passage.

"We all know how good our people are at avoiding sanctions, so we need not only transparent rules but also carefully crafted supplementary legal acts," she said. "On the other hand, I am also worried that men will find it difficult to exercise their rights in courts given the short time limits for appeals."

Some key elements of the reform aimed at boosting the number of soldiers were passed in separate bills earlier this month. They included lowering the minimum draft age from 27 to 25, introducing an electronic register for conscripts, and doing away with "partially eligible" status.

Moreover, the April 11 legislation replaces Soviet-style conscription with basic military training for students and Ukrainians under the age of 24. Five months in peacetime and three months in wartime of such training will be mandatory for men and voluntary for women.

No Demobilization Framework

The day before the Rada vote, it became clear that a provision outlining rules for the demobilization of those currently serving in the armed forces would not be included, a big blow to soldiers exhausted by months and years of warfare -- and to their families as well.

WATCH: Several dozen Ukrainian women rallied in the city of Zaporizhzhya in December, demanding the end of military service for their husbands and sons.

'Army Is Not Slavery!' Ukrainian Soldiers' Wives Want Them Home, Others To Get Mobilized
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"They took away the norm that is key for my comrades who went to the front as volunteers in the early days. A norm that [would have] introduced at least a little bit of certainty about the timing for the right to demobilize," said Roman Lozynskiy, a deputy from the Holos (Voice) party who served as a soldier for 15 months. He called the legislation "unjust."

The original version of the bill foresaw a 36-month limit on mandatory service. But at the request of Syrskiy and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, that provision was dropped at the last minute. The issue is to be addressed in separate legislation in the coming months. But for now, only disabled soldiers and soldiers who have returned from Russian captivity will be able to discharge themselves.

The bill does, however, introduce some opportunities for rest: Soldiers are to be rotated out for at least one month after three months at the front. Those credited with destroying Russian weapons or equipment will get additional days of leave.

Soldiers will also receive economic benefits, such as state support for their mortgages and exemption from some interest charges and penalties for delinquency on loans. In a separate bill, the Rada approved monthly bonuses of 70,000 hryvnyas ($1,785) for soldiers serving on the first line of defense or taking part in assaults.

The bill does not include long-discussed economic exemptions for individuals or employees of companies prepared to pay a levy to stay out of the army, which was widely seen as socially unjust. The government said it would come back to these ideas, though.

A Workable Compromise?

The initial response to the bill suggests that it's a compromise that few Ukrainians fully approve of -- and that some doubt will be workable.

Maryana Bezuhla, a deputy from Servant of the People, said that the law was "as soft and confusing as possible" and that while it leaves a lot of avenues to postpone or avoid the draft "not everyone is satisfied anyway" and "months were lost" before it came to a vote.

Volodymyr Vyatrovych, a deputy from the opposition European Solidarity party, said the bill was not only "bad but also belated."

"[It] will not strengthen the mobilization of new [soldiers] but may well weaken the motivation of those who have been defending the country for years," he said.

New Mobilization Law Draws Mixed Reaction From War-Weary Ukrainians
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It's getting a lukewarm reception in the military as well. Maksym Zhorin, a deputy commander of the 3rd Assault Brigade, warned not to expect miracles on the battlefield. "For sure, it will generally bring a little more order and systemic approach to the issue of mobilization," he said on television, but he added, "Personally, I would make it much tougher and also continue to reduce the conscription age."

Vladyslav Hrezyev, the CEO of Lobby X, a human resources agency that is recruiting candidates for the military in cooperation with the Defense Ministry, told RFE/RL that the "fragmentary and situational mobilization bill is not forward-looking."

"We need to focus on those clusters of society that can be still motivated to join the army. The sanctions-based approach will not bring professional and effective military personnel," he said.

With a population one-third the size of Russia's and unfavorable demographic trends, Ukraine must use its mobilization resources carefully. According to Dmytro Natalukha, chairman of the Economy Committee in parliament, there are 4.35 million Ukrainian men who are 25-60 years old, are not exempt from military service on family or professional grounds, are not yet serving, are not disabled, and do not live under Russian occupation or abroad. Some estimates put the number of men eligible for mobilization slightly higher, around 5 million.

According to Zelenskiy, there are 880,000 soldiers in the armed forces. It is not clear how many of them are actually fighting. In February, Zelenskiy said that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since February 2022. Other estimates, including from U.S. officials citing intelligence, are much higher -- up to 70,000 killed and 120,000 wounded.

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    Aleksander Palikot

    Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.

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