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Ukraine’s Controversial New Plan to Enlist More Soldiers

6 minute read

Ukraine’s Parliament passed a law Thursday to expand conscription and tighten enforcement as its war with Russia grinds into its third year.

The much-debated legislation includes a number of changes such as restricting men who don’t respond to mobilization orders from driving and requiring proof of military registration when requested at the border and getting a new passport. Most controversially, it didn’t include a proposed demobilization for soldiers after 36 months. 

“It’s a very, very complex law that will change the process of mobilization,” Oksana Zabolotna, head of the analytical department at Kyiv-based NGO the Centre of United Actions, tells TIME. 

Last week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also signed laws that lowered the conscription age from 27 to 25, among other measures. Zabolotna says she believes all new laws could together bring in around 50,000 more recruits.

Zelenskyy had said in December his commander wanted him to mobilize up to 500,000 more soldiers, but later retracted that number after analysis by his new commander, the Associated Press reported. The real number of how many soldiers the country needs is classified, Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at U.K. think tank Chatham House, tells TIME. 

“The question is very sensitive,” Zelenskyy said in December when asked about details on expanded mobilization, according to an English interpretation by C-SPAN. “We cannot lose the resilience, the potential, but we need to have fairness, which is very important.”

Here’s what you need to know about Ukraine’s new controversial conscription legislation. 

What is Ukraine’s new conscription legislation? 

The new legislation revamps the mobilization system, which has been in place since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and its required military registration which predates that.

The bill, which received more than 4,000 amendments, was passed on April 11. It needs to be signed into law by Zelenskyy and will go into effect a month after that. 

Some of the big changes make rules clearer to streamline existing military registration and mobilization processes, make fewer people exempt from military service, and tighten enforcement to prevent draft dodging, experts tell TIME. 

The BBC reported, based on illegal border crossing data from the country’s neighbors, that nearly 20,000 men left the country to avoid being drafted from February 2022 to November 2023, with Kyiv confirming to the BBC that another 21,000 were caught escaping.

New provisions to crack down include allowing territorial recruitment centers to go to court and restrict a conscript’s right to drive a vehicle if he doesn’t respond to mobilization, with exceptions for those who need to drive for work or to take care of dependents. It also requires men to carry their military registration and show it when requested at the border and when getting a new passport. 

The legislation could also expand recruitment among people previously considered physically unfit for service, as it requires those under certain disability categories to undergo a second medical examination. This is to crack down on fake medical exemptions, Lutsevych says. 

However, some critics question whether this will be enough to improve the mobilization system. 

“The law that was passed does introduce more transparency and tries to make sure it’s harder for people to evade both the registration with the Territorial Recruitment Centers and the military service, but it is viewed by many as not being strict enough,” Julia Kazdobina, head of the Ukrainian Foundation for Security Studies, tells TIME in an email. “So, there is no confidence that it will fix the existing problem.”  

Why is the new legislation controversial? 

The main contention with the legislation was a last-minute decision to remove a measure to allow troops to demobilize after 36 months. 

This was done by request from Ukraine’s Defense Minister and Commander in Chief, who wrote in a letter that they needed more time to work it out, Kazdobina says. Because of inefficient mobilization that could lead to imperfect implementation, “they don’t want to risk promising the current servicemen that they will be demobilized in a set time without being sure they will have people to replace them,” she adds. 

Ukrainian Parliament member Oleksii Honcharenko said on Telegram that he didn’t vote for the law because it was important to include demobilization. “I will continue to fight! It is necessary to establish clear terms of service!” he wrote, according to a Google translation of his post.

The law was contentious for a few reasons, Marnie Howlett, a lecturer in politics at the University of Oxford, tells TIME. One is because of the need to balance supporting Ukraine’s economy with sustaining the military’s ranks, while another is the emphasis that has been placed on protecting a younger generation from war. 

And, after years of relentless fighting, “people are exhausted,” Howlett says. Demobilization would have offered hope to her friends and others on the frontlines, some without previous military experience and psychological safeguards, she adds. 

Kazdobina says the lack of an end date for service demotivates new recruits: “Many men say they don’t want to serve because this is like buying a one-way ticket.” 

However, the government has to weigh this with practical considerations that it needs troops. Zabolotna says the provision of demobilization “was known to be harmful and unenforceable” given that Ukraine doesn’t know when the war will end. 

She says an affordable and rational alternative must be offered for soldiers and officers who negatively perceive this. The legislation includes a provision for annual leave of 30 days, with one part not less than 15 days, given that no more than 30% of a unit is absent––but Zabolotna questions whether this is feasible given low troop numbers. Another draft law on demobilization is expected, she adds. 

TIME reached out to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, which referred questions to Ukraine’s Parliament, whom TIME also contacted, for a response to criticism. 

What do new laws mean for how Ukraine’s war effort is going? 

Experts tell TIME measures to expand conscription show Ukraine is preparing for a long war. 

“I don't think it's necessarily indicative of things going badly on the battlefield, as much as it is Ukraine being prepared, and just realizing that this isn’t going to be as short as they thought,” Howlett says. 

Olga Onuch, a professor of comparative and Ukrainian politics at the University of Manchester, tells TIME in an email that the mobilization law was requested by the army, “but is also understood to be a necessity by all political leaders and parties” despite being understandably unpopular among the public. 
Onuch says the law will be a political test for the President and political opposition leaders about how well they can work together on something that is not instantly supported by the public, which “will tell us a lot about the different political groups’ capacity to lead in the context of war.”

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