Ukraine debates mobilising more men to fight Russia after two years of war

Russia seems ready to increase its attacking army after Vladimir Putin was re-elected, leaving Kyiv little choice but to do the same.

Ukrainian servicemen of the 93rd separate mechanized brigade wear ghillie suits during training near the front line in the Donetsk region [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

In a fight taking place far from the front lines, Ukrainian lawmakers are debating a bill that could make or break their country’s fortunes in this war.

The bill would raise up to half a million new soldiers, increasing Ukraine’s standing army by half.

The increase is 10 times as many new men as the 12 brigades Ukraine raised for its 2023 counteroffensive, and it could enable the country to finally break Russia’s stranglehold on its southern regions, cutting the front in half and forcing the Kremlin into a negotiation on Kyiv’s terms.

Ukraine may have little choice because it is currently fighting a war of attrition experts say favours the side with greater manpower resources – Russia. It also seems likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin would raise more troops after his re-election.

“Putin is… planning to mobilise more men, once the election is over,” Tim Less, a lecturer at Cambridge University’s Centre for Geopolitics, told Al Jazeera.

“Among other things, he has banned the exit of fighting-age men from the country and banned the antiwar candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, from standing in the election, for fear he may generate opposition to the war effort,” said Less. “Putin appears to have concluded that further mobilisation is essential to press home Russia’s advantage on the battlefield and that this is what he will do.”

With US aid stalled – perhaps permanently – by congressional Republicans, Putin may have concluded that 2024 was his year to win the war and that forces the moment to its crisis for Ukraine.

“It’s been two years of hell for us,” said Inna Sovsun, who sits on the Security, Defence and Intelligence Committee of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, where the bill is being discussed.

Her partner has been fighting on the front lines since Russia’s invasion and she supports raising more troops, but only if there’s an end in sight for those who’ve already served.

“There are people who are leading normal lives. We would like to know there is a point in the future when he will be demobilised and someone else will take his place. This is being hotly debated and there is no answer right now,” she told Al Jazeera.


Ukraine mobilised men over the age of 27 when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country on February 24, 2022. But only a third of its million men and women in uniform are on active combat duty, facing what Kyiv estimates are 462,000 Russian soldiers, and Russia’s Putin claims are 617,000.

The rest of Ukraine’s personnel are in supporting roles, including tens of thousands posted to the currently quiet northern border with Belarus, from where Moscow’s original main thrust towards Kyiv came, lest it should be repeated.

A more efficient rotation of those in uniform might fill some combat roles, but not enough, says the military.

There are also some tens of thousands to be gleaned from closing loopholes to the draft.

Oleksandr, a Ukrainian soldier who suffered a head injury during combat sits in a stabilisation point point after paramedical treatment in the Donetsk region amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, February 23, 2024. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Oleksandr, a Ukrainian soldier who suffered a head injury during combat sits in a stabilisation point point after paramedical treatment in the Donetsk region amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

After Russia’s invasion, young men rushed to enrol in PhD programmes at private colleges and there was an uptick in marriages to women with minor disabilities. The committee is closing these and other exemptions.

But that is where the low-hanging fruit ends and the difficult decisions begin.

Last December, after the counteroffensive failed to execute his strategy, then-Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi put the matter on the table, demanding half a million more soldiers.

“This is a significant number,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said after meeting his top generals, apparently unconvinced that the economy could spare them, or allies could train and equip them.

“I told them I need more arguments to support this direction, because this is a matter of people first and foremost,” Zelenskyy said.

The Verkhovna Rada had already passed a bill in the spring of 2023, lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25.

Zelenskyy didn’t sign it, and last month he dismissed Zaluzhny – it is believed, partly due to this disagreement.

“What Zelenskyy is actually doing is trying to leverage more arms from the West, which he sees either as an alternative to mobilisation or a precondition for this, while allowing his new commander-in-chief, Oleksandr Syrskii, to assess the situation on the ground,” said Less.

Sovsun believed the lowering of the draft age is a foregone conclusion and parliament “will get it done by the end of March”.

The committee has discarded punitive measures included in a January 4 draft seen as human rights violations, such as freezing draft dodgers’ bank accounts or preventing them from selling property – though a travel ban outside Ukraine will likely remain.

The debate now focuses on creating incentives for enlisting, said Sovsun, such as guaranteeing six-monthly rotations and a term limit of 36 months.

“The 36-month [term limit] is still in play in a very specific way – we don’t particularly like the wording – that those who serve will have the right to demobilize after 36 months based on the decision of the commander-in-chief,” she said. “Basically, if the decision is not taken it doesn’t happen. [We want it] to be automatic.”

The measure could mean an exodus of experienced troops in March 2025, but Sovsun believes it is necessary.

“There are some units that have been on the front line for 24 months. That is extremely difficult and it’s inefficient. People need rest,” she said.

In theory, Ukraine has a pool of 10 million men aged 18-61 it can draw on to replace demobilised troops. In practice that number may be smaller.

Ukraine had a population of 48 million in 2001, but as much as a quarter of it is willingly or unwillingly under occupation, and many people fled from unoccupied western regions, too, when the invasion happened.

Then there is the human factor Zelenskyy alluded to.

“People are extremely tired. [The war] has taken its toll on everybody, and I started thinking, how many years can people live like this?” Sovsun said.

A NATO-Russia war?

Perhaps partly to boost Ukrainian morale, and to send a message to Russia, French President Emmanuel Macron on February 26 raised the issue of sending in NATO troops – raising the risk of a Russia-NATO war.

While there was “no consensus” on the sending of Western ground troops to Ukraine, “nothing should be excluded. We will do whatever it takes to ensure that Russia cannot win this war,” Macron said.

“[Macron’s] generals and members of his cabinet have spoken specifically about the idea of deploying forces in supporting roles – clearing mines, manning defences and training Ukrainian soldiers, for example – to free up the Ukrainians to confront the Russians on the front line,” said Less.

Russia may see it differently, preparing to face the West directly.

“The Kremlin has for over a decade now … spoken of a war with the West,” Rory Finnin, a Ukraine historian at Cambridge University, told Al Jazeera.

“We may not have been interested in that war, but clearly their war is interested in us. I don’t think it’s simply a war against Ukraine … Russia wants to see dysfunction and division in the West. It’s the only way it can amplify its own power.”INTERACTIVE-NATO-expansion-Sweden-March-24

Jade McGlynn, a Russia expert at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, agrees that Russia is psychologically prepared to fight the West directly.

“If the West had been totally against Russia [after the Cold War], that would have been different, but sometimes there are things that are worse than being hated. For example, being ignored,” McGlynn told Al Jazeera. “And that keeps coming up.”

For now, though, Ukrainians have to count on their strength alone.

“There is no justice in war,” said Sovsun. “There is no just way to say who should serve and who shouldn’t and there is no fair way of doing this, but at least it should be more equally distributed, this weight of war.”

Source: Al Jazeera