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Ukrainian soldiers perform live-fire training exercises at a Kyiv firing range. January 27, 2024.

‘Much more unpopular than anyone anticipated’   After months of deliberation and thousands of amendments, Ukraine’s new mobilization law frustrates politicians and soldiers alike

Source: Meduza
Ukrainian soldiers perform live-fire training exercises at a Kyiv firing range. January 27, 2024.
Ukrainian soldiers perform live-fire training exercises at a Kyiv firing range. January 27, 2024.
Valentyna Polishchuk / Global Images Ukraine / Getty Images

On April 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law tightening the country’s mobilization procedures. The reform comes as the situation at the front has been worsening for Ukraine: Russia’s offensive has picked up steam and there are fears that Ukraine’s entire defense could collapse. Despite the urgent need for reinforcements, the bill was heatedly debated in Ukraine’s parliament and lawmakers made more than 4,000 amendments before finally passing the legislation. In the end, however, both politicians and those fighting at the front are unhappy with the outcome. Meduza spoke with sources in Kyiv to learn more.

A political hot potato

In January 2024, a lawmaker in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, commented on a bill aimed at tightening the legal framework around mobilization. “This reform turned out to be much more unpopular than anyone anticipated,” he said. “All you have to do is go outside or log onto Facebook. No one is talking about anything else [in Ukraine].”

The bill, which the government presented for discussion a month earlier, faced criticism from various political factions. Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, pointed out that a clause prohibiting draft evaders from selling their property violated the country’s Constitution. “If a person owns a house, we can’t legally prevent them from selling it or buying another,” he argued. Davyd Arakhamia, the head of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction, said that “some provisions directly violate human rights, while others are not optimally formulated.” Consequently, the document was withdrawn from parliament and sent for revision.

The Verkhovna Rada registered a revised version of the bill on January 30. Despite renewed criticism, it was adopted in the first reading a week later. However, lawmakers proposed more than 4,000 amendments to the document. A source in the Ukrainian parliament told Meduza that lawmakers considered each and every one. On April 11, the bill was passed in its second and final reading, with 283 out of 424 deputies voting in favor. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already signed the law, which will come into force on May 16.

A source close to the Ukrainian President’s Office emphasized that the law’s adoption was accelerated by the difficult situation at the front. In early April, the Russian army intensified its offensive near Avdiivka and Bakhmut and began to gain momentum. Whereas before Russian troops were only able to advance several hundred yards per day, now, they’re sometimes managing to cover up to two miles at once. 

Early April

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Early April

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Meduza’s sources didn’t say exactly how many people Kyiv is planning to mobilize. A politician who voted for the bill declined to comment on the matter, citing the needed for military secrecy. Earlier, in December 2023, Zelensky said the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ General Staff wanted to call up “400,000 to 500,000 people.” However, in March 2024, Ukraine’s newly appointed Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi noted that after an audit of internal resources, it would be possible to mobilize “significantly fewer than 500,000” people.

Ukrainian lawmakers took a long time to come to an agreement on how to punish draft dodgers, according to a government insider. The original version of the bill proposed freezing their bank accounts, but this measure was eventually dropped. Instead, draft dodgers will have their driver’s licenses revoked by the courts. Additionally, fines for failing to respond to a military summons or for “evading service” will increase significantly, men not registered with military authorities won’t be able to obtain passports, and conscripts living abroad won’t be able to access consular services.

No clear future

The question of whether or not to demobilize soldiers after three years of service turned out to be an even more sensitive issue. Although initially included in the draft law, it was later removed from consideration after both Syrskyi and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov raised concerns.

Many Ukrainians found this disappointing. Olesya, a Kyiv resident whose name has been changed, told Meduza about a recent conversation with an acquaintance of hers in the military: “He was only allowed to visit his sick mother for one day — to buy medication, bring it to her, and then return. He volunteered to go to the front in February 2022, but now he regrets his decision and is dissuading all his friends [from joining up]. They won’t release him anymore.”

Fearing conscription, Olesya’s husband left Kyiv for another city. “He’s holed up in a rented apartment; he doesn’t dare open the curtains or go outside for fear they’ll take him. He doesn’t want to die. What for? There’s no end in sight. He’s waiting for the opportunity to somehow cross the border [illegally] so he can finally have a normal life again instead of living in hiding.”

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Another Kyiv resident, Tetiana (name changed), also told Meduza that many were expecting a clause on demobilization in the new law. She and other volunteers have been collecting money to support Ukrainian soldiers since the start of the full-scale invasion. “When a person goes into the army, they essentially become a slave,” she said. “The most popular joke about it [in Ukraine] is: ‘In the army, you have three options — cargo 200 [coffins in transport], cargo 300 [wounded soldiers in transport], or [a military criminal conviction].’”

A source close to Zelensky’s office stressed that “so long as there’s a war, demobilization in Ukraine is impossible.” “It was a strange idea from the start, and then it was difficult to take it out [of the draft law] once everyone knew about it,” he said. “But we’re not Russia in terms of population size.” He believes it’s unlikely that the question of demobilization will be revisited in the immediate future, even though the Verkhovna Rada formally mandated the Ukrainian government to develop a bill on rotation and demobilization within eight months.

At the same time, this source said he understands the societal discontent. “It’s no surprise — more than two years in the trenches with no clear prospects. Naturally, people aren’t exactly keen on going into the army. Not everyone wants to fight; some people have a completely different vision for their future.”

He also acknowledged the issue of draft dodging. He hopes the new bill, which includes the creation of electronic conscript databases, will streamline the process and enhance transparency. He also hopes the new legislation will help make military service “more appealing.”

“For instance, the law stipulates modest compensation packages for recruits, which will also incentivize some to choose military service,” he explained. He also noted that the Ukrainian authorities recently increased the salary for soldiers fighting directly on the front lines — they’ll now be paid the equivalent of around $5,000 per month.

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Too little too late

Nevertheless, the grievances don’t end there. An active member of Ukraine’s Armed Forces told Meduza that in his opinion, “the law was passed very late.”

“It’s sheer madness to address issues with mobilization legislation only in the third year of such a large-scale war,” he argued. “All this should have been dealt with before the war. After the start of the full-scale war, they needed to immediately tighten mobilization rules, lower the [conscription] age, remove exemptions, and recruit the maximum number of people into the army.”

According to him, right after the start of the full-scale invasion, “it was still possible to make such unpopular decisions.” “But, true to form, no one did anything,” he said. “And now it’s too late and won’t fundamentally change the situation, especially in such a watered-down form.”

In the soldier’s opinion, the problem with insufficient forces at the front “will only get worse.” “Now, we find ourselves in a situation akin to what the Russians faced in the fall of 2022 — when they didn’t have enough people in their units and that contributed to the collapse of the Russian defense in the Kharkiv region,” he explained. “The risk is that, due to the lack of manpower and weaponry, there could be a major breach at any given front — and then everyone will be completely shocked. While in 2022, that might have rallied us to resist, now it will lead to total demoralization and defeatism.”

He believes that if there were to be another wave of mobilization in Russia, the situation for the Ukrainian army would become “catastrophic.” I don’t know how you can fix the mobilization failure in the third year of the war,” he remarked. “I don’t see a viable solution or the will to implement one.”

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Taras Chmut, the head of Come Back Alive, a foundation that supports Ukrainian military personnel, echoed the sentiment that Ukraine needed mobilization reforms much earlier. “We’ve lost too much time,” he told Ukrainska Pravda in an interview on April 11, the day the bill was passed.

“I have a lot of questions for politicians who have to make political decisions and then be accountable for them,” said Chmut. “They’re acting like ostriches [with their heads in the sand] and trying to pass off responsibility to each other.” Earlier, a source close to Ukraine’s government told Meduza that due to the bill’s negative reception, “no one wants to take responsibility for it” — not the lawmakers, nor the military, nor the government. Consequently, the document, which was submitted in December, only made it to the second reading by mid-April.

Meduza’s source who voted for the legislation declined to comment on the servicemen’s grievances. “We, as politicians, have done everything that was asked of us,” he said. However, he conceded that the bill’s passage “dragged on to an embarrassing degree” because “no one wants to deal with unpopular issues.”

According to him, many lawmakers were initially hesitant to support the bill in its current form but were swayed by the country’s military leadership. “They talked with the deputies and explained [the situation]. Naturally, soldiers always want to go home, while commanders want there to be someone to defend positions. Everyone has family members and friends who are serving — everyone understands the soldiers’ perspective.”

* * *

It’s still unclear how the new measures will be funded: the current budget for the year doesn’t allocate funds for the reform. “The government will revise the budget in the coming month and propose methods for additional funding. No one yet understands exactly what, so everything is still very abstract,” admitted Meduza’s source close to Zelensky’s office. “We have an existing budget, which will be reviewed. We’ll figure something out — raise taxes, borrow money, print bonds.”

Meanwhile, he hopes that tightening the mobilization rules will send a signal to Western countries, upon whose support Ukraine’s defense capability depends. The United States is the primary provider of military assistance to Ukraine, but disagreements between Republicans and Democrats have stalled the approval of $61 billion in aid since last fall.

“Western countries didn’t explicitly tie the decision to provide military aid to mobilization reform in Ukraine,” said the source. “No one framed it as: ‘If you don’t carry out [mobilization], we won’t provide [aid].’ But of course all [of our partners] were asking whether [this law would be passed]; they were interested. For them, it’s also important to see that we’re taking things seriously. 

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Reporting by Elizaveta Antonova

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