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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Zelenskyy lowers Ukraine’s draft age, risking political backlash

Members of the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion, a part of Ukraine’s armed forces, at a recruiting center in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 10, 2024. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has signed into law three measures aimed at replenishing the ranks of his country’s exhausted and battered army, including lowering to 25 the age when men become eligible for conscription and eliminating some medical exemptions. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

By Andrew E. Kramer

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has signed into law three measures aimed at replenishing the ranks of his country’s exhausted and battered army, including the politically poisonous step of lowering the age when men become eligible for mobilization, and eliminating some medical exemptions.

Parliament passed the legislation lowering the draft eligibility age to 25, from 27, last May, but Zelenskyy had delayed signing it in hopes that it would not be needed. He relented Tuesday and signed the measure, along with laws eliminating a category of medical exemption known as “partially eligible” and creating an electronic database of men in Ukraine, starting at age 17, to crack down on draft dodgers.

“It is a very unpopular decision, and that is why Zelenskyy held it without signing,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a lawmaker in parliament who is in the opposition European Solidarity party. “Now he has no choice.”

Russia’s forces have been on the offensive along the front line, and Ukrainian generals have warned of a broader attack in the spring or summer, even as Ukraine’s army runs low on ammunition and many soldiers have been on continual combat duty for two years.

Ukraine’s army of about 1 million soldiers is fighting the largest war in Europe since World War II, waged in muddy trenches or the ruins of cities in urban combat. Casualty rates are high. Most men who wanted to volunteer for the military have already done so, and small anti-draft protests had broken out before the new laws were passed.

Ukraine is expected, at best, to hold the existing front lines in ground fighting this year, but only if a new influx of American weapons arrives, military analysts say, and risks falling back without it. To maximize its efforts, Ukraine plans to replenish its army through mobilization while trying to keep Russia off balance with sabotage missions behind enemy lines and long-range drone strikes, such as attacks on an oil refinery and weapons plant in Russia on Tuesday.

Ukraine relies on its allies for most new ammunition and weapons, and renewing that arsenal is mostly a matter beyond the country’s control. In Washington on Monday, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., laid out conditions for a vote on a fresh infusion of American weapons and financial aid, in the strongest indication yet that the assistance could be forthcoming despite opposition from many Republicans.

At home, Ukraine has stumbled on the overhaul of mobilization rules.

In January, its parliament withdrew a draft law on mobilization that included stiffened penalties for draft dodgers. That bill was reintroduced in February, but bogged down in parliament as lawmakers submitted more than 4,000 amendments. It would further expand the draft by closing loopholes for men obtaining a second college degree or in instances when several men in a family sought exemptions to care for a disabled relative. A vote is expected this month.

It is unclear how quickly Ukraine will draft and train the additional troops, or whether they will be ready before the expected Russian offensive. The comprehensive mobilization bill that has yet to pass in parliament envisions three months of training for soldiers drafted during wartime.

“The decision is taken — it’s a good one, but it’s too late,” said Serhiy Hrabsky, a colonel and a commentator on the war for the Ukrainian news media.

And lowering the draft age alone will not resolve Ukraine’s looming need for soldiers. In December, Zelenskyy said the military had asked to mobilize 450,000 to 500,000 soldiers. Ukraine’s military commander, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said last week that the army had “significantly reduced” its request, without specifying a number.

Zelenskyy has said he does not intend to conscript women into the military, although women with medical educations are required to register for the draft.

Ukraine’s total population of 25- and 26-year-olds was about 467,000 in 2022, the latest year when the government published population estimates, according to Natalia Tilikina, the director of Institute of Youth, a research group. But many are already serving in the military, living in occupied areas or outside Ukraine, or have jobs or disabilities that exempt them from conscription.

In formulating its mobilization plans, Ukraine has had to balance military, economic and demographic considerations. Lowering the draft age will bring thousands of healthy and rested soldiers to the fight, but poses long-term risks for Ukraine’s population, given the country’s demographics.

As in most former Soviet states, Ukraine has a small generation of 20-year-olds, because birthrates plummeted during the deep economic depression of the 1990s. Because of this demographic trough, the country has three times as many men in their 40s as in their 20s.

Drafting men starting at age 25, given the likely battle casualties, also risks further diminishing this small generation of Ukrainians and potentially future birthrates, leaving the country with declines of working- and draft-age men decades from now.

At the outset of the war, the country drafted men ages 27-60, and the average age in the military is currently over 40. Under martial law, all men 18-60 had already been prohibited from leaving the country in case the decision was made to draft them. Men and women can volunteer for military service starting at 18.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on a visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, last month, had suggested that Ukraine dip into a younger population of men for the war. “You’re in a fight of your life, so you should be serving,” he said. “We need more people in the line.”

Politicians in Ukraine have become more vocal in their criticisms of Zelenskyy’s wartime leadership. In an interview broadcast this week on Al Jazeera, former President Petro Poroshenko vowed to run for a second term in a future election that he said should be held only after the war is over. Under martial law, elections in Ukraine are suspended.

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