Ukraine is on the hunt for more soldiers to join its army — but a new bill could backfire on Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukraine is on the hunt for more soldiers to join its army — but a new bill could backfire on Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Originally posted in the ABC


Late last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy raised the option of mobilisation for his nation's war effort.

Speaking on December 1, he also described how military recruiting reform was necessary, noting that "everyone in Ukraine understands that changes are needed in this area. It's not just about the number of those who can be mobilised. It's about terms – for everyone currently in the military – for demobilisation – and for those who will join the military."

Able to rely on a huge influx of volunteers from Ukraine and abroad in the first year of the war, Ukraine has since had a rolling approach to mobilising its people for service in the military. This has been criticised for inefficiency and corrupt practices, and because of this, President Zelenskyy sacked the regional commissars responsible for military recruiting in August 2023. More recently, there have been accusations of Ukrainians being "press-ganged" into military service.

A draft mobilisation bill was presented to the Ukrainian parliament on Christmas Eve. It outlined lowering the age limit of conscripts from 27 to 25, ending service exclusions for people with minor disabilities, legalising digital draft notices and restricting the ability of draft dodgers to conduct financial transactions.

The Ukrainian commander in chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, has described the new law as essential to his ability to rotate exhausted frontline troops, raise new formations for future offensives, and give serving troops some light at the end of the tunnel for when their service might conclude.

The proposed law has been criticised by politicians, as well as the Ukrainian parliament's human rights commissioner for being unconstitutional. A new version of the draft law is likely to go to the Ukrainian parliament in early February.

But even if the mobilisation bill is approved by the Ukrainian parliament and the president, Ukraine faces an array of challenges in its implementation.

Finding, training and paying soldiers

The first challenge is training a massive influx of new conscripts. The Ukrainian military training system is already under severe strain. Having expanded the Ukrainian Armed Forces from 200,000 to around a million people in the past two years, maintaining the required training throughput to keep frontline units supplied with fit, well-prepared personnel is a constant challenge.

NATO countries, and Australia, aid the process but Ukrainian senior officers admitted to me on my last visit that most training is too short because of battlefield demands. Increasing the number of recruits will compound this problem.

New soldiers also need to be equipped. While many undoubtedly will employ equipment already issued to units that are either serving on the front line or in reserve and territorial defence units, Ukraine also hopes to form additional manoeuvre brigades.

Given the shortfalls in US military assistance and almost empty inventories of European armies, this equipping challenge in 2024 will be difficult to resolve.

Next, all these new service personnel need to be paid. Ukraine, with a shortfall in US military aid and a delay in a 50 billion Euro financial assistance package, is facing a considerable challenge with its national budget. The Ukrainian budget, released in November 2023, projects a budget shortfall of around $40 billion this year. Adding another 400,000 to 500,000 soldiers who need to be paid, fed, equipped and eventually demobilised will only deepen this economic challenge.

The potential for blowback on Zelenskyy

The way the mobilisation is undertaken and conscripts employed must not undermine the social contract that exists between citizens and military institutions.

While many democracies have conscripted their citizens during times of wartime peril, military institutions still have an obligation under these circumstances to ensure their citizen soldiers are trained, equipped and led appropriately, and employed on appropriate military missions.

The "meat tactics" employed by the Russians, which use poorly trained conscripts as Ukrainian bullet catchers and result in mass casualties, cannot be used by Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy faces political challenges in getting the mobilisation bill approved, and then ensuring that it is implemented fairly and efficiently.

He will also face a presidential election at some point in the near future. A poorly implemented mobilisation campaign may leave many conscripts, their families and his political allies with less-than-positive feelings about returning Zelenskyy to office, whenever that election takes place.

Lessons for Australia

Like many of the lessons of the war in Ukraine, this debate is relevant to Western nations such as the United States, Britain and Australia. The military organisations in these nations, which have all-volunteer forces, continue to suffer shortfalls in their military recruitment.

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles has described this as a "defence personnel crisis", and a 2023 brief by the Parliamentary Library describes how "planned recruiting levels and entrants into the permanent ADF are failing to offset outflows".

With an increasingly grim strategic environment, and the probable need for Defence to be employed on more deterrence and natural-disaster-related operations, it may be that the post-Cold War all-volunteer model of military service needs reform.

There are sure to be a variety of different strategies that can and should be considered to fill this increasing shortfall in military personnel.

But in considering different solutions, Australia might wish to watch and learn from the mobilisation debate being conducted by the Ukrainians.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies