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Ukraine Weighs Expanding Draft         02/22 06:17

   

   LYMAN, Ukraine (AP) -- When the Russian army mounted a full-scale invasion 
two years ago, Ukrainian men zealously rushed to recruitment centers across the 
country to enlist, ready to die in defense of their nation.

   Today, with Russia in control of roughly one-quarter of Ukraine and the two 
armies virtually deadlocked along a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line, that 
spirit to enlist has faded: Many Ukrainian men are evading the draft by hiding 
at home or trying to bribe their way out of the battle.

   Along the frigid and muddy front line, commanders say their army is too 
small and made up of too many exhausted and wounded soldiers. As the war enters 
its third year, the most urgent and politically sensitive challenge pressing on 
Ukraine is whether it can muster enough new soldiers to repel an enemy with far 
more fighters at its disposal.

   Russia's population is more than three times as large as Ukraine's, and 
President Vladimir Putin has shown a willingness to force men to the front if 
not enough volunteer.

   The lack of soldiers isn't Ukraine's only predicament -- it is also 
desperate for Western military aid, which has been harder to come by as the war 
drags on. But mobilizing enough soldiers is a problem only Ukraine can solve.

   The parliament is considering legislation that would increase the potential 
pool of recruits by about 400,000, in part by lowering the enlistment age from 
27 to 25. But the proposal is highly unpopular, forcing elected officials to 
grapple with questions that cut to the heart of nationhood: Can they convince 
enough citizens to sacrifice their lives? And, if not, are they willing to 
accept the alternative?

   A Ukrainian soldier fighting near the city of Avdiivka -- where soldiers 
retreated last week to save lives -- said his unit was recently outnumbered by 
about 5 to 1 when dozens of Russian soldiers stormed their position, killing 
everyone but himself and two others.

   "We were almost completely defeated," said Dima, who refused to provide his 
last name for security reasons.

   Roughly 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, a 42-year-old man afraid of being 
sent to the front hides at home outside of Kyiv, distressed. "I feel a sort of 
a guilt for being a man ... I cannot feel myself free," said Andrii, who 
insisted on using his first name only to speak about dodging the draft.

   Tens of thousands of other eligible Ukrainian men are estimated to be 
evading the draft, at home or abroad.

   WHO WILL DIG THE TRENCHES?

   Because there aren't enough new recruits, soldiers on the front line aren't 
getting enough rest in between rotations. Two years of grueling battles have 
left men fatigued and more susceptible to injury. When there are new recruits, 
they are too few, too poorly trained and often too old, according to interviews 
with two dozen Ukrainian soldiers, including six commanders.

   Commanders say they don't have enough soldiers to launch offensives, and 
barely enough to hold positions amid intensifying Russian assaults.

   Brigades of 3,000-5,000 soldiers are typically fighting with only 75% of 
their full strength, according to Vadym Ivchenko, a lawmaker who is part of the 
parliament's national security, defense and intelligence committee.

   Igor Ivantsev, 31, was among a dozen men treated recently at a field 
hospital near the front. He has been wounded twice in the span of four months. 
His body aches when he carries his machine gun, but doctors deem him fit to 
serve. Ivantsev said that of the 17 men he enlisted with, most are dead; the 
rest are like him, wounded.

   Ivantsev's commander, who would only provide his first name, Dmytro, said 
his exhausted and depleted company is working overtime to dig deeper trenches 
and build better locations from which to counter constant Russian artillery. 
"We have no people, nowhere to get them from," Dmytro said.

   At the start of the war, soldiers were rotated every two weeks for one week 
of rest, he said. But now his soldiers fight for a month, then get four days of 
rest.

   "We are not made of steel," said Ivantsev.

   A PLAN TO DRAFT MORE MEN

   The legislation being discussed in parliament would enable the military to 
draft more men so that those already enlisted can get more rest or even be 
relieved of duty.

   An estimated 300,000 Ukrainian soldiers are currently fighting along the 
front line, while others serve elsewhere, lawmakers said. Putin has said twice 
as many Russian troops are in Ukraine.

   The Ukrainian military seeks to mobilize up to 500,000 more men, but 
realizing how unpopular such a move would be, lawmakers are treading carefully. 
Over a thousand amendments have been attached to draft legislation that even 
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has yet to publicly endorse.

   Under the draft legislation, any individual who fails to respond to call up 
notices could potentially have their bank accounts frozen and their ability to 
travel outside the country restricted.

   Lawmakers critical of the legislation, including Ivchenko, say the military 
hasn't adequately explained how a surge in conscription will meaningfully 
change the outcome of the war. The two countries have been at a near standstill 
for months following a failed counteroffensive by the Ukrainians over the 
summer. But the Russians have recently taken the initiative.

   "Will this law be enough for the armed forces to change the situation on the 
battlefield?" asked Ivchenko.

   DRAFT DODGERS

   The legislation's toughest sell are men like a 35-year-old website creator 
who insisted on anonymity to discuss his decision to hide at home in a suburb 
of Kyiv rather than join the war effort.

   He refuses to fight, he said, because he doesn't want to kill people; his 
plan is to raise enough money to escape Ukraine.

   The legislation being considered in parliament would, in theory, leave less 
room for men like him to hide by requiring all draft-eligible citizens to check 
in with the government via an electronic-tracking system. This system could 
also help balance a disparity in which recruitment patrols disproportionately 
target poor, rural areas to force draft dodgers to enlist.

   Ivan senses the government closing in.

   "It's a feeling that everyone wants to throw you in a meat grinder," he said.

 
 
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