Ukraine debates conscription amid war fatigue

AFTER an initial outpouring of patriotism in the months after Russia's invasion, the realities of the battlefield — and mobilisation — have largely set in among Ukraine's population.

Heavy casualties and almost two years of grinding trench warfare have sparked a fierce debate on the future of the draft, an ever more pertinent topic as the army struggles to fill its ranks.

President Volodymyr Zelensky warned last month the military wanted to mobilise up to half a million people to battle the 600,000 or so Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine.

But he said he needed to hear "more arguments" before making a decision, given how delicate the subject is in a nation exhausted by fighting and a flagging counteroffensive last summer.

Ukraine, which counts roughly 850,000 soldiers among its ranks, does not reveal losses or the number of soldiers deployed at the front.

Yet the military sectors of Ukrainian cemeteries continue to grow.

The latest US estimates published in August by the New York Times put the death toll at nearly 70,000 and the number of wounded at up to 120,000.

The patriotic impetus of the early months, when Ukrainians went en masse to the front voluntarily, is no longer there.

More and more often, stories of men desperately trying to evade the draft appear in Ukrainian media.

In December, the government submitted a bill to parliament lowering the age of military service from 27 to 25 and simplifying the process of enlistment.

But while the bill cut compulsory wartime service from an unlimited period to 36 months, it also introduced new penalties for draft dodgers, like restrictions on driving licences.

Ukraine human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets warned that the ever-increasing penalties posed a problem.

"We cannot get to the point where, by fighting Russia, we turn into something similar to Russia, where the laws no longer work and the constitution is just a piece of paper," he said.

The move has proved divisive.

"I am personally against harsh penalties like confiscating property," 42-year-old resident Olena said.

After a major backlash, several lawmakers and the presidency gave assurances the text would be debated and amended.

A parliamentary defence committee attended by Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny and Defence Minister Rustem Umerov began examining the draft on Thursday behind closed doors.

The proposed changes to the draft prompted an outcry on social media, with many floating ideas as to how best to manage mobilisation.

Ruling party lawmaker Mariana Bezugla suggested exempting people from mobilisation in exchange for a substantial donation to the budget.

"And those who don't have any money, let them croak in the trenches and let their children become orphans...," one person commented on the deputy's Facebook page.

"War is for the poor," said another.

Former economy minister Tymofy Mylovanov raised the idea of a draft lottery reminiscent of the Vietnam War, where the United States government picked birthdays at chance.

"The state chooses a day and a month at random. People born on those days are mobilised," he suggested.

"A madhouse," retorted well-known lawyer and activist Larysa Denysenko, denouncing the proposals as "absolutely harmful".

There have also been calls for troops to be rotated and for those who have been at the front for a long time to be demobilised.

"If this is a matter of national security, then all people, all citizens, should participate," said Lyudmyla, a 50-year-old teacher.

"My husband has been at war since Feb 28," she said.

"My son-in-law is at war. Why should some people fight and others not?" she asked.

Others want measures to encourage Ukrainians abroad to return home and fight.

"There can be no justice in this reality of carnage," said writer Artem Chekh, who joined the army as a volunteer.

"If plumbers and clerks don't join the army, the enemy army will come for these same plumbers and clerks," he warned.

The writers are from Agence France-Presse

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