Ukraine’s path to victory hinges, not on weapons, but on people

One of the hottest social media apps in Ukraine these days is called Weather in Kyiv. It alerts users where in the city it’s “raining” at any particular moment.

But it’s not a weather app.

It’s more like a “whether” app, warning young men whether roving teams of military recruiters are on the prowl for newly eligible draftees under Ukraine’s new mobilization law.

Telegram channels also track the Ukrainian authorities combing the streets for draft dodgers, warning of the presence of “crocodiles” and “eggplants,” code for military and police officers,” according to the Daily Mail.

With Ukraine’s stretched and battle-weary army now in desperate need of fresh troops, the Ukrainian parliament reluctantly passed a law lowering the draft age from 27 to 25 in April.

Ukrainian cadets take the oath of enlistment in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 8, 2023. (Roman Pilipey / AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky also signed two other measures into law last month, one allowing prisoners to enlist, and the other increasing fines for draft dodgers fivefold.

It has sparked a bit of a panic among Ukraine’s smallest generational cohort, just over 450,000 men born after Ukraine went through a post-independence depression in the late 1990s.

Thousands of those newly eligible men have tried to leave the country. In contrast, others have paid for forged papers certifying they are unfit for service or are resorting to disguises such as dressing as women to be picked up at random checkpoints.

An estimated 100,000 Ukrainian men have failed to update their status with authorities as required under the law, while some 20,000 accused draft dodgers have been caught.

Part of the problem is that most younger Ukrainians who do want to serve are already in the military and the ones who don’t have been spooked by the horrors of trench warfare, and they fear they will be tortured and butchered if captured by the Russians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, shake hand with a soldier during his visit to the front line city of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Feb. 19, 2024. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

“I am very concerned for my own life. My friends who have already served on the front lines have been disabled for life by this fighting,” a 33-year-old engineer told the Daily Mail’s Sabrina Miller, who noted she saw very few young men on the streets of Kyiv.

It’s a far cry from the early days of the war in 2022 when Ukrainian men of all ages and descriptions, including artists, professors, athletes, and accountants, flooded recruiting offices to enlist in the fight for freedom.

Ukraine, universally lauded for its united and dogged determination, is becoming a nation divided.

“Some are at war, and some are not at war,” Zelensky told the New York Times last month. “On the one hand, you understand, that’s why we are fighting — to liberate people, for cities to live, for people not to be at war. But above all, we must understand that we are all still at war until it ends.”

But Zelensky’s problem is not just one of will to fight, but also the immutable challenge of demographics with having to draw from a population one-fourth the size of Russia. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin ignores the devasting toll the war has taken on his forces, while willingly sacrificing hundreds, sometimes thousands of troops a day in World War I “meatgrinder” assaults for meager gains.

The British Defense Ministry estimates over 500,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the start of the war, with losses averaging a staggering 1,200 a day in May.

“The Russian military has been decimated,” President Joe Biden said in an interview with Time magazine. “It’s been freaking decimated.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine has held its ground with a million-man army with which many of the initial volunteers are still fighting on the front lines after more than two years of grueling combat. Ukraine closely guards its casualty numbers, but it’s believed roughly 10% of its force, some 100,000 troops, have died in combat.

Zelensky was under enormous pressure to rotate those soldiers away from the front, and to do that, he had no choice but to lower the draft age, a highly unpopular move that could severely deplete the next generation of Ukrainians.

“He’s in a bind,” said New York Times Kyiv bureau chief Andrew Kramer, who was one of the journalists who interviewed Zelensky on May 20.

“He’s ruling a country that, on the one hand, there’s massive support for continuing the war, there’s incredible anger at Russia, still seething anger at Russia over this war and no desire to negotiate,” Kramer said on the Times podcast The Daily. “On the other hand, you have fewer and fewer people willing to fight.

“This is probably the moment of most uncertainty for Zelensky and for Ukraine since the beginning of the war,” Kramer said. “There’s no popular decision for Zelensky. Drafting more soldiers is unpopular. If he doesn’t draft soldiers and settles in a ceasefire negotiation, that will also be unpopular. Zelensky is squeezed between two fires.”

What struck Kramer about the interview was Zelensky’s answer to the question about his plans for after the war.

“After the war, after the victory, these are different things. After the war, it could be different. I think my plans depend on that,” Zelensky said, seeming to acknowledge the war might not end on Ukraine’s preferred terms, the expulsion of all Russian forces.

“I would like to believe that there will be a victory for Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “Not an easy one, very difficult. It will be very difficult.”

Just a few days later, Biden, in a Time interview, seemed to acknowledge the same possibility — that the war could end without two of Zelensky’s main goals, total liberation of all occupied territory and full NATO membership.

“Peace looks like making sure Russia never, never, never, never occupies Ukraine,” Biden said. “That’s what peace looks like. And it doesn’t mean they are part of NATO. It means we have a relationship with them like we do with other countries, where we supply weapons so they can defend themselves in the future.”

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“What [Zelensky] left unsaid was what his life would look like if Ukraine lost the war,” Kramer noted. “One scenario is that he could die at the end of this. He’s been the target of 10 assassination attempts, according to his government.

“Another possible outcome would be that Ukraine could lose a large chunk of its territory in a settlement agreement so it’s understandable why he didn’t go into the details,” Kramer said. “But it was still remarkable that he acknowledged, just for a moment, this vulnerability, this idea that there could be an outcome for Ukraine other than victory.”

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