'Hot Potato': Ukrainian Mobilization Bill Driving A Wedge Between President And Armed Forces

A local resident cycles by a recruitment advert for the Ukrainian Army in the Dnipropetrovsk region (file photo)

KYIV--When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainians lined up to join the armed forces in an outburst of patriotism that both inspired the Western world and defied Moscow’s expectations.

Now, two years later, amid horrific trench warfare, lack of recent progress on the battlefield, and with tens of thousands of soldiers dead or wounded, the enthusiasm to enlist is clearly waning.

The lack of fresh recruits poses a serious danger to Ukraine’s war effort as Russia -- which has more than three times the population -- continues to throw men, including convicts, into the fight despite mounting human costs.

Kyiv has proposed addressing the problem by lowering the age limit for new conscripts and cracking down on mobilization evasion. But officials are fearful of backlash and hesitant to publicly defend the measures, seeking instead to place the onus on the military, experts and deputies say.

Christmas Surprise

On Christmas night, the Ukrainian government submitted the long-awaited bill on mobilization to parliament, triggering scorn from some opposition lawmakers.

Solomia Bobrovska, a deputy from the Holos party, said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service on December 27 that the timing was designed to ensure “no one would notice,” deriding it as a “Bolshevik” tactic. She also criticized elements of the bill.

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The mobilization legislation was submitted in the name of Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov and not President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is commander in chief. Some experts took that as a sign the president feared his high popularity rating could take a hit.

“The president did not behave like a statesman, who should come out and start taking responsibility for himself and explain why this [bill] is necessary,” Hennadiy Druzenko, a lawyer and activist, told RFE/RL.

Druzenko said the government may have been assigned the task of submitting the bill and taking any public heat because its trust is already low and probably won’t fall much further. According to polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), only 26 percent of Ukrainian express trust in the government compared to 52 percent in December 2022.

Zelenskiy’s popularity shot up following Russia’s full-scale invasion when he refused to flee Kyiv even as Russian special forces reached the edge of the capital. It was bolstered by Ukraine’s success in late 2022 in driving back Russian forces, prompting 84 percent of Ukrainians to say at the time that they trusted him, according to KIIS. That has fallen to 62 percent as the war drags on with no end in sight.

While still high, the steady decline in trust could pose problems for Zelenskiy if he seeks reelection. Ukraine was due to hold presidential elections this spring, but it will be postponed under the state of martial law imposed in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) with the commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces Valeriy Zaluzhniy in July 2023.

During a press conference on December 19, days before the mobilization bill was submitted, Zelenskiy said Ukraine’s military leadership had proposed drafting up to 500,000 more troops, adding he wanted an explanation for such a large request.

Days later, the chief of the general staff, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, told media he needs more men to relieve those who have been fighting for an extended period, as well as to compensate for expected losses in the coming year.

He said the General Staff consulted with the Defense Ministry on the bill, but the final version was the work of the government since the military has no legislative power.

Druzenko predicted that the presidential administration and the military will toss responsibility for the bill toward one another “like a hot potato.”

In an interview with RFE/RL, Iryna Friz, a parliamentarian from the opposition European Solidarity bloc, also suggested that Zelenskiy is trying to distance himself from the bill to protect his popularity ratings.

Oleksandr Korniyenko, first deputy chairman of the parliament and former head of Servant of the People, rejected the idea that Zelenskiy was trying to duck responsibility, adding that the bill was a joint product with the military.

Nonetheless, Zelenskiy steered clear of ownership of the mobilization legislation, saying on December 26 that “it is only right” that deputies and the military decide on the troop count and other needs for next year and do so in open hearings. He said his office will be “waiting for the final text of the law.”

Mobilization Measures

The mobilization bill calls for lowering the age limit of conscripts from 27 to 25, ending the service exclusion for citizens with minor disabilities, legalizing digital draft notices, and restricting the ability of draft dodgers to carry out transactions such as buying or selling property. It also places greater responsibility for mobilization on local governments.

Experts said local officials could drag their feet on implementation out of the same fear of a hit to their popularity. Meanwhile, Digital Transformation Minister Mykhaylo Fedorov rushed to declare that the government super app, Diia, rolled out under his leadership and downloaded by millions of Ukrainians, will not be used for sending draft notifications.

Opposition deputies have criticized various aspects of the bill, such as the restrictions on financial transactions by draft dodgers, and many parliamentarians expect the final bill to look different.

The first reading is expected to take place before January 14. Some experts say the bill could be adopted as early as the end of the month.

Ukraine has banned most men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but some continue to do so, paying off border guards or other officials. Some avoid drafts with medical exemptions that can be bought, while others ignore draft notifications.

The struggle to recruit Ukrainian men has prompted police to grab draft dodgers off the street, creating scenes that – when they go viral on social media – generate backlash against the authorities.

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While one-third of Ukrainians said they were ready to take up arms to defend their country, according to a summer poll, Yevhen Holovakha, director of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, told RFE/RL that people may act differently if they actually receive draft notices.

He said pessimism has grown among Ukrainians in recent months following the meager results of the summer counteroffensive. Holovakha said officials and the media had created public expectations of success that were unrealistic.

At the same time, the number of people willing to serve would be greater if the drafting process appeared fair and clear, he said. People want to know why they are being drafted, how long they will be required to serve, how much they will earn, how much their families will receive, and what will happen when they return, he said.

“People get sick from uncertainty,” Holovakha said. “And these stresses, and these illnesses, both physical and psychological, most often arise from the fact that they live in uncertainty.”

Dozens of wives and mothers of combatants took to the streets earlier this year on a couple of occasions in rare wartime protests to demand the demobilization of their loved ones and the recruitment of new men. Under martial law imposed following Russia’s invasion, public protests are banned.

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Zelenskiy has sought to address some of the public concerns around mobilization. Earlier this year, he fired the heads of the regional recruitment offices amid corruption allegations. He also said he wants to see the general staff’s plan for demobilization.

Holovakha said Zelenskiy is proceeding cautiously because he is in a “very difficult situation.”


The debate over the bill and who takes responsibility for it could exacerbate the reportedly tense relations between Zelenskiy and Zaluzhniy.

The military leader in November told The Economist the war had entered a stalemate, a dour assessment that undermined the presidential administration’s more upbeat view of Ukraine’s progress and complicated efforts to secure U.S. military aid.

Zelenskiy immediately rejected the view the war was in a stalemate, while members of his administration cautioned the military against making such public comments.

Last month, Maryana Bezuhla, deputy head of the parliamentary Defense Committee and a member of Zelenskiy’s party, publicly criticized Zaluzhniy for allegedly failing to present a 2024 war plan, all the while demanding greater mobilization. She raised the specter of his dismissal, which some took as a message from the administration.

Oleksiy Haran, director of research at the Ilko Kucheriv Foundation for Democratic Initiatives, told RFE/RL that firing Zaluzhniy would backfire on the administration as the military leader enjoys a higher popularity rating than the president.

Holovakha said Ukrainians associate their nation’s victories in the war with Zaluzhniy, and it would be hard for Zelenskiy to convince the public otherwise.

Haran said firing Zaluzhniy would be “a failure, first of all, for Zelenskiy.”

Written by RFE/RL’s Todd Prince based on reporting from Ukraine by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.