Analysis, Europe, Russia-Ukraine War

OPINION - Ukraine's soldier crisis a major challenge for country's defense

The initial surge of patriotism that increased Ukraine's army from 260,000 to 700,000 military personnel was short-lived, as the grim reality of trench warfare shattered the dreams of heroism

Huseyin Ozdemir  | 27.06.2024 - Update : 29.06.2024
OPINION - Ukraine's soldier crisis a major challenge for country's defense Military training of Ukrainian army continues in Donetsk Oblast

-Young Ukrainian men are increasingly reluctant to join military service. Many avoid public places, living in constant fear of conscription

-Ukraine should not rely solely on the West. It must adopt a more self-reliant and forward-thinking approach and seek off-ramps for peace as soon as possible

-Ukrainian people's resolve is unquestionable, but without addressing the manpower issue, the defense of their homeland remains precarious

The author is a researcher with the TRT World Research Centre, based in Istanbul, Türkiye.

ISTANBUL

When Russia started its war on Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainian men were eager to defend their nation, flooding enlistment centers. Two years later, the spirit to join the fight has waned significantly.

Is Ukraine's defense strategy collapsing?

With Russia controlling nearly a quarter of Ukraine and a fight over a 1,000-kilometer front line that resembles the dreadful trench warfare of World War I, many Ukrainian men now avoid conscription by any means necessary. Some change their addresses to escape conscription while others resort to bribery to evade military service.

The initial surge of patriotism that increased Ukraine's army from 260,000 to 700,000 military personnel was short-lived, as the grim reality of trench warfare shattered the dreams of heroism. Continuous heavy losses have left the military in dire need of fresh recruits. This shortage of soldiers presents a substantial challenge to Ukraine's defense strategy against a better-equipped and implacable Russian army.

The lack of personnel undermined the morale in many ways. Early on, soldiers rotated every two weeks, enjoying a week off. Now, they endure a month at the front lines with only four days of rest. This situation has taken a toll on the troopers' physical and mental health, diminishing their combat effectiveness. Most soldiers are in their 40s, battling not only the enemy but also chronic ailments like ulcers and hernias.

The front lines are increasingly difficult to hold as the Russians continue their attacks, showing no shortage of personnel from their end. Some military analysts note that Ukraine's soldiers are outnumbered and outgunned, and many question the realism of Ukraine's war strategy under such conditions. Young Ukrainian men are increasingly reluctant to join military service. Many avoid public places, living in constant fear of conscription.

The Ukrainian military top brass tried to address this situation by copying Russia's drafting of prisoners. [1] Authorities have introduced a law allowing convicts to join the military in exchange for conditional early release. Approximately 5,000 inmates have applied since the law's inception, with some already undergoing basic training. However, this step is far from being a silver bullet to the issue. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently lowered the conscription age from 27 to 25, a politically painful but necessary step.

However, two key issues undermine these efforts. The first issue is the growing mistrust in Kyiv's war strategies, exemplified by the failed counteroffensive in the summer of 2023 and the futile attempt to hold on to Bakhmut. Both cases caused the death of thousands of men, and the latter was deemed the bloodiest [2] battle since World War II. The second problem is the widespread corruption, which hampers conscription efforts, as rich people often find ways to dodge military service, thereby deepening inequities and frustrations among the populace.


How can Ukraine solve the soldier crisis?

Addressing the soldier crisis requires multifaceted approaches. Increasing incentives for military service, enhancing support and care for soldiers, restoring trust in the military leadership, and tackling corruption in the recruitment process are essential steps. Moreover, international support in the form of advanced military training and equipment can partially offset the manpower shortage.

Ukraine must also consider long-term strategies. Encouraging the return of hundreds of thousands of military-age men who have fled to Europe to avoid service, along with investing in family policies to boost birth rates, can significantly strengthen the nation's defense capacity. This step could take place by raising awareness and providing financial support to families and returnees. Additionally, enhancing veteran services to care for returning soldiers can improve morale and demonstrate the nation's commitment to those who serve.

International aid has been crucial, but the country needs more advanced weaponry and high-tech equipment to offset manpower shortages. Given the long stoppage periods of military support and shortage of ammunition, there are doubts about the extent and sincerity of Western commitment. Ukraine should not rely solely on the West. It must adopt a more self-reliant and forward-thinking approach and seek off-ramps for peace as soon as possible.

Ukraine's conscription crisis underscores the challenges of sustaining a protracted conflict against a superior adversary. As the war drags on, the need for innovative solutions becomes ever more critical. The Ukrainian people's resolve is unquestionable, but without addressing the manpower issue, the defense of their homeland remains precarious.

Only through comprehensive and immediate actions, including sensible statecraft, domestic reforms, and international support, can Ukraine hope to turn the tide in this ongoing struggle.

[1] https://edition.cnn.com/2024/06/13/europe/ukraine-prison-soldier-recruitment-intl-cmd/index.html

[2] https://www.reuters.com/graphics/UKRAINE-CRISIS/MAPS/klvygwawavg/#uncovering-the-extensive-destruction-of-bakhmut-in-a-new-detailed-analysis


*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.

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