Kyiv – Having rushed to join the Ukrainian army when Russia invaded, Ivan Zadontsev is now exhausted as the grinding campaign enters its third year.
“What I’m feeling is just fury. Just how long can it take?” Zadontsev, a press officer in the 24th Separate Assault Battalion, told AFP.
“We are all tired. We all want to get some rest. Please, guys, just switch us around!” the 27-year-old, who has seen combat, said.
Fatigue and calls to give soldiers relief pose a dilemma for military leaders who need more manpower to hold off Russian attacks.
There is little room for manoeuvre for Kyiv, caught between sluggish voluntary recruitment and a politically perilous mobilisation bill.
“People need to be given time off, not just to recover and continue fighting,” said Sergiy Ogorodnyk, 39, who leads a company within the airborne assault forces.
“They also need time to rebuild their civilian lives,” he said, adding that feelings of “injustice” towards those who have not been called up to fight were bubbling among serving troops.
Ready to die
With no end to the war in sight, Ukraine’s army is struggling to find enough soldiers.
A controversial mobilisation bill designed to make it easier to draft troops and give those serving respite has triggered a bitter debate over Kyiv’s recruitment policy.
Stagnation on the battlefield has also sapped enthusiasm among would-be soldiers.
Ukraine had hoped to build on military successes at the end of 2022, but last year’s much-hyped counter-offensive failed to punch through Russian lines.
Daniil, a 27-year-old barber in Kyiv, said he would have considered joining a year ago, but not now.
“There was some enthusiasm, everyone was hoping that stuff would work out, everything could be solved, won back… now people are more realistic,” he said.
Uncertainty over Western support held up by infighting in the US Congress is also having an impact, said Anton Grushetsky of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).
“Ukrainians were really ready to die on the battlefield when they felt strong support,” he said.
“If they know they won’t have any weapons to fight with, that’s demotivating,” he added.
Off we go
A string of reports on government corruption further discouraged waverers like Daniil, as did the army’s reputation for tiresome bureaucracy.
“I thought they would have immediately taken my hand and said, off we go!” said Yevgen Spirin, who began the process of signing up four weeks ago.
“You have to put a stamp here, get something signed there… It’s difficult to explain to foreigners who didn’t have the Soviet Union,” he said, recalling trips to strained administration centres dotted across the city.
Some are trying to make the system smoother.
Recruitment agency Lobby X publishes army positions on a user-friendly website, showing would-be soldiers information on different units and their commanders.
Modernising the system “is a very big challenge, but we need to face it, because it is the only way to win the war”, said CEO Vladyslav Greziev.
His site has received more than 67 000 applications, according to Greziev.
“We help people take this step into the armed forces, because they get much more clarity and control over their future,” he added.
Mobilised against their will
Ukrainian men may soon have less choice in the matter.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in December the military wanted to draft up to 500 000 more troops.
A government-backed bill working its way through Ukraine’s parliament is trying to address the twin challenges of increasing troop numbers and providing better relief for those currently fighting.
The proposals include a 36-month limit on military service during wartime. At the moment, there is no cap.
It would also lower the age at which people can be mobilised from 27 to 25 and introduce an electronic draft.
The changes have worried many, amid talk of a more intense draft.
Social media is rife with accounts tracking the location of enlistment officers, who regularly stop men on the street to issue draft papers.
Integrating drafted soldiers is also tricky.
“In our unit, we don’t like guys mobilised against their will,” Zadontsev said.
But he said his team needed even mobilised recruits, who could become motivated after proper training.
He hoped fellow Ukrainians would realise the stakes and continue to fill up the army’s ranks.
“We are fighting for the whole country, for our independence,” he said.
“If we stop fighting, we will be occupied again.”
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