Manpower becomes Ukraine’s latest challenge as it digs in for a long war

Of the four men who lined up at an army recruitment centre in Kyiv one morning this month, only one was there voluntarily.

Oleksandr, a 34-year-old used-car dealer, said he could no longer watch from the sidelines after five acquaintances were killed in Europe’s biggest war since 1945. He built up a financial cushion for his wife and newborn child before deciding to fight. “It’s time,” he said.

The others had received mobilisation notices. Two said medical conditions had previously prevented them from serving: one cited brain damage from a freak accident, the other metal plates in his spine. The fourth — Yevhen, a 42-year-old sales manager with no military experience — said: “I’m not going to hide, but I honestly don’t know what I can contribute.”

The meagre queue was a far cry from the thousands of volunteers who lined up at recruitment centres following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

It underscored the challenge facing Ukraine, with a population of less than 40mn, nearly two years into a war against an enemy with more than three times the number of people: how to maintain a flow of recruits into the armed forces without stirring social unrest and how to build capacity to enable Kyiv to regain the battlefield initiative.

General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s top military commander, told The Economist earlier this month that to break the “stalemate” — a term that earned him a rebuke from the government — he needed not just new capabilities in artillery, mine clearance and electronic warfare but “to build up our reserves”.

“However, our capacity to train reserves on our own territory is also limited,” Zaluzhnyi wrote separately in an opinion article. “We cannot easily spare soldiers who are deployed to the front, [and] Russia can strike training centres. And there are gaps in our legislation that allow citizens to evade their responsibilities.”

Selective conscription has continued since February 2022 but has lost steam as the grim reality of a long, gruelling war sets in. According to a BBC investigation, nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men evaded call-up notices either by slipping out of the country in defiance of an exit ban or fraudulently acquiring permission to leave. In August, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired all the country’s regional army recruitment chiefs over the issuance of medical exemptions in return for bribes.

Ukrainian officials and western analysts say it is not just a question of numbers but of fitness, capability and skills. The average age of Ukrainians at the front and those trained by western allies has been 30-40, rather than more usual 18-24, said Jack Watling, senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank.

The issue was not troop quantity but the “quality and capacity to command operations at scale”, he said.

General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Mobilisation early last year disproportionately pulled in older men with military experience, but younger men with more endurance and skills were now needed, he added.

“Ukraine needs infantry in top physical shape,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The physical requirements for the infantry are demanding and have increased as this conflict has settled into small-scale infantry engagement fought on foot in trench systems.”

Ukraine keeps its troop and casualty numbers secret. Experts and local officials have suggested it had 1mn men and women under arms last year, including territorial defence, secret services and border guards — double the pre-February 2022 number. US officials estimate that about 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and up to 120,000 injured, compared with about 200,000 Russian dead. Kyiv has put Russia’s death toll at more than 300,000.

To help fill the ranks, Ukrainian officials have set up roadside checkpoints to seek men evading the draft. If they are deemed fit, they are whisked off to draft offices. Online videos of recruitment officers picking men off the streets and forcing them into minivans have gone viral.

Zaluzhnyi said efforts were under way to set up a unified register of draftees. He also revealed a “combat internship” concept, which involves “placing newly mobilised and trained personnel in experienced frontline units to prepare them”.

Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based group that tracks the war, said that given Ukraine had less manpower than Russia, better training and better troops would allow it to sustain the fight for longer.

“Ukraine can’t adopt the Russian way of war, which focuses on attrition, as Moscow will be able to outspend Kyiv in almost every aspect, from military production to being able to sustain higher losses,” he said.

In the latest bid to reboot the process and attract younger, more motivated and better-educated recruits, Ukraine’s defence ministry has said volunteers would not necessarily serve in the trenches but in a role of their choice that matched their skills.

One aim is to lure more IT professionals for units operating drones and other high-tech weaponry. Three people with just such a specialism told the Financial Times they would consider the offer if they could ensure they would have roles as drone operators or use their expertise in cyber warfare or similar roles.

Troops prepare to fire artillery

The Azov regiment, one of Ukraine’s best fighting forces, has placed advertisements on the work.ua recruitment site for infantry, drone operators, engineers, medics, drivers, cooks and welders.

Natalia Kalmykova, deputy defence minister, this week signed agreements with thelobbyx.com, a recruitment platform that has been used by the army, to assist soldiers in relocating to roles better fitted to their skills.

“The project will allow a person to choose a specific unit in a specific position where his/her civilian experience will be most useful,” Kalmykova said in a statement. Similar agreements with other recruitment companies are being drawn up.

Soldiers who spend a full month on the front lines are being paid more than $3,000 a month — a high salary in Ukraine, where average pay is less than $500 a month, and much more than the $650 paid for troops in support roles in the rear.

Kalmykova told Ukrainian TV earlier this month that forced conscription would continue but be phased out when “enough” soldiers had joined up voluntarily.

Vitaly Markiv, a frontline commanding officer, said: “We need to move away from the Soviet system of forced conscription where people are driven into roles where they can’t realise their potential.”

He added: “We should put emphasis not on quantity, but on quality and brains in what is . . . like the battle of David vs Goliath.”

Additional reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv