Zelensky, Putin face political headache in mobilization push

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin are straining to keep bodies on the battlefield amid political pressures at home around mobilization.

More than two years into the war and with tens of thousands of military casualties on both sides, the situation on the front remains shaky, with roughly a fifth of Ukrainian territory still under Russian occupation and no breakthroughs on the horizon.

Now, both leaders must face the particular domestic demands of their countries to maintain boots on the ground.

Zelensky is contending with fierce blowback to lowering the draft age. And Putin, though working with a larger population, is looking to mitigate political pain by focusing conscription efforts on small and rural towns versus major cities.

“If Ukraine really wanted to have the ability to go on the offensive, they’d probably have to lower the draft age to 18, and they clearly don’t want to do that,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow.

Kyiv in May implemented a divisive mobilization law following a new Russia ground offensive in Ukraine’s northeast, putting further strains on the embattled country’s overstretched forces.

The legislation — which was passed in mid-April and makes it easier to identify those who can be conscripted — came into effect a month after Ukraine also lowered the draft age for men from 27 to 25.

Ukraine Parliament member Oleksandr Fedienko said at the time that the bill, which could help add around 50,000 troops to Kyiv’s military, would send a “message to our partners that we are ready to retake our territory.”

In addition, Zelensky has signed two other laws that allow prisoners to join the army and greatly increase fines for those who skip out on the draft, both controversial measures as they mirror Russia’s early move to enlist its prisoners.

Meant to address the growing strain on the battlefield, experts say it still won’t be enough to turn the tide of the conflict and more extreme options must be implemented, a reality that could fray Zelensky’s popularity.

“This has not been sufficient to deal with the military problem, so the pressure to do more is already being felt, and I expect Zelensky will do more,” John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former ambassador to Ukraine, said of the draft age drop.

Herbst explained that there is, by American standards, a peculiar Ukrainian cultural attitude on the draft. Young men are not expected to be conscripted before their late 20s, as the population wants to make sure it has a chance to procreate before people go off to war. This has been true for Ukraine since its independence in 1991, “so you have to fight the culture, [but] fighting the culture is not great for one’s political ratings,” Herbst told The Hill.

Zelensky, while aware that reducing the draft age will address battlefield constraints, is reluctant to act due to concerns about what this might do to his popularity, he added.

Instead, he has turned to other methods to rev up his forces, which Russia reportedly outnumbers by seven to 10 times.

Among those ways are clawing back some military-aged men who have fled the country in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

In late April, Ukrainian embassies temporarily suspended consular services, such as passport renewals, for men aged 18-64, putting new pressures on them to return home to fight.

“There will be no restrictions or forced return of Ukrainian citizens of any gender or age to a country that is at war,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna said in remarks published by Deutsche Welle on April 30. “[But] there are no easy solutions to war issues, and let’s not forget that the war is ongoing, and we have to win it.”

In a nightly video address in early April, Zelensky urged that May and June “should be a time of activity for the sake of Ukraine, for the sake of achieving our goals in this war.”

Kyiv has also prohibited men younger than 60 from leaving the country since the start of the war. But on June 1, the country closed a “residence abroad” loophole for dual citizens, causing the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to warn dual U.S.-Ukrainian citizens that they will no longer be able to depart the war-torn nation if they are otherwise eligible for conscription.

In Russia, meanwhile, a newly reelected Putin is facing his own pressure.

Putin last week gave a rare update on casualty and prisoner-of-war figures, asserting that Moscow has only lost one soldier for every five that Kyiv has.

U.S. battlefield estimates, in comparison, put the latest Russian casualties at 515,000, including more than 50,000 deaths, since the war began.

Those losses likely prompted Moscow to ready a new wave of military mobilization, estimated to come this month, that seeks to enlist up to 300,000 new troops to bolster its forces already in Ukraine, according to Zelensky.

The move, reported to have come about due to the dwindling number of people willing to go into battle, would follow Putin’s shaky past efforts in mobilization.

In September 2022, when he announced a partial mobilization — just short of an all-out draft — tens of thousands of Russian men fled across country borders to avoid conscription and widespread protests erupted.

“Putin was avoiding trying too hard to get people from St. Petersburg and Moscow to serve,” O’Hanlon told The Hill. “He didn’t want to lose his popularity with the elite, and yet he knew that if he made this great appeal to Russian nationalism in small towns and distant areas and, of course, prisoners, that he has a larger population base on his side.”

But even as the numbers, time and recent battlefield momentum all seem to be on his side, the effort “has not seemed to be generating a truly war winning capability for him,” he added.

One of Ukraine’s biggest advantages in the war is that, by and large, its people understand why they are fighting and they believe that they have to fight, Herbst said. In Russia, in comparison, the polls may show substantial support for the war but there never have been many Russians volunteering to fight.

“You don’t have the true public support for the war, which translates into enough members, enough men, signing up to fight,” Herbst said. “And Putin is reluctant to actually conscript, at least in the large Russian cities, because in those Russian cities it would be very unpopular and doing a large city enables opposition to form.”

“This is not the Russian People’s War where it is the Ukrainian People’s War,” he added.

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