How Ukraine is working to alter the maths in the ‘numbers game’ with Russia

Zelenskyy's mobilisation drive has been a partial success, even though, for many, it may have gone too far

A Ukrainian soldier on duty in the Donetsk region. Kyiv has lowered the draft age, launched a recruitment campaign and passed a mobilisation law. EPA
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Summer has gotten off to a dark start, literally, in Kyiv. Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s energy grid, widely viewed as harsher than a similar campaign in late 2022, has sharply reduced the power supply and prompted rationing and rolling blackouts across the country.

Street and traffic lights have been shut down, leaving some areas in total darkness through the night. Many locals have electricity for just a handful of hours on most days, and the situation could worsen as Ukraine closes two nuclear power plants this week for repairs, Russia continues its strikes, and the heat rises further still.

If the damage is not repaired by December, as some experts have warned, we could see another wave of Ukrainians flooding into Europe, on top of the earlier six million. But at least the news from beyond Ukraine’s borders has been brighter.

Responding to growing pressure, US President Joe Biden last week authorised Ukraine to use short-range US weapons inside Russia. Kyiv quickly took advantage, hitting Russian military facilities near Belgorod a few days later. And that’s barely the tip of the iceberg.

The Netherlands just committed €400 million ($430 million) to produce armoured vehicles for Ukraine.

European arms producer KNDS plans to open a howitzer factory in Ukraine and Germany is considering sending another Patriot air defence system, its fourth. Nato may soon appoint a permanent envoy to Ukraine to show its commitment to Kyiv, while the G7 and EU have agreed to send Ukraine the nearly $4 billion annual interest from Russia’s frozen assets.

Finally, the European Commission last week urged the EU to start accession talks with Ukraine, hoping to make progress before Hungary – led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin – takes over the EU presidency next month.

Further support is expected at this weekend’s Ukraine summit in Switzerland, with more than 100 officials set to discuss energy infrastructure, Ukraine’s deported children, global food security, and more. Squeezed between the G7 meeting in Italy and a Nato summit in July, this will be Ukraine’s largest global gathering in its drive to solidify international support.

Are EU states doing Kyiv’s bidding and hoping to prompt Ukrainians to return home to fight?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s all-out diplomatic campaign, which I detailed last year, is starting to bear fruit. But back at home Kyiv’s chief concern remains Russia’s human resources edge, due to its three times larger population and willingness to use convicts, contractors and foreigners. The Kremlin is thought to be adding 30,000 more soldiers than Kyiv each month, and the Zelenskyy administration has been working all spring to tilt the maths in its favour.

The government has lowered the draft age from 27 to 25, launched a recruitment campaign depicting war as fun in the sun, and passed a new mobilisation law that enlists new conscripts more quickly and offers cash bonuses and financial aid. Kyiv’s push to convince more women to enlist has been a success. The number of women volunteers has surged in recent months, to nearly 50,000, with many taking on combat roles.

Nearly six out of 10 Ukrainians (59 per cent) still support their President after two-plus years of war and hardship, but for many, the mobilisation drive has gone too far.

The new law eliminates demobilisation after three years of service: Ukrainian soldiers must now remain soldiers for as long as Kyiv needs them. Last month, the Zelenskyy administration authorised the military to enlist convicted criminals and doubled fines for draft evasion. And as of June 1, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 who hold dual citizenship are no longer permitted to leave the country, as they had been since the start of the war.

In response, many Ukrainian men are staying home to avoid recruitment or paying smugglers thousands of dollars to help them flee the country. They may find the EU less hospitable than they had expected. Despite a recent survey in which two thirds of Ukrainians in the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland expressed satisfaction with their new lives, Europe may be picking up its Ukrainian refugee welcome mat as far-right parties threaten to gain ground.

The Czech Republic launched a project to help Ukrainian refugees return home, offering to pay for their transport. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week told Ukrainians in the country that they needed to find work. And Ukrainians in France are having trouble accessing housing, education and social benefits programmes.

Are EU states doing Kyiv’s bidding and hoping to prompt Ukrainians to return home to fight? This may reflect growing European fears of a broader conflict. Finland and Sweden have, of course, joined Nato, while Poland has doubled its military budget and the size of its army.

The latest moves from the US and its allies suggest a deeper commitment that includes more robust production of ammunition, weaponry and military vehicles. There’s also talk of a human contribution. Despite American concerns, France is leading a plan to send hundreds of military advisers to Ukraine to accelerate Kyiv’s mobilisation. Paris hopes to send an assessment team next month.

Meanwhile, reports from the front seem to be shifting in Ukraine’s favour. After some early success, the Kremlin’s two-pronged assault on Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, has been blunted, according to several reports. Also, Ukrainian drones on the weekend destroyed an advanced Russian fighter jet at a military base hundreds of kilometres from the front, highlighting Kyiv’s ability to strike deep into Russian territory.

In the capital, days and nights should be brighter soon, as France and the US just allocated nearly $500 million to restore and defend Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

Given the possibility of a second Donald Trump presidency that could end US support for Ukraine in early 2025, Kyiv is under pressure to make major headway this year. The war is unlikely to end soon, but its outcome, and Europe’s security future, could be decided in the coming months.

Speaking at a recent Ukraine conference in Estonia, Yale historian Timothy Snyder explained how he sees in Ukraine an echo of Nazi Germany’s move into Czechoslovakia in 1938: what if before the Munich Pact, the Czechs, like today’s Ukrainians, chose to fight.

“There would’ve been a conflict, but not a Second World War,” he said. “The Ukrainians are giving us this chance and we have to take this chance if we want to prevent a great power war.”

Published: June 11, 2024, 4:00 AM