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Ukrainian army chiefs have asked Volodymyr Zelenskyy to mobilise up to 500,000 people as the country gears up for a protracted war of attrition against Russia next year.
Speaking at a year-end press conference in Kyiv on Tuesday, the Ukrainian president said his top commanders had asked to mobilise 450,000 to 500,000 men and women, including through conscription.
But he said he had not yet made a decision on what was a “very sensitive issue”.
After a failed summer counteroffensive and with western financial and military support faltering, Zelenskyy is enduring the toughest period since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Russia has cranked up military production and Ukraine will need to draw deeper on its own resources — including manpower — to hold its lines next year, say analysts and western officials.
Zelenskyy said he had instructed his military chiefs to develop a detailed plan explaining why so many new troops were needed, as well as how current and past fighters could be given time to rest or possibly delist from service.
“I need specifics,” he said. “What will happen to the million-strong army of Ukraine . . . what will happen to those who have been protecting our country for two years?”
Ukraine has about 1mn men and women in its armed forces. It has taken heavy casualties, especially among experienced troops and junior officers, but the numbers of dead and injured are kept secret.
The Ukrainian president has come under pressure from military officers in recent weeks to significantly expand conscription to make up for casualties and allow more rotations for frontline troops.
In a rare public intervention on the matter, General Kyrylo Budanov, head of military intelligence, said on Sunday that Ukraine had already recruited all the volunteers it could find and now needed to use more compulsion.
“This is a fact, and it needs to be understood and recognised. With such volumes, no recruitment will cover our needs without mobilisation,” Budanov said.
Some western officials and analysts have said the Ukrainians serving at the frontline are often too old to cope with the rigours of fighting and too few to allow for proper rest, let alone training.
But until now, Zelenskyy has been reluctant to resort to more extensive conscription, fearing it could stoke social tensions.
On Tuesday, Zelenskyy said that “if it is needed” he would sign legislation being debated in parliament that would reduce from 27 to 25 the age at which men can be compelled to join the military.
In the first months after Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, Ukraine mostly relied on voluntary recruits, but since then it has conscripted men from the age of 27 to 60 — though not at the scale now proposed — and has banned adult men from leaving the country.
In comments that will do little to quash speculation about tensions with Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Zelenskyy acknowledged there were “difficult questions”.
“I have a working relationship with Zaluzhny. He should be responsible for the results on the battlefield as a commander, together with the general staff. There are many questions there,” he said.
“We need strong steps and results,” Zelenskyy added. “That’s it. I don’t put anything personal into it.”
Zelenskyy said he was “confident” that the US and EU would not betray Ukraine — even though both have struggled to approve additional financial and military aid packages.
“I am confident that the US will not betray us. That what we agreed with the US will be implemented, fully,” Ukraine’s president said during a Tuesday press conference.