Zelenskyy signs law allowing convicts to fight for Ukraine

    The Hawk
    May18/ 2024
    Last Updated:

    As Ukraine faces intensified Russian offensives, this measure is part of broader efforts, including lowering the draft age and tightening border patrols, to address its soldier shortages and strengthen its defense.

    Volodymyr Zelenskyy

    Kyiv: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday signed into law a bill allowing some Ukrainian convicts to serve in the country's military in exchange for the possibility of parole at the end of their service, a move that highlights the country's desperate attempts to replenish its forces after more than two years of war.

    Parliament passed the bill last week, and political analysts were unsure whether Zelenskyy would enact it given the sensitivity of the matter. The measure echoes a practice that Russia has widely used to bolster its forces and that Ukraine ridiculed at the beginning of the war.

    But Ukraine is now ceding territory to advancing Russian forces, and the Ukrainian military urgently needs to increase the number of troops on the more than 600-mile front line if it is to prevent Russia from breaking through its defenses. Ukrainian officials have said the measure could allow up to 20,000 prisoners to be mobilized.

    The law comes on top of several recent efforts by the Ukrainian government to shore up its exhausted and depleted troops, including lowering the draft eligibility age to 25 from 27, stepping up border patrols to catch draft dodgers and suspending consular services for military-age men living abroad. Zelenskyy also enacted a law Friday that increases fines for evading the draft.

    Ukraine's shortages of soldiers have been particularly evident since Russia launched a new offensive push in the country's northeast last week. The assaults have left the Ukrainian military scrambling to divert troops from other areas of the front and draw from their meager personnel reserves.

    Ukrainian officials say they have now stabilized the situation in the northeast, but the rush of additional troops to the area has risked weakening other parts of the front where Russia is also on the attack, military experts say.

    Russia's gains on the battlefield over the past year have largely resulted from its superior troop numbers. Moscow has sent wave after wave of soldiers in bloody assaults, even if it means sustaining huge numbers of casualties, to capture towns and cities such as Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka in the east.

    As part of this strategy, the Kremlin has committed tens of thousands of convicts to the fighting, a controversial practice that Ukraine criticized in the first half of the war. But now, Ukraine is also looking to recruit prisoners.

    Unlike in Russia, the possibility of serving will not be extended to people who have been convicted of premeditated murder, rape or other serious offenses. Lawmakers said involuntary manslaughter convictions could be considered.

    Several Ukrainians on Friday expressed support for the measure, saying it would help Ukraine to face up to Russia's large army.

    "As one military officer said, a small Soviet army cannot defeat a large Soviet army," said Pavlo Litovkin, a 31-year-old resident of Kyiv. But he added that Ukraine should not imitate "Russia's methods of warfare" by throwing waves of convicts into grueling battles that many soldiers have described as a "meat grinder."

    Prisoners serving under the new law would be integrated into special units for the duration of martial law, meaning that they would not be demobilized until the end of the war. Lawmakers also said that prisoners eligible for service must have no more than three years of their sentence left to serve. The decision to mobilize and parole a prisoner will be made by a court and will require the prisoner's willingness to join the army.

    Olena Vysotska, Ukraine's deputy justice minister, told a Ukrainian news outlet Friday that in a survey of Ukrainian convicts conducted by the ministry in April, 4,500 expressed a desire to serve in the army in exchange for the possibility of parole.

    Still, the law could exacerbate heightened tensions around the issue of mobilization in Ukraine. Criticism has been growing over the harsh tactics sometimes used to conscript people and corruption issues in recruitment centers.

    Maria Karpova, another resident of Kyiv, said she found it "strange that criminals are offered mobilization based on their willingness, while ordinary people who are reluctant to go there are mobilized against their will."

    —International New York Times