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Civilians with no combat skills attend a National Resistance Drill Course arranged by Kyiv City Administration, in Kyiv region, on Jan. 19.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

In wartime Ukraine, young men anxious to stay off the front lines pay rapt attention to the weather warnings.

“From the village of Zavalivka, the road to Makariv is very cloudy. Snowballs are thrown at every car,” read the advice Wednesday morning on the anonymous Kyiv Summons channel on the Telegram messaging app, referring to two communities just west of the Ukrainian capital. In Kyiv itself, the channel warned, there was “rain” at several locations, including a popular grocery store and the subway station closest to the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, and “a blizzard” at a gas station on the highway north of the city.

In reality, the Kyiv region saw very little precipitation all week, and certainly no rain. But the more than 200,000 people who follow Kyiv Summons for its early morning “weather updates” – which usually arrive in a flurry between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. – know that the reports of snow and rain are in fact sightings of conscription officers looking for draft-eligible young men.

After almost two years of war, and with the larger Russian army again pressing forward along the 1,000-kilometre front line in the east and south of the country, the Ukrainian army desperately needs an influx of new soldiers. Many of those serving in the trenches have been fighting since the Feb. 24, 2022, start of the invasion. Some of their families recently staged a protest in Kyiv calling for troops to be rotated, and for other people’s relatives to take a turn in the trenches.

The number of new soldiers required – between 450,000 and 500,000 – has nonetheless stunned Ukrainian society. Much of the country had gotten used to the dangers and inconveniences of living in a war zone, where life largely goes on as normal between the air-raid sirens, while leaving the actual fighting to others.

Kyiv’s mayor worries Ukraine under Zelensky becoming increasingly autocratic

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has been reluctant to order a mass mobilization, fearing that it would look too much like the process in Russia, where young men – especially in the provinces beyond the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg – are routinely grabbed off the streets and sent straight to the war in Ukraine.

And yet, similar tactics are already being used in Ukraine. Serhiy, a 39-year-old volunteer at a non-government organization, said one of his colleagues had recently been “kidnapped” off the streets of Lviv, in western Ukraine, and sent to serve in a tank brigade in the northern Chernihiv region. “There are a lot of stories like this – but no one wants to talk about them because they want to negotiate with their brigade for good conditions,” Serhiy said.

The Globe is not revealing Serhiy’s family name because he also fears being drafted.

On Thursday, the country’s SBU security service announced it had blocked a Viber channel similar to Kyiv Summons that had been warning Lviv residents about the movements of recruiting officers.

The sensitivity of the topic has made it a political hot potato. At a December news conference, Mr. Zelensky suggested that the country’s General Staff was being unreasonable by asking for so many conscripts. After apparently being convinced of the inevitability of a new draft, Mr. Zelensky left it to the country’s parliament – which is controlled by his Servant of the People party – to draft the new laws, rather than simply issuing a presidential decree, as experts say he is constitutionally empowered to do.

A draft mobilization bill, which lowered the draft age for men from 27 to 25 and reduced the number of medical exemptions, was published on the night of Dec. 25, when many Ukrainians were celebrating Christmas. It created such a political storm – Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said some provisions potentially violated the constitution – that it was quickly withdrawn.

Defence Minister Rustem Umerov has said a new version will be submitted to parliament soon. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been forbidden from leaving Ukraine since the start of the war, although it’s possible to receive a temporary exemption. Women are exempt from being drafted, though 60,000 women have volunteered to serve, including 5,000 who have joined combat units.

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Many civilians are trying to choose how and where they would serve, rather than being press-ganged into joining.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Ukraine currently has an army of 850,000 troops, while Russia has an army of 1.3 million active soldiers and another two million reservists. Russia’s larger army gives it the ability to rotate its troops on the front line and replace them with fresh ones more often than Ukraine has been able to.

“We need to create the system which will replace our soldiers so they will actually get some rest, to recuperate. It’s a long war, unfortunately, we need to plan from this perspective,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week. “But everything should be done in a just and civilized way.”

Political analysts say Mr. Zelensky is trying to carry out a mass mobilization without being politically associated with it. “The President and his administration have largely shifted the burden of mobilization onto Zaluzhny and the military command, considering it a ratings-killer,” said Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a Kyiv-based think tank. He was referring to General Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander.

The growing possibility of being drafted was a shock to “hipsters in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities” who had thus far managed to avoid enlistment, Mr. Zalmayev said. “Hard, cold realization has sunk in that unless at least half a million get mobilized next year and get super-fast basic training and be thrown into battle around Avdiivka, then the very state may be lost.”

The assault on Avdiivka is turning into one of the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war as Russia launches waves of attacks

Avdiivka is a shattered city on the front line in the southeastern Donbas region that Ukrainian troops are slowly being driven out of by a larger Russian force. Like the destroyed cities of Mariupol and Bakhmut before it, Avdiivka has come to symbolize the horrors of the scorched-earth tactics employed by the Russian military.

Vladyslav Greziev’s job is to help potential soldiers get past such images and change the way they think about serving in the Ukrainian military. The 33-year-old heads a social enterprise that has been contracted by the Ukrainian military that connects the skill sets – and risk tolerance – of potential recruits with the requirements of specific units.

Mr. Greziev said his organization, Lobby X, seeks to help the army – an organization still trying to shake off its Soviet past – make the best use of the talents at its disposal by matching the 58,000 applications it has received with vacancies at the 300 military units Lobby X works with. He said his centre had been receiving record-breaking numbers of new applications in recent weeks.

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Vladyslav Greziev, seen here in his office on Jan. 19, is the founder of Lobby X, an enterprise which helps the Ukrainian army make the best use of the talents at its disposal by matching the 58,000 applications it has received with vacancies at the 300 military units Lobby X works with.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The new applicants, he said, were trying to take some control of their fate by choosing how and where they would serve, rather than being press-ganged into joining. “It’s very similar to the approach of a good policeman and bad policeman,” Mr. Greziev said of the services provided Lobby X, which is funded by the International Renaissance Foundation, as well as some Western embassies in Kyiv, and provides its services cost-free to both the army and would-be soldiers.

“People understood that there is no other way but to join the Armed Forces, so the best thing is to be prepared, to go for military trainings, to find the military unit that you like, that you want to serve, and a position for yourself.”

But Mr. Greziev – who served as a member of the reservist Territorial Defence Forces early in the war before deciding there was a better way he could serve his country – said he thought the 500,000 figure was unrealistic, since the army almost certainly couldn’t train so many men so quickly. Mr. Zelensky has also spoken about the economic consequences of drafting so many taxpayers away from their jobs while adding hundreds of thousands of salaries to the military payroll.

Mr. Greziev said the only way Ukraine could defeat Russia’s larger army was to make better use of its human resources than the enemy and to conduct its draft in a “modern” way. “It should be smartly developed – not just ‘we need half a million,’ ” he said. “It’s about quality. When you are serving in your chosen position, in your chosen unit, using your strengths, you will be more effective. It’s the difference between our systems – authoritarian and democratic.”

The need for the new troops reflects the situation at the front line. Russian troops are close to encircling Avdiivka after a 22-month siege, and a senior Ukrainian security source told The Globe and Mail that they were also anticipating a major Russian push toward the city of Kupyansk, in the eastern Kharkiv region.

Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, which provides strategic analysis to Mr. Zelensky’s office, said that Russia had demonstrated it has enough troops in Ukraine to hold the 15 per cent to 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory it has captured thus far. However, he said the Kremlin would need to order another large-scale mobilization of its own if it wanted to again try to capture significantly more land.

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