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Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade ride along a road in a Swedish made CV90 infantry fighting vehicle near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine on May 12, 2024.Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Ukrainian prisoners could have the opportunity to leave jail and defend their country, as the military looks for more ways to bolster its tired ranks.

Ukraine’s parliament passed a law recently that allows prisoners to join the army. It is still not clear what exact tasks Ukrainian authorities hope the new recruits will perform – and the law will not come into force until is it signed by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Not all prisoners will be allowed to join the army. Those who will not be allowed to serve include those who committed crimes against national security, murderers, rapists or people who committed sexual assault, people involved in terrorism, as well as those who committed serious corruption crimes.

Roman Kostenko, a Ukrainian MP and member of the committee for national defence, told The Globe that with this change, the Ukrainian army will be able to recruit an additional 10,000 to 15,000 people into its ranks.

Currently, about 1.2 million people are now involved in the defence of the country in the army, the National Guard and other paramilitary units, according to local media reports.

The practice of conscripting prisoners has so far been widely used by Russia, which carried out a mass mobilization of convicts from prisons in 2022. Most of them were used in the private military company Wagner, but they were also involved in other units of the Russian army.

Unlike Russia, Ukrainian legislators have introduced clear restrictions – as well as only some convicts being eligible, prisoners must have a court decision about their conditional release to join the army. The decision to sign a contract with the army has to be voluntary.

Attracting military recruits remains a challenge for Ukraine in its third year of full-scale war. At the onset of Russia’s attack, hundreds of thousands of people joined the army, which tripled in size in 2022, from 250,000 to 750,000, according to Defence Ministry figures.

However, as the war dragged on and casualties mounted, mobilization and recruitment became increasingly challenging. Ukraine has already reduced the conscription age from 27 to 25 and passed a law requiring all men aged 18 to 60 to update their details at regional recruitment centres.

The total losses for Ukraine during the war amounted to 31,000 killed, Mr. Zelensky recently said, although according to U.S. estimates, about 70,000 people have been killed. In addition, losses for any army include the wounded, which, according to U.S. estimates, is between 100,000 and 120,000 people.

All mobilized Ukrainian soldiers, according to martial law, do not have the right to leave service during wartime.

Major Miroslav Gai of the First Special Forces Brigade of the Ground Forces has been involved in the fight since 2014, and has experience recruiting former prisoners into the army.

When it comes to integrating prisoners into the army, there are a couple of options. A handful of former prisoners could join existing units, or they could form a separate unit.

Maj. Gai would prefer to see the former prisoners welcomed into existing units.

“They need to be introduced into active battalions. Among the military, they will accept general rules of behaviour. And if they form separate detachments, they can transfer there their habits and manners of their social group, which is not necessary for the army,” he said.

“If these are people who have committed minor crimes, they need to be given the opportunity to fulfill their duty of defending their homeland,” Maj. Gai said.

Mr. Kostenko, however, said he believes there could be some benefit to having them create a separate unit. And, he said, he is sure that experienced officers would know how to manage separate units.

Mr. Kostenko said attracting recruits is vitally important for the Ukrainian army because soldiers who have been at the front for more than two years are tired mentally and physically.

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