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Zelensky signs law lowering draft age to 25 in bid to boost military ranks

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KYIV — Ukrainian men as young as 25 can now be conscripted into military service after President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a new law Tuesday lowering the draft age — a bid to replenish Kyiv’s badly depleted troop ranks more than two years into Russia’s invasion.

Lowering the conscription age, which had been 27, was the most significant measure in a mobilization draft bill that has already seen thousands of amendments in parliament since the start of this year. Although citizens can voluntarily join the military starting at age 18, and men between 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country under martial law, the draft has until now protected younger men — many of whom are students — from being forcibly mobilized.

Discussion over who and how many people to mobilize has been divisive in a society that has otherwise been united by a common Russian foe. Although support for the military is extremely high among Ukrainians, few people who haven’t already volunteered to fight want to. Meanwhile, Ukrainian commanders have said they are in desperate need of reinforcements, especially in the forwardmost positions. Some soldiers have been fighting for more than two years with few breaks.

Zelensky has expressed reservations about mobilizing up to 500,000 troops — the number his former military chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, recommended. Most crucially, Zelensky said, Ukraine lacks the funds to pay so many new conscripts.

Zaluzhny’s replacement, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said in a recent interview that the number of people Ukraine will need to mobilize “was significantly reduced” from 500,000. He also plans to establish more regular rotations away from the front for the most combat-weary units, he said.

“It is necessary to take into account the fact that people are not robots,” Syrsky said. “They are exhausted, physically and psychologically, especially in combat conditions. For example, those who came to military recruitment centers in February 2022 — these people need rest and treatment.”

But some believe Ukraine’s minimum draft age should be lower. The last time the United States and Britain had conscription, for example, the minimum age was 18. The average age of Ukraine’s troops is over 40, and “it is very unusual to have your wars fought by your dads,” Gen. Richard Barrons, former commander of the British military’s Joint Forces Command, said recently. Younger men tend to be in better physical condition, he added.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), while on a visit to Kyiv last month, also called on Ukrainian lawmakers to pass measures that would widen the field for mobilization.

“I would hope that those eligible to serve in the Ukrainian military would join. I can’t believe it’s at 27,” he told reporters. “You’re in a fight for your life, so you should be serving — not at 25 or 27.”

“We need more people in the line,” he said.

In addition to lowering the draft age, Zelensky also signed a law Tuesday that will establish an electronic database of military-age men. According to the measure, the Defense Ministry will receive data on citizens ages 17 to 60 years old, which are contained in various state registers, and individuals’ consent for the processing of personal data is not required.

Volodymyr Ariev, an opposition lawmaker from the European Solidarity Party, who has opposed such a system because of privacy and security concerns, said lawmakers are still debating the exact rules the e-cabinet would impose, with current amendments suggesting that registration should be optional.

The law that changed the draft age from 27 to 25 was adopted last summer, Ariev said, “but this is [an] unpopular step so Zelensky didn’t dare enough to sign it.” Although citizens age 18 and older can sign up for the military voluntarily, lowering the draft any further could be “very unpopular among Zelensky supporters,” Ariev said.

With Ukraine short on manpower and weapons, Russia has regained the battlefield initiative of late. Zelensky has pleaded with congressional leaders to urgently pass the White House’s requested $60 billion package for Ukraine’s war effort. On Sunday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said that the funding, which has been blocked for months, could be put to a vote next week after the Easter recess.

In a Fox News appearance, Johnson said the bill would contain “some important innovations” — perhaps loaning the money to Ukraine. “If we can use the seized assets of Russian oligarchs to allow the Ukrainians to fight them, that’s just pure poetry,” Johnson said.

If the aid does get passed, boosting Kyiv’s air defense capabilities is believed to be at the top of the wish list amid increased bombardment from Russia. On Tuesday, a missile attack on the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro injured at least 18 people, eight of whom were hospitalized, the head of the Dnipropetrovsk region military administration, Serhiy Lysak, wrote on the Telegram app.

The attack damaged an “educational institution,” Lysak said. “Fortunately, all the children were in shelter at the time of the impact. This saved the health and, perhaps, the lives of boys and girls.”

Also on Tuesday, Ukrainian drones attacked two enterprises in Tatarstan, in central Russia, including an oil refinery — some 750 miles from Russia’s border with Ukraine — the Russian news agency TASS reported, quoting local officials.

The drones struck a dormitory, but they did not seriously damage the refinery, officials said. At least 13 people were injured. Ukraine was “continuing its terrorist activity,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Siobhán O’Grady and Serhii Korolchuk in Kyiv, David Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, and Catherine Belton in London contributed to this report.

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