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Ukraine starts freeing some prisoners to join its military

Ukrainian billboards encouraging people to enlist in the army, in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine, on March 18, 2023.DANIEL BEREHULAK/NYT

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine has begun releasing prisoners to serve in its army, part of a wider effort to rebuild a military that has been depleted by more than two years of war and is strained by relentless Russian assaults.

Denys Maliuska, Ukraine’s justice minister, said in an interview Friday that nearly 350 prisoners had already been freed under a law enacted last week that allows convicts to serve in the army in exchange for the possibility of parole at the end of their service.

The country’s courts must approve each prisoner’s bid to enlist, and Maliuska said the judiciary was already considering most of the 4,300 applications submitted so far. Up to 20,000 such applicants, including people who were in pretrial detention, could be recruited to join the hundreds of thousands of soldiers already serving in Ukraine’s military, he said.


The policy echoes a practice widely used by Russia to bolster its forces but differs in some ways. Russia’s program is open to prisoners convicted of violent crimes, while the Ukrainian law does not extend to people convicted of two or more murders, rape, or other serious offenses.

Several Ukrainian lawmakers initially said that people convicted of premeditated murder would not be eligible. But Maliuska clarified Friday that someone convicted of a single murder could be released unless the crime was committed with aggravating circumstances such as sexual violence.

“There is some similarity, but I can’t say that this is the same as Russia did,” Maliuska said.

Ukraine had mocked Russia’s push to recruit prisoners in exchange for parole earlier in the war. But with the conflict now in its third year and with Ukrainian forces struggling all along the front line, Ukraine desperately needs more soldiers.

“The deficit of soldiers — of course, the difficulties with the draft of ordinary citizens — those were the main reasons for the law,” Maliuska said.


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in February that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the war — a figure that is well below estimates by US officials, who said in August that nearly 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed at that point.

In recent months, Ukraine has stepped up border patrols to catch anyone trying to avoid being drafted and lowered the draft eligibility age to 25 from 27. It has not drafted younger men, to avoid hollowing out an already small generation of men in their 20s, the result of a demographic crisis stretching back more than a century.

Most recently, Ukraine passed a law requiring all men of military age to ensure that the government had current details about their address and health status. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said this week that about 700,000 people had updated their details on an online platform.

Ukraine’s urgent need for additional troops has become particularly apparent since Russian forces opened a new front in the northeast of the country two weeks ago, near the city of Kharkiv. The offensive by Moscow has stretched Ukrainian forces and compelled them to redeploy units from other hot spots of the front line, weakening their defenses there.

This week, a court in the western city of Khmelnytsky said that it had freed more than 50 prisoners under the law allowing for the recruitment of inmates. It said most of the prisoners who had applied for conditional release to join the military were young men convicted of theft, and many had relatives and friends who had died in the war, motivating them to join the fight.


The move to recruit prisoners has drawn little criticism from the Ukrainian public, with many civilians and lawmakers saying convicts have a duty to defend their country like any other citizen. They have also said that joining the military to fight against Russia is a chance for redemption.

It remains unclear how Ukraine’s military will use its new recruits. The authorities said the prisoners would also be integrated into special units and that they would not be released until the end of the war.

But whether enough prisoners will join the army to significantly bolster its numbers and change the situation on the battlefield remains to be seen.

The court in Khmelnytsky said in a statement that a large number of prisoners “do not want to be released on parole” under the law. Maliuska said he expected many to wait and see what happened with the first wave of inmates joining the army.

They want to know “what is the quality of the training, whether the new soldiers and ex-inmates are satisfied, whether they’re treated properly,” Maliuska said. “That will be key.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.