KIEV: Ukraine said Wednesday it no longer had conscripted soldiers fighting pro-Russian insurgents for the first time since a conflict that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives began in April 2014.
The announcement by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko comes as the former Soviet republic tries to form a fully professional army that can conform to NATO standards and one day join the Western military bloc.
Ukraine resumed conscription shortly after the ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 was followed by the Kremlin annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in the separatist east.
“I, as the president and commander-in-chief, can report to the Ukrainian people that now, there is not a single conscripted soldier on the front or in the area of the anti-terrorist operation,” the presidency quoted Poroshenko as saying.
Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders refer to the insurgents who control parts of its industrial heartland as ‘terrorists’ who are backed by soldiers and equipment from Russia — a charge Moscow denies.
“The armed forces of Ukraine must be fully comprised of volunteers and contract soldier who are well-prepared, motivated, trained and fully supplied.”
The announcement suggests that Ukraine does not foresee an immediate resurgence in fighting that has calmed and been limited to certain regions since an internationally mediated truce was signed in February 2015.
Conscripted soldiers who did not avoid the draft through various technicalities have been widely viewed as one of the weakest links in the Ukrainian armed forces.
The military also includes volunteer soldiers who have joined various brigades and contracted soldiers who answer to Ukraine’s interior and defense ministries.
They have a reputation for being the most ferocious fighters but have also come under criticism for committing human rights violations and torturing rebels and their supporters in the war zone.
Militia fighters have faced similar charges and Poroshenko has repeatedly vowed to investigate such allegations made by various global rights groups.
Chief of Staff General Viktor Muzhenko said 90,000 professional soldiers have enlisted in Ukraine’s armed forces since one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since the Balkans Wars of the 1990s erupted 30 months ago.
Muzhenko did not say how many professional and volunteer soldiers were currently based in the country’s east.
Kiev claims to be fighting a rebel force of 40,000 that is backed by at least 6,000 Russian soldiers.
The separatists have never divulged their military figures and also deny receiving Moscow’s support.