The Ukrainian Parliament voted Thursday to increase the nation’s army to 250,000 troops, increasing it from the limit of 184,000 set in 2012, before the conflict with pro-Russian separatists broke out. The bill was backed by 270 of 314 members of the Verkhovna Rada parliament in Kiev.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Petro Mekhed said that additional legislation was put in place that would see the army’s size reduced in the future. "After the Anti-Terrorist Operation and demobilization, the size of the Ukrainian armed forces will be reduced in line with the military-political situation," said Mekhed, who also said that the increase was necessary to protect Ukraine from hostility by the rebels, which the Kiev government routinely calls "terrorists."
The bill's passage comes as the army readies for stage three of the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, in accordance with a February ceasefire agreement. "Over the last day, in the second phase, the Ukrainian armed forces have withdrawn 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled artillery to a certain distance. In the near future, we will start the third phase of withdrawal of heavy weapons -- if the militants comply with the peace agreements," said a spokesman for the government’s Anti-Terrorist Operation.
But the withdrawal and the ceasefire, which was signed Feb. 12 and came into force Feb. 15, remain generally fragile processes. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) , the body charged with overseeing both sides' withdrawal of weapons, has said that it has yet to gain full access to the pro-Russian weapon sites and therefore cannot conclude that the rebels are complying with the Minsk ceasefire.
This has caused Ukraine to hesitantly withdraw its own heavy weapons, a process that was supposed to start by Feb. 18. This already delicate process has been framed by reports that U.S. President Barack Obama is still considering whether or not to supply lethal aid to Ukraine. The U.S. Congress supports the idea. On Thursday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned the U.S. and Ukraine that the ceasefire would be disrupted if such weapons were supplied.
"We again warn Washington about the enormous damage [that will be done] to our bilateral relations if the residents of the Donbas are killed by U.S. weapons,” Lukashevich said. “The supply of weapons is fraught with [dangers] not only of the disruption of the ceasefire and a new escalation in the east -- they also threaten the security of the Russian Federation.”