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Can Ukraine Find New Soldiers Without Decimating a Whole Generation?


The roughly one million men who serve in Ukraine’s army are battered and exhausted. Many soldiers have been on combat duty for two years. Tens of thousands have been lost to death or serious injury. New recruits are desperately needed.

But Ukraine is running up against a critical demographic constraint long in the making: It has very few young men.

Healthy men under age 30, the backbone of most militaries, are part of the smallest generation in Ukraine’s modern history. Ukraine must balance the need to counter a relentless Russian offensive by adding more troops against the risk of hollowing out an entire generation.

President Volodymyr Zelensky took the politically painful step earlier this month of lowering the draft age to 25 from 27 — still remarkably old by the standards of most military drafts. In the United States, for instance, men can be drafted beginning at age 18.

Ukraine’s reluctance to lower the age still further reflects the lingering impact of history. The causes of the current demographic problem stretch back more than a century.

1990

Age102030405060708090100 200,000 400,000 Men at each ageBorn in WW2Born in WW12040

The effects of World Wars I and II in Ukraine were still visible well into the 1990s: Fewer babies were

born during each conflict

, leading to two smaller generations of adults.

Those declines

rippled across generations

and restricted Ukraine’s population decades later.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made a small generation even smaller, as

birthrates plummeted

during an economic depression.

The sharp decline lasted for more than a decade, resulting in the

smallest generation

in Ukraine’s recent history.

Boys born then are now 18 to 27 years old,

prime fighting age

. But there are more than twice as many men in their 40s as in their 20s in Ukraine.

The

previous draft

largely shielded the younger generation. But the 25- and 26-year-olds who are

now eligible

for conscription are right in the middle of it.

Source: U.N. World Population Prospects

Age estimates are from 2022 modeling by the United Nations and include rough estimates for deaths and mass emigration during the current war.

Ukraine’s steep decline in birth rates during the first decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union is not unique. Similar drops were seen in many post-Soviet states, including Russia. Economies cratered, and mortality rates rose sharply in an older generation of men, mostly from untreated cardiovascular disease, alcoholism and workplace trauma.

But Ukraine’s wartime demographic challenge is much worse than Russia’s. Russia has nearly four times as many people overall, giving it a larger pool of men to draw from. And the fall in birth rates — the average number of children born to each woman — was steeper in Ukraine, leaving a smaller pool of young men relative to the rest of the population.

In the 1990s, uncertainty about the future loomed over life in Ukraine, as savings vanished and salaries became worthless in an economic crisis. That uncertainty “affected the reproductive behavior of the population,” Oleksandr Gladun, the deputy director of the Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Studies, said in a telephone interview.

In the year Ukraine gained independence, 1991, Ukrainian women on average had 1.9 children. A decade later, the birth rate had dropped to 1.1 children.

When those children reached their 20s, the effect of their smaller numbers was felt first in the labor force — and then far more consequentially after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Mr. Zelensky’s decision to draft men starting at age 25 risks further diminishing this small generation of Ukrainians. And many of the limited pool of 25- and 26-year-old men — about 467,000, according to a 2022 government estimate — are already serving in the military, living in occupied areas or outside Ukraine. Others have jobs or disabilities that exempt them from conscription.

Ukrainian leaders believed they had no choice but to lower the draft age.

Casualty rates in the war against Russia are high. Most men who wanted to volunteer for the military have already done so.

It is unclear how quickly Ukraine will draft and train the additional troops it needs, or whether they will be ready before the broader Russian offensive that is expected in the spring or summer.

“The decision is taken — it’s a good one, but it’s too late,” said Serhiy Hrabsky, a colonel and a commentator on the war for the Ukrainian news media.

Already, the implications of the war for the next generation of Ukrainians are becoming clear. The number of births dropped by nearly half from 2021 to 2023.

One important factor behind the decline, demographers say, is that about 800,000 Ukrainian women between the ages of 18 and 34 fled to countries in the European Union, according to Eurostat. For now, the absence of women is playing a larger role in Ukrainian demographics than the conscription of men.

But the lower draft age risks shrinking a small generation even more. And in occupied areas of the country Russia is conscripting Ukrainian men to fight against Ukraine, starting at age 18.

The outlook for future births, said Mr. Gladun, the demographer, now depends on both factors: how many men die at the front in the war and how many women return from Europe. But Ukraine has little choice, he said, but to call up younger men for the depleted army.

“What can we do?” he said. “It’s war.”


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