The destiny of the Ukrainian nation has always been closely tied to its demographics. Decades of Soviet rule have been associated with efforts to erase Ukraine’s ethnic identity and bind the country more closely to Russia. The war between Russia and Ukraine, which has been raging since 2014, began as a demographic conflict over control of the Russified areas of Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. Putin’s full-scale invasion of the country, launched in February 2022, marked a culmination of Russian efforts to dismantle not just Ukraine’s claim to independence, but its very status as an independent ethno-linguistic community. The Ukrainian nation is waging a struggle for survival, in which demographic stability is at least as important as guns or bullets.
After the failure of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the summer of 2023, the hope of a swift end to the conflict had dissipated. Ukraine and Russia are headed either for a war of attrition, or for an uneasy armed ceasefire. Either way, Russia will continue to pose a threat to Ukraine over the long-term, which means that the balance of human resources between the two nations will become increasingly crucial. Russia’s large edge in population size and fertility rates means that it is positioned more favorably for a protracted conflict. To compensate, Ukraine will be forced to mobilize its limited manpower more effectively and take steps to stall population decline. This is not just a matter of victory in the current war, but of long-term strategic security.
TOWARDS A LONG WAR
In the early summer of 2023, Ukraine launched a counter-offensive with the hope of achieving a breakthrough in the southern section of the front. The operation was spearheaded by reserve forces, spared from the attritional battle around Bakhmut in the winter and spring, and equipped with Western kit. Under the most optimistic scenario, the counteroffensive promised a decisive thrust towards the Black Sea, bisecting the Russian frontlines, enveloping large concentrations of enemy forces, and potentially forcing Putin to the negotiating table. Despite high hopes, the counteroffensive failed to penetrate Russian lines, and descended into the same brutal, grinding struggle that had become so characteristic of the whole conflict. With winter approaching, and Ukraine’s offensive effort spent, the hope of a swift victory seems more remote than ever.
In part, the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive can be traced back to the limited supply of Western equipment. However, perhaps more significantly, the outcome reflects changes in the very nature of modern warfare. Improvements in sensor technology — mainly satellites and drones — have led to a massive increase in reconnaissance capabilities, rendering surprise breakthroughs almost impossible. Penetration of enemy defensive positions is only possible through massive numerical superiority, which has now become unattainable for the Ukrainian Army. Russia’s mobilization effort — albeit limited, and haphazardly executed — largely resolved its manpower shortages. Meanwhile, Ukraine is finding it ever more difficult to replace losses. The confluence of technological and demographic factors has made it impossible for Ukraine to achieve local superiority of forces at a decisive point. As a result, the conflict is headed for a war of attrition, in which manpower will play an increasingly key role.
THE DEMOGRAPHIC BALANCE AT THE START OF THE WAR
Russia has a massive edge over Ukraine both in total population, and in mobilizable manpower. As of 2022, Ukraine had a population of 44 million compared to Russia’s 144 million — a ratio of 33%. Since the breakup of the USSR, both countries have suffered population decline; however, in Ukraine, the trend has been considerably more drastic. Between 1991 and 2020, the nation’s population declined from 51.5 million to 44.3 million. These figures do not reflect the loss of the several million citizens of Crimea and the Donbas — a direct transfer of demographic resources to Russia. Aside from territorial occupation, the main causes of Ukraine’s demographic crisis are low fertility rates, and high emigration. A disproportionate number of emigrants are young men, leaving for the West in search of economic opportunities. All this means that Ukraine’s population has a high average age, and a low share of fighting-age males.
Similarly to Ukraine, Russia has faced long decades of below-replacement fertility rates. However, Russia has managed to stabilize its fertility decline by introducing a slew of economic incentives, intended to encourage family formation. Russia has also managed to retain relatively stable population numbers by attracting migrants from post-Soviet states — including Ukraine — and seizing vulnerable territories along its frontiers — not just Eastern Ukraine, and Crimea, but also Chechnya, Abkhazia, and south Ossetia. It has an edge not only in overall population size, but in general demographic stability. The disparity in mobilizable manpower between Russia and Ukraine is even wider than the disparity in raw population size. As of 2020, Ukraine’s population of fighting age men was at around 26% of Russia’s. Russia draws a disproportionate share of its troops from its remote ethnic enclaves — most visibly Chechnya, but also Dagestan, or Tuva — which have high fertility rates and young populations. This has allowed Putin to prosecute his war while minimizing conscription-related political tension in metropolitan areas.
At the start of the war, the effective size of the Russian Army was 700,000-800,000, with 2 million former conscripts and contract servicemen in reserves. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Army had 200,000 active personnel, and an additional 200,000 reservists. Despite this, in the first months of the war, Ukraine actually held an edge in terms of manpower in the field. Russia expected the Ukrainians to offer little resistance, and the initial invasion force numbered just around 190,000 men, dispersed widely along three axes of advance. Even after the failure of the initial invasion, Russia has been extremely reluctant to mobilize further troops due to the political risks, leaning instead on a patchwork force of regular troops, private contractors, national guard forces, and soldiers from the separatist states in the Donbas. However, as the war progressed, Russia has become less reluctant to tap into its vast manpower resources, gradually shifting the numerical balance on the frontlines in its favor.
THE TIPPING POINT
The demographic dimension of the war in Ukraine is defined by two fundamental asymmetries. In population size, and in mobilization capacity. Ukraine is at a disadvantage in the former area but holds an edge in the latter. The war that has been raging in the Donbas in 2014 has forged a strong sense of defensive patriotism among Ukrainians and strengthened the Ukrainian state’s capacity to marshal resources for war. Ukraine’s edge in fielded manpower in the first months of the war is largely traceable to the combination of these factors, and, perhaps most importantly, to the administrative, and political weakness of the Russian state, which has proven unable to match Ukraine’s mobilization effort despite possessing vastly superior demographic resources.
Ukraine’s superiority in fielded manpower has been key in securing perhaps its greatest operational success of the war — the Kharkov counteroffensive in the fall of 2022, which saw Ukrainian forces penetrate Russian lines in the northern section of the front, and rapidly liberate a large swathe of territory. Due to the shortages of manpower, Russia’s frontlines were left only sparsely manned, and could thus be penetrated by Ukrainian mobile spearheads. The Kharkov counteroffensive has served as a wake-up call for Russia. Since late 2022, Putin’s mobilization effort has tipped the numerical balance against Ukraine. According to reports from the Ukrainian intelligence services, up to 300,000 recruits have joined the Russian Army in 2023. Russia’s manpower crisis has been resolved without a major political blow to Putin’s regime.
Since the beginning of the war, up to 70,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed in action, with another 100,000 wounded. Russian losses are likely significantly higher than Ukraine’s, but insufficiently so to compensate for the underlying imbalance in manpower. Ukraine’s casualties are significant not only in quantitative terms, but also in qualitative terms. The battle-hardened core of the Ukrainian Army, forged in the frontier battles in the Donbas, has now been eroded by attrition, and replaced by less experienced recruits. Meanwhile, Russian troops are also gaining frontline experience. The gap in troop quality, so wide at the beginning of the war, is swiftly narrowing. The erosion of Ukraine’s quantitative and qualitative edge has gone hand in hand.
THE RUSSIAN INVASION AND DEMOGRAPHIC DISLOCATION
The war has had devastating effects on Ukraine’s demographics even outside the battlefields. The most apparent of these has been the surge in emigration. As of March 2023, about 4 million Ukrainians — mostly women and children — resided in the EU under its temporary protection scheme. An additional 2.8 million Ukrainians had either fled — or were forcibly deported — to Russia. In the first months of the war, over 200,000 fighting-age males returned to Ukraine from the West to serve in the armed forces. As the outflow of young men from the country was limited under martial law, the short-term flows of migration did in fact likely have a net positive impact on Ukraine’s capacity to fight the war, increasing the supply of militarily available manpower. Over the long term however, Ukraine’s prospects remain grim.
According to the Ukrainian Border Guard, 6,100 fighting-age males were caught fleeing the country as of September 2023. As Ukraine’s mobilization drive intensifies, and the country is forced to tap increasingly reluctant segments of the population, these figures will likely increase exponentially. As the war drags on, the likelihood of refugees returning is also declining sharply, as Ukrainians in the West settle into their new lives. Ukraine’s already extremely low fertility has plummeted sharply in the wake of the invasion, falling from 1.2 children per woman in 2021, to 0.9 in 2022. Ukraine’s estimated fertility rate for 2023 is even lower — just 0.7 — and the low figures are likely to persist until the war ends. As the conflict winds down, a modest recovery is to be expected, but it is highly unlikely to make up for wartime decline.
According to the Council of the European Union, the Ukrainian population is estimated to shrink by approximately 24-33% by 2030. Death of the nation’s young men and, increasingly, as manpower shortages intensify, also women, on the frontlines, and their migration to the West, means that the population decline will be concentrated in economically and reproductively active demographics. In the wake of the war, Ukraine’s population will be characterized by a growing share of the sick, disabled, traumatized, and elderly. The decline in the quantity and quality of population is bound to worsen the prospects of economic recovery and undermine Ukraine’s military preparedness.
ISRAEL ON THE DNIEPER
Ukraine’s demographic crisis will be the crucial security challenge facing the nation in coming years, and decades. To tackle it, Ukraine should focus on two main objectives: improving its capacity to mobilize available manpower, and reversing population decline. To tap more effectively existing reserves, Ukraine could adopt a more forceful approach to conscription by raising the legal and financial sanctions for avoiding service, and strengthening enforcement; however, the benefits of similar measures will likely be only limited — forcing men into uniform against their will would erode morale, introduce political instability, and put increased strain on the state to tackle emigration. Ultimately, the more effective approach is not increasing coercion, but establishing a system of national mobilization, which maintains economic sustainability and political cohesion by enlisting a wide segment of the civilian population on a limited-term basis. To achieve this, Ukraine could take inspiration from the nation-at-arms approaches of Finland or Israel, by establishing a force of reservists, encompassing most of the fighting-age population — both male and female –, and organized around a core of professional troops. This system would provide Ukraine with a large reservoir of trained manpower, while reducing the political tensions associated with its current conscription model.
In the long-term, Ukraine’s security can only be assured by addressing the root cause of its demographic crisis — low fertility rates. Reversing fertility decline is notoriously difficult, and examples of success are few and far between. In this area, Israel once again emerges as a role model as the only developed country that has managed to retain a stable fertility of 2.9 children per woman — solidly above replacement level. Israel’s success is in part a product of aggressive pro-natal policies; aside from providing generous benefits to families, the country also sponsors IVF treatments, and even retrieves sperm from its fallen troops to preserve their bloodlines. The second pillar of Israel’s fertility success is cultural — the combination of religiosity with a sense of ethnic cohesion. For Israel — like for Ukraine — demographics are seen as linked with security — the survival of the Jewish community in the Middle East rests on its demographic stability.
In the cultural sphere, Ukraine is relatively well-positioned to replicate the Israeli model. Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 has further consolidated Ukrainian patriotism and added a dimension of an existential struggle for national survival; thus, like in Israel, childbearing can be framed as a patriotic duty. Similarly to Israel, Ukraine is also staunchly religious, and socially conservative — two factors that tend to correlate with high fertility. Ukraine is less prepared to shoulder the fiscal burdens of pro-natal policies. The country is relatively poor, and its fiscal capacity is strained by the duties of caring for its aging population, and the impacts of the war. Under such circumstances, the implementation of generous pro-natal programs is hard to imagine. Indeed, Ukraine’s grim economic prospects are the main barrier to reversing its fertility decline, not just in fiscal terms, but even more significantly, because the country’s economic trajectory will affect the willingness of young men and women to stay and raise families in the country.
Perhaps the most important factor in Israel’s demographic success story is immigration — since its founding, the country has managed to draw millions of diaspora Jews from overseas to raise its population. In many ways, Ukraine today faces the same challenge as Israel in the wake of WWII — reunifying its population, scattered across the world, and enlisting it to build up and defend the country. To achieve this, Ukraine must first demonstrate that there is a future to be had for young men and women in the country. However, building this future is impossible as long as Ukraine’s economically and reproductively active demographics flee to the West. The nation is locked in a vicious cycle of demographic decline that will be impossible to reverse in the absence of large-scale assistance from the West.
THE ROLE OF THE WEST
As manpower increasingly becomes the decisive factor in the Ukraine War, the role of the West will be somewhat diminished — the EU and the US can supply Ukraine with ammunition and kit, but not with men. Ukraine’s failed summer offensive indicates that Western equipment will not be its saving grace, especially if it runs out of the troops to man it. This does not indicate that a technological and quantitative edge in kit is irrelevant — Western equipment can save the lives of many Ukrainians and shift the casualty ratios more in the AFU’s favor. However, at the end of the day, Ukraine will have to fight and win its war of attrition against Russia on its own.
Nevertheless, the West has a key role to play in facilitating the demographic stabilization that will be crucial to Ukraine’s long-term security. Over the short- to medium-term, the country’s demographic prospects depend on its ability to stem and reverse the flow of emigration, which in turn depends on the trajectory of Ukraine’s economic recovery. By accelerating commercial integration, and offering financial assistance to rebuild damaged infrastructure, the West could accelerate post-war reconstruction. The West should also consider providing aid that is directly targeted at subsidizing Ukraine’s social system, to enable the nation to implement pro-natal and pro-family policies. This will have a positive short-term effect of encouraging young families, torn apart by the war, to reunite in Ukraine, instead of abroad; over the long-term, it could potentially enable a reversal of Ukraine’s fertility decline.
TOWARDS VICTORY AND LONG-TERM SECURITY
In an interview for The Economist, General Zaluzhnyi, the leader of Ukraine’s war effort, drew a comparison between the Ukraine War and the First World War, arguing that technology will be key to achieving a breakthrough. However, although Allied victory in 1918 was partially enabled by new weapons systems — tanks and aircraft — the path to triumph was ultimately paved by long years of grinding attritional warfare, gradually eroding German strength. Ukraine’s struggle for national liberation will be no different. Contrary to hope, Russia has proven to be remarkably resilient — victory will only come through material and human attrition. Ukraine is waging an existential battle that is likely to last for years, if not decades, and will be decided in the cradles, as much as on the battlefield. The only path to long-term security lies in demographic stability. The West should take maximal steps to support Ukraine in this struggle — with the lines of a new Cold War drawn, and Russia aligned against the EU and the USA, Ukraine has become the frontline of a global conflict, and its demographic situation a matter for concern for the whole Western coalition.
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Written by Matyáš Knol