Oleksandr “Almaz”, 24 years old, from Sloviansk. Before the anti-terrorist operation (ATO), Oleksandr worked as a bartender. Seeing what was happening in occupied Sloviansk, he joined a volunteer unit in June 2014. He divorced his wife because she couldn’t accept his choice. He has a young daughter. He remarried and his wife is expecting their second child.

Ukraine’s demographic crisis strains military as young men dwindle

The exodus of 800,000 Ukrainian women of childbearing age to European Union nations since the war began has further compounded the problem.

As Ukraine’s war against Russian forces rages on, the country is facing a critical shortage of young men to replenish its depleted military ranks – the result of a demographic crisis decades in the making.

Ukraine has been grappling with the lingering effects of historically low birth rates that began in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic turmoil and uncertainty at that time led to a sharp decline in births, with the average Ukrainian woman having just 1.1 children, down from 1.9 in 1991 when Ukraine became independent.

“The uncertainty affected the reproductive behavior of the population,” Oleksandr Hladun, deputy director of the Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Studies told the New York Times. “Savings vanished, and salaries became worthless in an economic depression, discouraging family planning.”

The consequences have been severe. The generation born in that era, now aged 18 to 27 years old, represents Ukraine’s smallest cohort of young adults in recent history. There are more than twice as many Ukrainian men in their 40s as in their 20s.

With its military forces battered after over a year of fighting, Ukraine has been forced to draw from this limited pool. The country recently lowered the draft age from 27 to 25, still remarkably high compared to most nations. In the United States, for example, men can be drafted starting at 18.

“The decision is taken – it’s a good one, but it’s too late,” said Serhiy Hrabsky, a colonel and war commentator. “We’re already seeing the impact on this generation.”

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have perished or suffered serious injuries since last year’s Russian invasion. Casualty rates remain high as fierce battles rage in the east. With most volunteers already serving, Ukraine has little choice but to look to conscription.

The nation’s demographic woes stretch back even further, to the mass casualties of World War I and II that left entire generations decimated or unable to have children in the early 20th century. The Holodomor of 1932-1933, a man-made famine orchestrated by Soviet policies, resulted in the death of millions of Ukrainians, with estimates from 3.5 million during a single winter. But Ukraine’s present crisis is more acute than that facing Russia, its far larger adversary.

Russia has a population nearly four times bigger than Ukraine’s 43 million, providing more potential military manpower. Russia’s post-Soviet birth rate drop was also less precipitous.

The exodus of 800,000 Ukrainian women of childbearing age to European Union nations since the war began has further compounded the problem, NYT writes. Their absence will lead to even fewer births and a smaller future pool of military-aged men.

Ukrainian refugees: blow to Ukraine’s demography, godsend for the EU

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Hladun warned. “Fewer potential mothers today mean fewer soldiers for tomorrow’s wars.”

Despite the demographic hurdles, Ukraine has little choice but to call up its dwindling cohort of young men to face battle-hardened Russian forces. Many, like 25-year-old recent recruit Andriy, have already seen their lives and dreams upended.

“I never imagined myself here,” said Andriy, previously a student in Kyiv before being drafted. “But when your country calls, you answer, no matter the cost…We may be few, but we are strong.”

The long-term impacts may be felt for decades to come through skewed demographics and population loss.

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