In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Average Age of Ukrainian Soldiers Is Past 40 and That Could Be a Problem
Time journalist Simon Shuster has just published an article titled “Volodymyr Zelensky’s Struggle to Keep Ukraine in the Fight,” which contains three revelations that do not bode well for that struggle. First, the article reveals that Zelensky—who remains staunchly opposed to either truce or peace—is so convinced of Ukraine’s victory that one of his closest aides describes him as “delud[ing] himself.” Second, the article reveals that after his September trip to the U.S., Zelensky has been feeling betrayed by his Western allies, who he feels have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it. Last but not least, even if the West did come through with all the weapons they have pledged, “we don’t have the men to use them,” one of Zelensky’s close aides told Time’s Shuster, revealing that the average age of a Ukrainian soldier has already reached 43.1 That third revelation is, perhaps, the most consequential of the revelations that Shuster—who has been relentlessly covering post-Soviet conflicts for decades—makes in his Nov. 1 article.
The reason I think this last revelation might be the most consequential is because it shows both Ukraine’s adversary and its allies, that, on its current trajectory, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU) will have to conscript pre-pension age males in the not-so-distance future. And here’s why: Less than a month after the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022, the average age of Ukrainian soldiers was 30-35, according to FT.2 Thus, if the ageing of the ZSU’s rank-and-file continues at the rate reported between the launch of the invasion and now, then the average age of Ukrainian soldiers one year and two years from now would be 48-51 and 52-58, respectively. Thanks to the aging of Ukraine’s population, the pre-war number of 35 to 49-year-old males (a 26% share of the total male population) was estimated by the World Bank to be greater than the number of 20 to 34-year-old males (a 17% share of the total male population) in 2022.3 However, older cohorts tend to have greater health problems, especially in a country with a male life expectancy of 65, ranking 98th of 123 in the world by that metric. As the close aide to Zelensky explained to Shuster, “They’re grown men now, and they aren’t that healthy to begin with ... This is Ukraine. Not Scandinavia.”
Ukrainian soldiers are not the only ones aging in this war. While I could not find a 2023 estimate of the average age of all the Russian soldiers in Ukraine to compare with FT’s early 2022 estimate, certain circumstantial evidence indicates that it has increased. For one, had the Russian armed forces had enough rank-and-file in their late teens and early 20s, the Russian parliament would not have voted this past summer to increase the maximum conscription age in Russia from 27 to 30. Nor would the Russian parliament have taken up a bill that would increase the age limit for reservists with the rank of private or sergeant or an NCO to be eligible to be called up for active service from 35 to 40. We also know that the Russian Defense Ministry put the average age of soldiers conscripted to fight in the war against Ukraine per the national mobilization campaign launched last fall at 35 as of October 2022. That contrasts with the average age of Russian soldiers in Ukraine at the beginning of the war, which was 20-25, according to FT.4 All that said, however, hoping that the Russian armed forces will also age to a point where it becomes a problem for Russia’s war in Ukraine would likely not be a winning strategy for the Ukrainian side: Russia has a much bigger conscription pool in its population of 143.5 million compared to Ukraine’s 37.6 million.5
The rate at which Ukraine needs to conscript its older and, thus, less healthy men to replace the ZSU’s casualties could become a greater problem if, with the Ukrainian counteroffensive having run out of steam, the sides get locked in an attritional stalemate for long periods of time, which is something that commander of the ZSU Valery Zaluzhny acknowledged earlier this week. “The war is now moving to a new stage: what we in the military call ‘positional’ warfare of static and attritional fighting, as in the first world war. … This will benefit Russia, allowing it to rebuild its military power, eventually threatening Ukraine’s armed forces and the state itself,” Zaluzhny warns in a Nov. 1 commentary for U.K.’s The Economist. For now, Zaluzhny feels that he has enough soldiers, whose mobilization and training is among his top five priorities. But the longer the war goes on, the harder it will be to sustain, according to a separate Nov. 1 interview Zaluzhny gave to The Economist. “Our capacity to train reserves on our own territory is ... limited. We cannot easily spare soldiers who are deployed to the front. ... And there are gaps in our legislation that allow citizens to evade their responsibilities,” Zaluzhny writes in his commentary.
So far, the ZSU top command have been able to compensate for the aforementioned limitations of domestic training by sending tens of thousands of soldiers to be drilled in NATO countries. Interestingly, media reports indicate that the age of Ukrainian soldiers trained by individual Western countries is lagging behind the average age of the ZSU’s rank-and-file. For instance, as of February 2023, the average age of Ukrainian soldiers trained in the U.K. was estimated at “over 30” while as of June 2023, the average age of Ukrainian recruits coming through for training in the U.K. was “33-34.” As of October 2023, the average age of Ukrainian soldiers training in Europe at bases in Germany or the U.K was estimated at “35 and older,” according to Stephen Kotkin, renowned historian and visiting scholar at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Some of the volunteer trainees were considerably older, however. At least one of the Ukrainians reported in March 2023 to be training to operate Patriot air defense systems at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was reported to be 67 years old. In addition, one Ukrainian trainee that turned up in Germany was reported in August 2023 to be 71 years old.
For Ukraine to escape from the trap of a prolonged war, “we need something new, like the gunpowder which the Chinese invented,” according to Zaluzhny, who in his Economist article urged the West to help the ZSU to acquire air superiority, much-improved electronic-warfare and counter-battery capabilities and new mine-breaching technology, among other things. It could take a long time for the U.S. and its allies to supply these capabilities in game-changing quantities even if they agree to do so in spite of the fact that public enthusiasm for helping Ukraine reclaim its territory is waning. Whether the ZSU will have sufficient numbers of able-bodied personnel available by then to be trained to operate all of these weapons is an open question.
- This estimate is close to that of Ben Wallace, former U.K Secretary of State for Defense, though Wallace’s Oct. 1, 2023, estimate applies to the Ukrainian soldiers at the front rather than to all of Ukraine’s soldiers: “The average age of the soldiers at the front is over 40.”
- Compare that to the average age of U.S. military enlistees, which is 27.
- I am focusing on male recruits because the ZSU’s rank-and-file is mostly made of men. Female military servicemembers accounted for 15.5% of the personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as of 2021, according to the country’s defense ministry. As of 2021, female military servicemembers accounted for 40,000 (3.5%) of the 1.15 million-strong Russian armed forces, according to Russia’s defense ministry.
- Though, of course, one has to account for the fact that the rank-and-file of Russia’s 190,000-strong invading force mostly consisted of professional soldiers as of February 2024, but their share was diluted by the mobilization of older reservists last fall.
- Like in Ukraine, the pre-war Russian male cohort of 35 to 49-year-olds—25% of the total male population—is greater than the 20-34 year old cohort—20% of the total male population—however, Russia, too, has a low male life expectancy at 64.2, ranking 100th.
- Zaluzhny’s assessment of the state of the Ukrainian counteroffensive appears to be in sync with that of the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces and architect of last year’s successful counteroffensive, Oleksandr Syrskyi, who has described the current conditions along the 600-mile frontline as “difficult” and “challenging.”
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters.