Population Numbers Allow Ukrainian Military to Call Up 500,000, But Can It Afford to Keep Them?

European Portion of Commonwealth of Independent States

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Simon Saradzhyan – Jan. 11, 2024)

Since December, my colleagues at Russia Matters and I have been monitoring1 how Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and its commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi have sparred over who should assume prime responsibility for the plan to conscript up to 500,000 Ukrainians. As we watched the two employ what Sun Tzu would have described as “indirect methods” to avoid becoming the person publicly associated with the unpopular plan, we could not help wondering whether the Ukrainian authorities actually have the capacity to add (and keep) half a million to the fighting force, if the government and parliament eventually agree on a bill that would authorize such an addition.2 Here’s what I have found out in my effort to answer that question.

Ukraine’s Conscription Pool Is Deep Enough, but Russia’s Pool Is Deeper

Ukraine’s demographic resources do allow for recruiting 500,000 males3 to the fighting units of its armed forces. Ukraine had 9,307,315 men aged 25-59 in 2022, according to the World Bank’s latest data.4 However, Russia had 34,619,913 men aged 25-59 that year, according to one of the bank’s databases. Thus, if one doesn’t account for factors such as the number of Ukrainians and Russians who (a) were already serving in their countries’ armed forces; (b) had been killed or seriously injured in fighting since WB’s estimate; (c) were dodging the draft and/or had fled their countries;5 and (d) were unfit for service or eligible for other exemptions, then Russia in theory had 3.7 times more males in the 25-59 age cohort that it could draft than Ukraine could (so more than the 3:1 ratio generally required for offensives, ceteres parabuis). If one narrows the age range to 25-49, then one finds that Russia had 26,366,551 such males in 2022, while Ukraine had 6,846,754. (So, again, Russia had more than the 3:1 ratio generally required for offensives.)

If Ukraine Can Afford Maintaining the Additional Troops in Its Fighting Force Is an Open Question

Mobilized conscripts in Ukraine are to be paid 6,000 hryvnia ($157) per month in 2024. If they are deployed in the combat zone, but are not engaged in actual fighting, then they are to be paid 30,000 hryvnia ($784) a month. If they are involved in combat on the actual frontline, then they are to be paid 100,000 hryvnia ($2,616) a month, according to Ukrainian media. Thus, if all 500,000 additional conscripts are actually sent to fight, then Ukraine will have to spend $15.7 billion on salaries alone every year (unless casualties are not replaced). One also needs to keep in mind that Ukraine will also have to spend sizeable sums to train, equip and feed each of the conscripts once they have reported for duty, as well as provide treatment to those injured and compensation to families of those that are killed. Thus, Zelenskyy’s recent estimate that a mobilization of 500,000 could cost $13 billion is not unreasonable.6 In my view, a country counting on the West to plug this year’s projected budget deficit of $43 billion and which has a defense budget of $46 billion can hardly afford such a sum, unless its foreign donors decide to re-boost aid to Kyiv, perhaps, beyond 2023 levels, which is doubtful.7

Quality of Fighters Matters More Than Quantity

Obviously, a sheer correlation of personnel strengths of each side’s forces cannot serve as a reliable sole predictor of whether either side might prevail, whether they have been reinforced through additional mobilization or not. How well the newly conscripted soldiers are trained, armed and commanded matters as much, if not more. Their motivation matters a great deal as well, of course (although, past predictions that the Russian campaign in Ukraine will crumble due to the low morale of its fighting forces have not materialized, even if claims of demoralization in the Russian armed forces persist).8 The would-be Ukrainian recruits should be, at least in theory, more motivated than their Russian counterparts, given that the former defend their homeland, while the latter know they are fighting for the territory of another state, even if the Kremlin tells them this territory is all historic Russian land.


  1. See, for instance, Highlight No. 2 in the Dec. 21, 2023, issue of the Russia in Review digest and Highlight No. 1 in the Jan. 5, 2024, issue of the Russia in Review digest.
  2. The Ukrainian government introduced a bill that would authorize mobilizing an additional 500,000 conscripts to the parliament (Rada) for consideration in December 2023. The Rada published the bill, which calls for lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25, while keeping a variable maximum age for conscripted servicemen from 45 (privates) to 65 (generals), on its website on Dec. 25. However, on Jan. 11, 2024, the government withdrew the bill, which had quickly become a hot potato, with Defense Minister Rustem Umerov saying the draft law would be revamped and resubmitted.
  3. I focused on researching how many males can be conscripted because they form the bulk of the armed forces on both sides. 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, while, 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. For detailed discussion of female servicemembers’ roles in this war, see “Gender Norms Keep Russian, Ukrainian Servicewomen From Combat,” Jessica Trisko Darden, Russia Matters, Nov. 22, 2023.
  4. I chose this age cohort because the conscription bill which was published on the Ukrainian parliament’s (Rada’s) website called for lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25, while keeping a variable maximum age for conscripted servicemen from 45 (privates) to 65 (generals). For a recent assessment of the age of the Ukrainian (and Russian) soldiers that are already in active service, see “Average Age of Ukrainian Soldiers Is Past 40 and That Could Be a Problem,” Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters, Nov. 3, 2023.
  5. The exodus of refugees from Ukraine was the prime factor behind Ukraine’s population shrinking during the course of the war from 43.8 million to 28.5 million.
  6. “The mobilization of an additional 450,000 to 500,000 people will cost Ukraine 500 billion hryvnia [$13 billion] and I would like to know where the money will come from,” Zelenskyy said on Nov. 20, 2023.
  7. The flow of Western aid to Ukraine, has considerably thinned due to disagreements over funding priorities in the U.S. and Hungary’s veto in the EU, which both occurred in late 2023 and remain to be resolved. More than $110 billion in European and U.S. aid for Kyiv remains held up, according to Bloomberg.
  8. See, for instance, “Russian Troops to Abandon Frontlines Due to ‘Collapsing’ Morale: Ex-Commander,” Joe Sabala, Defense Post, Aug. 24, 2023.

The author would like to thank senior CFTNI fellow Andrew Kuchins and RM managing editor Angelina Flood for feedback on an early draft of this post.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the individuals quoted and the author. 

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