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Old men belong here. How Ukrainian Armed Forces have become 40+ age army and whether lowering mobilisation age will affect combat capability

Thursday, 16 May 2024, 05:30

"A serviceman nicknamed "Did" (grandad) - father of five children and grandfather of a young granddaughter".

"Sniper ‘Did’: Young people should not go to the war; let the older ones fight".

"Continues to serve despite his age: the story of a fighter of a territorial defence unit with the nickname ‘Did’.


These are just a few of the dozens of headlines that Google offers for the search query "nickname ‘did’ in the Armed Forces".

"I don't know if anyone has researched the most popular nicknames in our army, but I'm willing to bet that "Did" will be in the top 10 or even top 5. Usually, this nickname is awarded to the oldest man in the unit. It's easy to remember and can't be confused with anyone else’s.

"The general characteristics of a "Did" are as follows: aged almost 60, served as conscript in the Soviet army (usually in Kazakhstan or the the Russian far East), where he learnt phrases and words like ‘permission to report’, ‘formation’ and ‘on duty’, hismilitary rank - private or officer, has grandchildren, treats things with care, is unhurried in everything." 

This is how the soldier and journalist Dmytro Krapyvenko begins one of the chapters of his forthcoming book, Everything in Three Letters.

While those aged close to 60 are still an exception in the army today, 40-45-year-olds are the most common group in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, according to all the soldiers Ukrainska Pravda spoke to while researching this story.

"The average age of Ukrainian soldiers is over 40, maybe even 45. Of course, this is not official statistics, but this is the situation I observe on the battlefield," Roman Kostenko, 40, secretary of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) Committee on National Security, Defence and Intelligence, tells UP. He has been fighting in southern Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion.

Ukrainska Pravda explains why the Armed Forces of Ukraine have become an army of fighters aged 40+, how this affects their combat capability, and whether the law lowering the mobilisation age to 25, passed by parliament last May and signed by the president only in April 2024, will change the situation.


Reducing the mobilisation age to 25, and why Zelenskyy did not sign the law for almost a year

In autumn 2023, then-UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called on the Ukrainian authorities to change their approach to mobilisation.

"The average age of the soldiers at the front is over 40. I understand President Zelenskyy’s desire to preserve the young for the future, but the fact is that Russia is mobilising the whole country by stealth. Putin knows a pause will hand him time to build a new army. So just as Britain did in 1939 and 1941, perhaps it is time to reassess the scale of Ukraine’s mobilisation." 

At the beginning of the Second World War, men aged 18 to 40 were mobilised en masse in the UK. Later, in 1941, the mobilisation age was raised to 60.

Ukraine took a different path - not raising but lowering the mobilisation age. After the Verkhovna Rada passed the law on lowering the age threshold, it was awaiting President Zelenskyy's signature for almost a year. UP sources who participated in the meetings of the Staff of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief said that former Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi reminded the head of state several times about this document.

"You do realise that you will still have to sign this law sooner or later, don’t you?", witnesses to the former commander-in-chief's conversations with the president told UP on condition of anonymity.

Zelenskyy hesitated. At a press conference at the end of last year, he said that the military had proposed mobilising an additional 450,000-500,000 people, including men over the age of 25. The president said he wanted to hear more arguments from the General Staff to support this move.

Not least, Zelenskyy was hesitant to sign the law because he dislikes "difficult", unpopular decisions. In addition, he estimated the cost of mobilising such a large number of people from the state budget would be around UAH 500 billion (US$12 billion).

In addition, Ukraine will face additional costs for maintaining recruits. Deputy Minister of Defence Yurii Dzhyhyr said that one soldier costs the state about UAH 1.2 million (US$ 30,000) a year. With the state budget in a critical state, the increased mobilisation of the military will provoke additional financial problems for Ukraine.

In the end, Zelenskyy signed the law. He was forced to take this step by the depletion of the Defence Forces and irreversible losses at the front. Publicly, the president justified this decision by arguing that younger soldiers in better physical shape and with knowledge of technology are needed in the war.


Whether it will be possible to significantly rejuvenate the army by mobilising 25-26-year-olds is a matter of debate, especially given such stubborn demographics.

Oleksandr Hladun, deputy director of the Institute for Demography and Life Quality Problems at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, said that 416,349 boys were born in Ukraine in 1998-1999. They are now 25-26 years old. Of course, not all of them will join the Armed Forces - some because of health reasons, and others because they have moved abroad or are living in Russian-occupied territories.

UP sources in the General Staff predict that the decision to lower the age of mobilisation to 25 could actually add around 100,000 young fighters to the Ukrainian army.

To put this figure into context, in January 2024, in an interview with the German TV channel ARD, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine had 880,000 people in the army.

Why the Armed Forces have aged

The demographic situation in the country is one of the main factors that has influenced the ageing of the Ukrainian army.

The collapse of the economy in the early 90s led to a significant decline in the birth rate in Ukraine.

Demographer Oleksandr Hladun said that in 1991, 100 Ukrainian women gave birth to 178 children. Since then, this figure has been declining; Ukraine has not managed to return to it in 33 years.

2001 was the year of the lowest birth rate in Ukrainian history since independence. Back then, 100 women gave birth to only 108 children. At the same time, the number of women of reproductive age in Ukraine did not change significantly from 1991 to 2001.

In order to avoid population decline, the number of children born to each mother needs to double to approximately 220 per 100 women.

Birth rate in Ukraine during 1991-2021 (2014-2021- excluding the temporarily occupied Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast).
Image: State Statistics Service of Ukraine. Infographic provided to Ukrainska Pravda by demographer Oleksandr Hladun

"Now the age category of men 40+ significantly exceeds those from 18 to 25 years old",  explains demographer Oleksandr Hladun.

The State Statistics Service of Ukraine estimates that in January 2022 there were approximately 1.6 million men aged 18-25 in Ukraine, compared with 5.5 million men aged 40-59. 

Gender and age structure of the population of Ukraine as of 1 January 2022 (the category of men aged 18-25 years is indicated in red).
Image: Data of the State Statistics Service of Ukraine and Assessment of the Institute for Demography and Life Quality Problems of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine infographic provided to Ukrainska Pravda by demographer Oleksandr Hladun

Of course, the figures will have changed over the two years since 2022, but this is unlikely to affect the overall picture – there are three times as many representatives of the older generation as young people. 

In addition to long-term demographic trends, the average age of Ukrainian soldiers was also influenced by situational factors. Many 30-40-year-old Ukrainians volunteered for the Armed Forces of Ukraine or were mobilised at the beginning of the war in 2014-2015 and have continued to serve, meaning that they are now 40-50.  

After the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, thousands of new volunteers, including many older people, joined them.

An army of the middle-aged: pros, cons and pitfalls

The main disadvantage of the army of the middle-aged is the physical condition of the soldiers. The older a person is, the more entries appear in their medical record. 

Yurii Fedorenko, the commander of the Achilles Battalion of the 92nd Assault Brigade, had a baptism of fire at the beginning of the Joint Forces Operation in 2014. At the time he was 23 years old and a National Guard contract soldier. Fedorenko took part in the battles in Donetsk Oblast. He was injured and was decommissioned as unfit for continued service. In 2022, he rejoined the army as a volunteer. 

"At the age of 23, my work was related to assault operations, mainly in urban development. Back then, I could carry a load of 50 kilograms over long distances, and I could recover from the effort much more quickly than I can now at the age of 33", the Achilles battalion commander told Ukrainska Pravda.

"Now I would hardly be able to carry the kind of load I did when I was 23. And imagine a 45-year-old, likely to have some medical issues by then, needing to walk to a combat position 6 kilometre away while carrying up to 50 kilograms of personal equipment", he added.  


However, serviceman and MP Roman Kostenko say a fighter's age is not the only determining factor on the battlefield. In his view, professional experience and motivation are equally important. 

"You should always take into account the speciality: a professional tank driver who has extensive experience working with equipment can be a professional tank driver in his 40s, 50s, or 60s.

"For example, my brother is a specialist technician. He is familiar with both armoured personnel carriers and tanks. Yes, he is 50 years old, but I have never met a young man who would compare with him in managing or repairing armoured personnel carriers. He makes vehicles that can’t go, go. And there are many people of his age who are similarly capable.

"On the other hand, if you're an infantryman, of course it's better to be younger. Because when you get to 40 or 50, it is impossible to be as resilient as you are at 20." .

In addition to physical conditions, older fighters are inferior to younger ones in terms of their adaptability to new conditions, speed of reaction, and ability to master new weapons and technologies. The advantages of young military personnel over older ones were cited by all the sources, including 43-year-old Oleksandr Yabchanka, the commander of the "Honour" company of the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Dr. Yabchanka joined the Ukrainian army as a volunteer. He had no combat experience.  

During the two years of the full-scale invasion, Oleksandr fought on the Lyman and Bakhmut fronts and participated in the counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast. He was wounded several times, but after treatment, he returned to the frontline each time. In March 2024, he became the commander of the Honour company. During a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda, he said that the average age of his unit's military personnel is over 40.

"Young soldiers are much better at handling modern technological weapons than ‘Didy’ (grandfathers) due to their quick reaction time and good memory". As for me, this is the main advantage of young people".

But in general, 40-50 is a reasonable age for a fighter in his opinion.  

"During the war, your readiness is much more important than the date of birth in your passport. For more than two years of fighting in difficult areas of the line of contact, I can't remember a single situation where I thought: ‘Oh, my God, I'm too old for this’".  

Yabchanka also believes that older people are psychologically more stable than young people, which is no less important than physical fitness.


Another important factor that affects the resilience of fighters is motivation.

Oleh Pokalchuk, a social and military psychologist, believes that a person's best and worst traits are aggravated under stress. However, regardless of age, two types of people, in his opinion, are the most stable psychologically. 

Firstly, patriotic people who feel like they are part of the country and are sure that they will not be there if Ukraine ceases to exist. Secondly, deeply religious people. In both cases, says Pokalchuk, it comes down to values and motivation.

 "The motivated ones launched themselves into defending the country at the beginning of the full-scale invasion", says Pokalchuk. "Some of them did the same in 2014 when there were people of different ages at the line of contact.

"The situation has changed if we talk about young people being mobilised now. Over the past ten years, so-called military-patriotic education has not been a priority. We had such a liberal, pacifist pedagogical doctrine. Anything related to calls to prepare for war was considered extremism."

How the mobilisation system in Israel works and how this experience can be useful for Ukraine

Comparing the Armed Forces of Ukraine with NATO countries is not really relevant because they are not at war. And yet, the statistics can provide information on the average age in modern armies.

The Statista statistics platform reports that the average age of British soldiers in 2023 was 31. The US army is also considerably "younger" than the Ukrainian one. The demographic report of the US Department of Defense says that in 2022 the average age of an American soldier was 28.5.

It is more useful to analyse the mobilisation experience of a country which is currently at war - for example, that of Israel, where the war has been ongoing since its foundation in 1948.

Israeli military observer Yigal Levin says that boys and girls are conscripted for an obligatory military service as soon as they turn 18. The training lasts from one month to a year and a half. The time period is defined in accordance with the profession  –  that is, a cook will be trained for a month and a combat infantryman for eight months and more.

After military service, both boys and girls are added to the army’s reserve where they remain until the age of 40 and participate in mandatory annual military training in order not to lose their combat skills. After the age of 40 the reservists can continue the service voluntarily.

"The average age of the regular Israeli army is 19-20, or 28 together with reservists", Levin told Ukrainska Pravda.

The reserve is the basis of the Israeli army. The reservists are engaged in performing combat missions when needed – this may start immediately after they finish their military service. It is important that they are only mobilised in accordance with their military specialty: intelligence members, medics or tank drivers are all mobilised in the areas in which they have been trained. 

"At the moment the regular army consists of 170,000 people out of the 7 million Jewish population of Israel [military conscription is mandatory all Jews except Orthodox Jews, but not for Arab Israelis]. In case the conflict escalates, the army may increase to 500,000 or even a bit more, after the mobilisation is announced", said Levin. .

"Reservists are mobilised for a brief period  – for instance, for a month. Then they are released home because the economy must work. Israel cannot afford to mobilise them for more than a month since the economy would collapse", Levin explains.

If a large-scale war begins, full mobilisation in Israel must end within 24 hours. It happened for the last time during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. During the attack of the Palestinian militant organisation HAMAS on Israel in the autumn of 2023, the Israeli authorities mobilised more than half of its reservists, but not all of them.


Almost the entirety of the Israeli army consists of conscripts and those mobilised who are obliged to undergo military service. Only officers and foremen are on contracts.

The situation is different in Ukraine.

Firstly, military service was officially cancelled with the new mobilisation law in April 2024. However, conscription was not ongoing during martial law.

Instead a basic version of military service was included under the same law – training, during which the conscripts will be taught to perform combat missions, handle weapons and explosives, act in the battlefield, and provide pre-medical and urgent psychological aid.

Secondly, the demographic situations in Ukraine and Israel are completely different. There are more children in Israeli families than in Ukrainian ones: the World Bank reports that in 2021 one woman in Israel on average gave birth to three children.

So it is impossible to fully replace the Ukrainian system with the Israeli one, that is to change the average age in the army from 25-60 to 18-40. This would lead to a significant reduction of the mobilisation resource.

At the same time, Ukraine could follow Israel’s example of pre-mobilisation training. Yigal Levin says Israelis start preparing for military service during their teen years.

A programme of training youth for the army, Gadna (youth battalions), is implemented in all schools for teens aged 14-18. They participate in field training, undergo complex physical training, learn to handle weapons, and get used to combat coordination.

Thanks to this practice, Israeli teens get prepared for military service in the army both physically and psychologically. Perhaps, if similar training was in place in Ukraine, society would not be so hostile towards the mobilisation of young people.


An example of how the tendency towards an ageing army can be systematically changed is the 3rd Separate Assult Brigade of Ukraine. This is one of the youngest units in the Ukrainian armed forces, and it has proven to be highly efficient on the most active fronts, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

Danyil Koval aka "Rusyn", head of the Kyiv Recruiting Centre of the 3rd Brigade, states that 60-70% of the Brigade are soldiers younger than 35, with the youngest being only 18 years old.

This was achieved through creative ways the Brigade uses to motivate young people to mobilise. For instance, it organises "Dvizhi" (Hangouts) during which experienced soldiers share their wartime stories with future recruits and give them pieces of advice.

"In most cases it is young people that come to us. Young boys are very proactive. And they are undoubtedly way better at assault actions than their older fellow soldiers. This is just physiology", Rusyn tells Ukrainska Pravda.

"The specifics of entry into combat are the following: a vehicle cannot take a soldier to the combat mission area. Therefore soldiers have to walk, and this is not an easy stroll – they are carrying ammunition and weapons which requires strength, strong joints, and stamina. In general, older soldiers are better at defensive actions while the younger ones are better at attacking assaults", he explains.  

Nonetheless, young soldiers can only strengthen the "old guard" of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It is impossible to completely replace the soldiers older than 40 in the combat zone.

There is some good news for optimists, however. Today the army is a space which is mostly free from the ageism that characterised Ukrainian society in recent decades.

"When I tried to change my occupation before 2022, they hinted during job interviews that it was too late. [I was of] respectable age, [I was] overqualified and so on. Today I have no problems with that because the majority of soldiers here are just like me", – a former designer from Kyiv recalls, smiling. He is now a 47-year-old infantryman who digs trenches near the city of Vovchansk in Kharkiv Oblast. His nickname? Of course, it’s "Did" (Grandpa).

Anhelina Strashkulych, Ukrainska Pravda 

Translation: Polina Kyryllova, Yelyzaveta Khodatska, Yuliia Kravchenko

Editing: Shoël Stadlen