The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Missing Generation

Jun 3, 2024

In mid-May, the Russian army opened up a new front in its war in Ukraine. It launched a surprise offensive in the northeastern region around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Thousands of Russian soldiers punched through the northern border. In order to defend new positions, the already severely undermanned Ukrainian army rushed in thousands of new troops from other battlefields.

This latest Russian offensive is exploiting one of the Ukrainian army’s main vulnerabilities: its severe lack of fighting soldiers. In the news media, this is always explained by the fact that Ukraine has a population three times smaller than Russia. But what this explanation ignores is the fact that the Ukrainian population has completely collapsed, going from 53 million people in 1991 to 36 million people today. And that collapse didn’t just start with the hardships and devastation from the war. It began over 30 years ago, in the wake of the break-up of the former Soviet Union, that is, when Ukraine became independent, an event hailed in the West as something supposedly extremely fantastic. They called it the “Velvet Revolution.”

This underlines the fact that the break-up of the former Soviet Union was a catastrophe for the population of Ukraine, even more than that of Russia. Since Ukraine’s economy had been completely integrated with that of Russia and the other parts of the former Soviet Union, the break-up led to its complete disorganization. At the same time, the break-up opened up the country to the plunder and robbery of the Ukrainian bureaucracy left over from the Soviet days, a few of whom turned themselves into oligarchs suddenly worth billions of dollars. Ukraine’s economic plunge made it the poorest country in Europe. This economic catastrophe was then made much worse by civil war that began in the eastern part of Ukraine in 2014, and morphed into a full-scale war in 2022, with the Russian invasion.

Of course, this catastrophe at every level was encouraged and pushed by the U.S. and the West, who from the start aimed to use Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe, with enormous natural resources and heavy industry, as a tool to weaken Russia.

But the country became so unlivable, big parts of the population simply fled—more than 10 million before the outbreak of the war. This too benefited capitalists in other countries by providing them an extremely low wage workforce, who they could super-exploit. At the same time, the birthrate inside Ukraine plunged to one of the lowest on the planet.

Thus, today, there is an entire generation that is missing in Ukraine, a generation that practically doesn’t exist. That is why, today, the draft age in Ukraine starts at 27 years old and goes all the way up to 60 years old. There just aren’t enough young men at the usual draft age of 18 to 21 who exist.

Early in the war, the Ukrainian army was able to rely on volunteers who flooded into recruitment offices. But there have been few new recruits to take the place of the tens of thousands of soldiers killed and hundreds of thousands of wounded, no longer able to fight.

The Ukrainian government has carried out all kinds of measures to try to fill those ranks. Recruiters have set up checkpoints in the street, stopping fighting-age men, often detaining and beating them for days until they sign enlistment papers. Videos circulate online showing young men running from military recruiters in cities across the country. At the same time, the Ukrainian government has threatened draft age men living abroad with loss of citizenship, unless they return to the country and fight in the war.

So, the Ukrainian military has left those soldiers who remain to continue to fight without a break after two-and-a-half years at the front. In response, the wives and mothers of soldiers have been organizing protests in Kyiv. “The state has sacrificed our husbands, forgotten them,” Olha Denysenko, 35 years old, told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Professional Ukrainian soldiers say that what are especially lacking are young men, since many of those who have been drafted are middle-aged.

“You can’t fight with old men,” said Ihor Belous, a 31-year-old who has been in the military for 12 years, to the Wall Street Journal. Now, many of his comrades are in their 40s, he said, and need more time to recover from each mission. But they are not getting that time. Thus, even if they survive the war, their lives are being destroyed.

This is not their war. It is a war in which the Ukrainian people are being used as pawns by the big imperialist powers, starting with the U.S., in their big power rivalry with Putin and the Russian oligarchs. And it is also a war that shows all the signs of growing into a much bigger conflagration, as the Biden administration has made it clear that its missiles and artillery shells will be used to bombard Russian territory in order to slow or halt the Russian incursions.