Today marks Ukraine’s Independence Day, its second since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, and the first celebrated during Ukraine’s touted summer counteroffensive. Much has been said about the anticipated success and realized failures of this military operation, though it must be cautioned that real-time tactical and operational analysis often overlooks long-term strategic implications.
More importantly, the focus on blood spilled on the battlefield has been a distraction from the more critical lifeblood spilling forth from Ukraine’s borders—its women and children.
Ukraine’s resolute resistance against a colossal neighbor and the unwavering spirit of a nation that refuses to bow remains an inspiration. But, amid this tableau of tenacity, a haunting image persists: destroyed neighborhoods, decimated hospitals, and deserted schools.
War is not merely about territorial gains. While the world's powers rally or waver in their support, Ukraine's leadership faces a task that transcends the immediate conflict. Yes, defending their borders and sovereignty is paramount. But equally vital is the crafting of a vision that pulls back their women and children, the heart of a nation, home. This cannot wait until the sounds of gunfire cease.
Even before the war, Ukraine was facing an aging population and a perilous decline in birth rates, with the United Nations predicting Ukraine would lose a fifth of its population by 2050. A diminished population threatens cultural identity and survival in ways that extend past trenches and beyond armed conflict, though the war has been an accelerant.
As of July 2023, more than 6.2 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded globally. Of those who fled the country, it is estimated that 90% are women and children. More horrifying, reportedly over 700,000 children have been taken from Ukraine to Russia. The very individuals who carry forward customs, traditions, and stories into the next generation have been scattered to the winds, or stolen.
Women have long been the keepers of collective memory. It is in their lullabies that history is whispered, in their tales that values are ingrained, and in their hands that traditions are shaped and passed on. Women are also powerful economic drivers and the literal bearers of future generations. Remove them, and you tear apart the fabric of a culture.
A small example is that of a young Ukrainian woman I befriended while spending time there over the last 18 months. She endured the initial invasion, bombardments, constant air raid sirens, energy shortages in the winter, and countless other major and minor horrors of a country invaded by an enemy bent on eradicating its existence. This last month posed the first opportunity she had to travel outside of Ukraine to Western Europe. She will not return east.
This story does not exist in isolation, and Ukraine understands the dual imperative of survival and revival. Regardless of a victorious Ukrainian push to Crimea or a negotiated settlement that cedes territory, Ukraine will not cease to exist as an independent nation. In that, Putin has certainly lost.
Therefore, Ukraine must know that as they rebuild infrastructure, they must build faith in a hopeful future. This requires a social compact that promises and delivers safety, stability, and a future. Ukrainian leadership and decision-makers should consider what public policies will best signal a prioritization of family life, to inspire confidence in the nation’s future.
While social welfare policies have mixed results when it comes to their effects on family formation and fertility, given Ukraine’s extenuating circumstances, the country may want to consider the extensive, albeit expensive, policies in Sweden, as a model. These wide-sweeping and comprehensive social policies were put into effect in the 1980s as Sweden struggled with projected unsustainable population decline. Their unique “speed premium” system encouraged couples to have several children quickly, one after the other, alongside permissive parental leave policies, top-notch state-funded childcare services, and other parent-focused benefits, like days off for a sick child. These policies were also uniquely crafted in a way that allowed mothers to remain in the workforce and receive benefits, a departure from other European nations like Germany. If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must be a homeland that its children want to inherit, and its women want to nurture. Without that, all is lost.
Borders are sacred, but the people within them are sacrosanct. And as the world looks at lines on a map, it's imperative to remember that a country’s soul is preserved not just by its soldiers on the frontlines but by its people. True independence isn't just about land but about preserving the essence of a nation. When the war is won, a Ukraine without Ukrainians will be a hollow victory.
Meaghan Mobbs is a senior fellow at Independent Women’s Forum (iwf.org).