‘It’s about the rebirth of the nation’: Ukraine helps its troops have children amid war and demographic crisis

Clinics and the state offer free or heavily subsidised IVF and sperm-freezing services to soldiers as population falls

Soldier Nazar and wife Khrystyna are among many Ukrainian couples making use of free or heavily subsidised IVF treatment and storage of sperm and eggs for troops and their partners. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Dmytro has been fighting in defence of Ukraine for a decade and says it has left him with “several injuries, shrapnel here and there, and scars all over”.

He is due to rejoin his special forces unit at the front line this week, but on a short visit home to western Ukraine he accessed a service that a growing number of soldiers are using to help safeguard the nation’s future in another way.

Many fertility clinics in Ukraine now offer free or heavily subsidised IVF treatment to soldiers and their partners, and do not charge for freezing and storing their sperm and eggs. The state recently changed a law and pledged to fund a storage programme to allow reproductive cells to be preserved and used for up to three years after a soldier’s death.

It boosts hopes of having a family among Ukrainians going off to fight in Europe’s biggest war in 80 years, and reflects fears over a demographic crisis in a country that had 51 million inhabitants when it became independent in 1991 but which, according to some estimates, could be home to just half that number by 2050.

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“We want children. I don’t know what will happen to me, but I want my children to be in this world,” says Dmytro (42), who does not want his surname to be published for security reasons. “It’s about being part of the rebirth of the Ukrainian nation.”

Soldier Dmytro and wife Natalya. Dmytro says: 'I don’t know what will happen to me, but I want my children to be in this world.' Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

A similar phrase is used by Prof Stefan Khmil, founder of a clinic that is helping Dmytro and his wife Natalya to have a baby, in order to explain why he decided to provide free services to soldiers in the western Ukrainian cities of Lviv and Ternopil.

“More than 60 babies have already been born and more than 80 women are now pregnant through this project at our clinics,” says Khmil, who launched the initiative shortly after Russia began its full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

We have to understand that we’re all under a lot of stress at the moment. Maybe we could have children [without IVF], but doing it this way gives us one less thing to worry about

—  Natalya, wife of special forces soldier Dmytro

“We have one of the lowest birth rates in the world. For the nation to grow, each woman must have on average 2.2 babies. The level in Ukraine now is 0.7. It is the lowest figure on record for Ukraine,” he adds.

“I believe that a genocide of the Ukrainian nation is taking place. And as a Ukrainian and a doctor, I want to help with the rebirth of the nation... Many men have gone to the front line to fight, and many women have gone abroad. So the Ukrainian state should help everyone who wants to have a baby.”

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Government funding for the freezing and storage of soldiers’ sperm and eggs will begin next year, increasing their chances of having children even if they return from the front with debilitating physical or psychological trauma. Widows will also be able to have children by their deceased partners.

“It’s important that people aren’t embarrassed by this,” says Natalya (38), Dmytro’s wife.

“We have to understand that we’re all under a lot of stress at the moment. Maybe we could have children [without IVF], but doing it this way gives us one less thing to worry about. Soldiers in particular are under enormous stress, and sometimes don’t want to share their worries because they want to be strong. But it affects them.”

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February that 31,000 of the country’s soldiers had been killed in two years of all-out fighting, but many of his compatriots believe the real figure is considerably higher.

Unnamed US officials told the New York Times last August that an estimated 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and up to 120,000 wounded, while as many as 120,000 Russian troops had been killed and up to 180,000 injured.

A front-line Ukrainian soldier performing combat missions can now make more than €4,000 a month, but basic pay is only about €500, which is a little more than the national average salary. Without the kind of discounts now available to military personnel, IVF treatment can cost thousands of euro.

Yuliia Opelya, a Ukrainian, consults Prof Stefan Khmil at his fertility clinic in Lviv. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“My husband and I have been married since 2017 and we always intended to do this [have IVF],” Yuliia Opelya (30) says after a consultation with Prof Khmil.

“The procedure was pretty expensive and so we had to wait, because it was more than we could afford. But this programme for servicemen like my husband means we can do it now,” she adds.

“He’s in the national guard and could be sent to the front any time – today, tomorrow, next week – and we want so much to have a baby. I know it’s important for his parents too, because he’s their only son, and they want the family line to continue.”

Even before Russia’s full invasion pitched Ukraine into a fight for its survival, two decades of turbulent independence had shrunk its population and birth rate: several million people moved abroad to find work; unstable politics, endemic corruption and widespread poverty fuelled two pro-democracy revolutions, and then the Kremlin annexed Crimea and fomented fighting in the eastern Donbas region in 2014.

The UNHCR says there are now almost 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees around the world, most of them in European Union states, and some 3.7 million displaced people inside the country.

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A survey by the agency earlier this year found that 65 per cent of Ukrainian refugees and 72 per cent of internally displaced people hope to return home one day, but both figures were 12 per cent down on findings from 2023.

We understand that this is war and that a lot of servicemen don’t come back. So this is a chance for a woman to have a child with the man she loved

—  Nazar (28), soldier from Lviv region, on IVF

Recent developments at the front will not have encouraged many Ukrainians abroad to come home or have sparked a baby boom among those who are still in Ukraine: Russia has had the best outcomes from the fighting for more than a year, grinding slowly forward in Donbas and thwarting a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southeast last summer.

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The Kremlin’s military has not made major gains, but its advantage in industrial scale and manpower – drawing from a Russian population of 140 million – has started to tell, putting Ukraine’s defence under severe pressure and forcing it to reform and ramp up its mobilisation drive, and lower the conscription age to 25 from 27.

With little good news from the east and Ukraine’s casualty toll climbing, soldiers and their partners can draw some comfort from maximising their chances of having children at clinics like those run by Prof Khmil.

“We totally understand that, although I’m here now, I could be sent to fight in the east next week or even tomorrow,” says Nazar (28), a soldier from Lviv region who declines to give his surname.

“This service at the clinic is practically free and makes it easier for us to cope,” he says of the chance to go through IVF treatment with wife Khrystyna and freeze his sperm. “We understand that this is war and that a lot of servicemen don’t come back. So this is a chance for a woman to have a child with the man she loved.”

Khrystyna (27) holds back tears as Nazar speaks, and then says: “It’s really important that clinics are doing this. It means that couples and especially soldiers’ wives don’t feel so desperate, and we can do something now to take care of the future, and to help revive the nation.”

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