Russia’s population has been declining at a dizzying rate for the past 30 years. The demographic trend has been steadfast since 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and Russia counted 148.2 million inhabitants within its far-reaching borders. By 2021, that number had fallen to 146.1 million, according to Russian statistics agency Rosstat. What’s even more striking is that, according to demographic projections, the country’s population will continue to fall and reach between 130 and 140 million inhabitants by 2050.
“Russia is paying the cost of the 90s,” explains Alain Blum, a demographer at the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) in France. “When the Soviet Union fell, the country plunged into a serious demographic crisis. For the first time, Russia’s mortality rate significantly exceeded its birth rate, leading to a decline in its population.” By the early 2000s, Russia had a population of only 143 million.
“Today, people of childbearing age are those who were born during that period, and there simply aren’t enough of them to drive population growth,” the researcher explains. Especially given that Russia is also facing an increased mortality rate at the moment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Childbirth policies and migration
But that’s not to say that President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, hasn’t made efforts to curb the trend. In addition to modernising hospitals and improving healthcare options, he also launched a major set of childbirth policies. “Russia has become one of the most encouraging countries in this regard,” Chalard, who specialises in population movements, points out.
“In recent years, the government has set up financial aid programmes for parents, family allowance systems, bonuses for large families…” Chalard goes on, “Not to mention very active propaganda around the issue. Putin himself regularly advocates for family values and calls on the population to have kids in his public speeches.”
At the same time, Putin has pursued a vast migration policy by opening Russian borders to immigrant workers who often come from Central Asia, facilitating naturalisation procedures for Russian speakers and giving out Russian passports to inhabitants of neighbouring countries. But these migratory movements were stopped dead in their tracks due to Covid-19.
‘Putin is obsessed’
“Putin is obsessed with this demographic issue,” says Chalard. “In his mind, the power of a country is linked to the size of its population. The larger the population, the more powerful the state.”
Following this mindset, Putin presented the demographic crisis as a “historic challenge” in January 2020, and assured his country that “Russia’s destiny and its historic prospects depend on how numerous we will be”.
In the face of this, population decline is clearly a key motivator for Russia in its war against Ukraine, Chalard and Blum agree. Ukraine has a population of 44 million people who are mostly of Slavic descent from the former Soviet bloc. For Putin, the invasion is not only about capturing territory he believes belongs to Russia, but about gaining control over a population he wants to ‘integrate’ into the country.
In its latest population census, Moscow has included the 2.4 million inhabitants of the Donbas, parts of which were administered by pro-Russia separatists before the current invasion. For several weeks now, the Kremlin has also decided to refocus its efforts in the east of Ukraine with one objective in mind: organising local referendums on potential integration into Russia.
Consequences of the war in Ukraine
Seeing as the war in Ukraine doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, could this ambition to boost population growth backfire on Putin and, conversely, worsen the demographic crisis?
“If I take Ukrainian sources into account, Russia has sent 165,000 soldiers into Ukraine. That’s nothing compared to the total population, meaning deaths from the war will have a very small impact on Russian demography,” says Chalard. “Unless the situation turns into a global conflict and forces Russia to considerably increase its troop deployment.”
“On the other hand, this demographic anxiety could explain why Moscow is somewhat reluctant to send more soldiers to the front line. The government is well aware that limiting troop losses is important, especially young ones,” the demographer adds.
But the war could also catalyse another phenomenon: Russia’s brain drain. According to the Financial Times, some 150,000 people working in new technologies have fled the country. Many of them have settled in Israel or Turkey, countries stepping up their efforts to attract this wave of workers. “Once again, the impact on countrywide demographics will be limited since the phenomenon is quite marginal. On the other hand, from an economic point of view, this [trend] could have a significant impact in a context already troubled by sanctions,” Chalard explains.
No trust, no babies
Alexey Raksha, a Russian demographer living in Moscow, is already predicting a sharp drop in childbirth over the coming months as a reaction to the war in Ukraine, but above all to the economic crisis linked to the sanctions. “During economic crises, people are less inclined to have children, which is logical,” he explains. “Trust in the future plays a key role in a country’s birth rate.”
“The war will affect births from December,” Raksha predicts. “We’ll see the effects as early as 2023. It’s going to be a bad year for childbirth in Russia. And the following year won’t be much better,” he concludes. His predictions are supported by the latest statistics from Rosstat, which reported a 5 percent drop in births in the first quarter of 2022 compared to last year.
“I think that everything will depend on who wins the war,” adds Chalard. “If Russia wins, the resulting joy could lead to a boom in births. But losing and getting bogged down in an economic crisis will have the opposide effect,” he says. “What is certain is that Putin has his back against the wall. From a demographic point of view, he has no other choice but to win.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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