Russia’s demographics make war a painful gamble for Putin

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As Russia spent much of 2021 amassing troops on its Ukrainian border, one important title almost escaped attention. As Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Ukraine, Russia suffered its biggest natural population decline since World War II, losing 997,000 people in the period of one year between October 2020 and September 2021. Although coronavirus victims in Russia were serious – and probably very underreported – it was not a one-time anomaly. Instead, it was the first glance of a longer-term trend that will manifest itself in earnest over the next decade. Russia is about to enter a prolonged and painful period of demographic decline at home, complicating its expansionist ambitions abroad.

The roots of this demographic decline lie in the 1990s and in the chaos caused by Russia’s post-Soviet transition from a planned economy to a capitalist market economy. The transition was characterized by economic turmoil, mass unemployment and alcoholism, all of this combined to briefly give Russia one of the lowest male life expectancy.. The most lasting impact, however, has been the concomitant collapse in birth rates. From 1993 to 2007, the fertility rate (defined as the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime) fell below 1.5, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population.

The effects of this dramatic and prolonged collapse in birth rates are now becoming apparent. A quick glance at the Russian age pyramid illustrates this ripple effect. There is around 12.5 million Russians between 30 and 34 years old who were born around or just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But there are an estimated 6.5 million people between the ages of 20 and 24 who were born during the chaos of the late 1990s. This smaller base of people capable of having children means the birth rate is almost. intended to drop. And that’s exactly what happened; after a brief period of natural population growth in the mid-2010s, Russia’s population started to grow again. contract in 2019. It will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

As Russia spent much of 2021 amassing troops on its Ukrainian border, one important title almost escaped attention. As Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Ukraine, Russia suffered its biggest natural population decline since World War II, losing 997,000 people in the period of one year between October 2020 and September 2021. Although coronavirus victims in Russia were serious – and probably very underreported – it was not a one-time anomaly. Instead, it was the first glance of a longer-term trend that will manifest itself in earnest over the next decade. Russia is about to enter a prolonged and painful period of demographic decline at home, complicating its expansionist ambitions abroad.

The roots of this demographic decline lie in the 1990s and in the chaos caused by Russia’s post-Soviet transition from a planned economy to a capitalist market economy. The transition was characterized by economic turmoil, mass unemployment and alcoholism, all of this combined to briefly give Russia one of the lowest male life expectancy.. The most lasting impact, however, has been the concomitant collapse in birth rates. From 1993 to 2007, the fertility rate (defined as the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime) fell below 1.5, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population.

The effects of this dramatic and prolonged collapse in birth rates are now becoming apparent. A quick glance at the Russian age pyramid illustrates this ripple effect. There is around 12.5 million Russians between 30 and 34 years old who were born around or just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But there are an estimated 6.5 million people between the ages of 20 and 24 who were born during the chaos of the late 1990s. This smaller base of people capable of having children means the birth rate is almost. intended to drop. And that’s exactly what happened; after a brief period of natural population growth in the mid-2010s, Russia’s population started to grow again. contract in 2019. It will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

This grim demographic forecast has become even more dire with the arrival of COVID-19. The Kremlin’s initial rejection of COVID-19 and efforts to spread vaccine misinformation across the West seem to have turned against them on its own population, resulting in a vaccination rate that ranks as one of the lowest in the developed world. Low vaccination rate, associated with a laissez-faire approach to COVID-19 and weak health system, have contributed to one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world. The Russian government counts 300,000 deaths, but a more reliable estimate of the Economist set the number to 1 million, giving Russia the dubious distinction of having more COVID-10 deaths per capita than any other country except Bulgaria. Russia’s recent population decline predates COVID-19, but the pandemic has done a lot to exacerbate it.

Immigration may make these demographic prospects less gloomy. Russia has long counted on immigration from the former Soviet republics to compensate for the natural loss of population in the country, and in recent years it has intensified its efforts encouraging ethnic Russians everywhere, from Ukraine to Uruguay-immigrate. But even here the future is limited. COVID-19 has detained many potential migrants grounded at home. Russia’s stagnant economy has sent others to seek economic opportunities elsewhere. Put simply, most of the people most likely to immigrate have already done so. Stimulating immigration (in itself unlikely) could mitigate Russia’s demographic decline, but cannot stop it.

This demographic reality is perhaps the biggest limiting factor in Putin’s expansionist ambitions in Ukraine for two reasons. Any invasion of Ukraine would cost the Russians dearly, the Ukrainians prepared and motivated resist the Russian occupation in a way they were not when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov made it explicit, saying that while Ukraine would undoubtedly suffer in the event of war, it “would not cry alone”. And most Russian victims would be soldiers in their twenties– members of the same small generation born in the 1990s that Russia can hardly afford to sacrifice.

The second limiting factor concerns the West’s response to any Russian action on Ukraine. Researchers are debating the usefulness of sanctions in changing behavior, but their economic impact is clear. Russia’s economy is even smaller than in 2014, when Western sanctions in response to the occupation of Crimea helped reduce GDP by more than a quarter. And the West has much more economic suffering to inflict, freeze swift russia (the system by which international banks make transfers) to cancellation of Nord Stream 2 (the pipeline delivering natural gas from Russia to Germany). These sanctions would trigger capital outflows and economic turmoil to an extent not seen since the 1990s, pushing down Russia’s birth rate when it needs it most to rise.

Rather than being purely a limiting factor, it is possible to argue that Russia’s demographic weakness has made it even more dangerous. After all, Russia’s need for more people is undoubtedly a motivating consideration for its current aggressive stance towards Ukraine, and Putin said the idea of ​​a depopulated Russia haunts him most of them, although the idea that Ukrainians would sign up to be good Russians is largely illusory. But Russia’s demographics and the long shadow of the 1990s seriously hamper what the Kremlin can do now. Russia’s future ambitions are further weighed down by its recent past.


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