“One hundred and forty-six million [people] for such a vast territory is insufficient,” said Vladimir Putin at the end of last year. Russians haven’t been having enough children to replace themselves since the early Sixties. Birth rates are also stagnant in the West, but in Russia the problem is compounded by excess deaths: Russians die almost a decade earlier than Brits. Their President is clearly worried that he’s running out of subjects.
It’s a humiliating state of affairs because Russian power has always been built on the foundation of demography. …
In the First World War,… numbers were not enough to compensate for Russian industrial and organisational inferiority. But by the Second World War, Russia’s numeric superiority had exploded. … Ultimately it was the endlessness of Russian manpower which ground down the Wehrmacht in what was perhaps the most epic military struggle of all time. Field Marshall Erich von Manstein complained as he faced Russia’s armies: “We confronted a hydra: for every head cut off, two new ones appeared to grow.”
But if demographic prowess buttressed Russian power then, population decline has undermined it in the years since. Most nations have developed out of the high birth and death rates seen throughout most of human history: as mortality and then fertility falls, first the population expands, then it flattens; eventually, it may contract. But in Russia this process has taken place with a vengeance.
At the time of its dissolution, the Soviet Union was the home of 290 million people, 50 million more than the USA. Today, the Russian Federation has less than half that number — and less than half of the USA’s current total. In large part, this is the result of the loss of non-Russian republics, including Ukraine (which at the outbreak of the current conflict had a population of 43 million).
But in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period, the country also collapsed into an orgy of suicide and alcoholism, particularly affecting the country’s men. … By the early years of this century, life expectancy for Russian men was on par with countries such as Madagascar and Sudan.
Meanwhile, Russian women were having fewer and fewer children. In the later decades of the Soviet Union, the average woman in the Slavic heartland had an estimated six or seven abortions in the course of her life. The populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia were booming, though, undermining Russians as the USSR’s majority ethnicity.
This proved especially corrosive in the military. Year after year, the share of recruits from the peripheral republics went up, while the share from Russia went down; in the late Eighties, three-quarters of recruits from Central Asia could not speak Russian. …
A very important effect of demography on politics:
It’s also worth recognising that the Russian men who fell fighting the Germans in the Forties were from families of six or seven siblings; those who fell fighting the Afghans in the Eighties were from families of two or three. Those falling now, fighting in Ukraine, are likely to be only-children or one of two siblings.
The preparedness of a society to sustain military losses falls as family size falls; the only conflicts in today’s world that go on and on for years — from Libya to Syria to Yemen to Congo — are in places where the men who die have many brothers. …
At around 1.5 children per woman, Russia is still dwindling. In the next decade, Russia’s population is forecast to decline by around 300,000 a year, though some suggest the decline will be much faster — perhaps 12 million in the next 15 years.
This steady depopulation is more than a nuisance; it is a strategic headache. Russia’s immense size was supported by the preparedness of its people to settle in some of the most inhospitable habitats in the world. As it reduces, it retreats back towards the big cities of the west and centre, and will leave vast regions uninhabited.
“In Siberia it becomes harder and harder to find people to maintain big infrastructure. Things are starting to collapse. And that is making the place less and less liveable which reinforces the problem,” one expert told me. Thousands of villages have been abandoned, particularly in remote areas.
Nature abhors a vacuum
What is Putin to do? … Payments were given to those with two or more children, who are eligible for increasingly generous welfare benefits. Now, payments are given to those with one child. But the best evidence so far suggests that, after a modest bounce-back, fertility is in decline again. At this stage it is not clear that these policies have had any material impact at all. …
And to compound the problem, many Russians will look to emigrate. … It is estimated that 200,000 people left the country in the first ten days of the conflict alone; millions more are likely to follow, whatever the outcome — partly to reject the regime, partly to escape the impending, sanctions-driven economic crisis which the country faces.
With major military implications:
Meanwhile Russia is losing thousands of young men in the war in Ukraine. … Already ageing and shrinking, the nation simply cannot sustain the kind of campaign it has fought in the past. Its days of vastly superior manpower are over.
Countries with static or declining populations and families with only one or two children will not want to fight conventional wars. This suggests that in a prosperous future, where all populations level off, warfare will be more economic or cyber, maybe with weapons of mass destruction or special forces. But large scale infantry wars will be a last resort. This debacle by Russia in Ukraine is a lesson to all.