Ukraine experienced sharp demographic decline even before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale re-invasion earlier this year. The Ukrainian population fell from 52 million in 1993 to just over 41 million by the start of 2022. For that matter, it would have been declining even if the Soviet Union had not disintegrated and Ukraine had not acquired its independence (see Prism, December 25, 1998). However, the expanded Russian military action this year not only killed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and led to the emigration of several million more, it also suppressed the birthrate while increasing the death rate among those remaining.
Ukrainian, Russian and other experts are, thus, united in predicting Ukraine will soon face a demographic collapse, with its population projected to fall as low as 30 million by the end of this decade, and perhaps 22 million by the end of this century. Worse still, some Ukrainian specialists do not see any way for the Ukrainian authorities to halt this drop on their own (Izvestia.kiev.ua, August 12, 2021). Such a freefall will severely limit Ukraine’s ability to recover from the devastation of Putin’s war, let alone raise an army to defend itself in the future.
Ella Libanova, the director of the Institute of Demography and Social Research at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, has taken the lead in warning about these dire prospects. In a series of interviews and articles, she has outlined what she argues is a fateful combination of factors, intensified by the war, that will cast a shadow on the demographic, and hence social and political, situation in the country for decades to come (Life.nv.ua, March 31, June 7; NovostiUA.net, Fraza.com, June 13). Despite a tone that may strike some as overly alarmist, she is not an outlier as far as other demographers—Ukrainian, Russian or Western—are concerned (Izvestia.kiev.ua, August 12, 2021; Glagol.press, January 16, 2022; ERR, May 24, 2022).
According to Libanova, “the war has inflicted a crushing blow on Ukrainian demography. In addition to military losses, the total number of which is still unknown, no fewer than 4,000 civilians have died and approximately 5 million have saved themselves from death by fleeing abroad. Some of these people have already rooted themselves in other countries and will not return home.” Together with pre-war trends such as falling fertility rates, an aging population, rising death rates and outmigration by young specialists, Ukraine will find itself in “a new demographic hole.” Specifically, it will struggle to make the recovery necessary to overcome the impact of the war, which includes forming a large workforce, raising an army with so few young men, and collecting sufficient taxes not only to rebuild but to improve the lives of Ukrainians. Without massive assistance from abroad, the prospects of compounding problems for Ukraine are truly worrisome, she argues (Life.nv.ua, March 31, June 7; NovostiUA.net, Fraza.com, June 13).
Full revival will be all but impossible, Libanova says. Because of the departures of so many women of prime child-bearing age, a post-war baby boom is unlikely. In turn, the echoes of the war “will continue for several generations.” Along these lines, her institute explicitly predicts that there is little Kyiv can do on its own to fundamentally change this trajectory.
She further points out that beyond the increase in mortality, the war has also deteriorated the health of all Ukrainians, who are living under enormous stress and often cannot receive medical care in a timely fashion, if at all. All these losses by themselves do not have “a catastrophic character”; they will cost Ukraine “thousands but not millions.” The real source of the problem lies elsewhere, in the departure of millions to live abroad and the likelihood that many of them will not return.
Far more Ukrainians have fled than have died, Libanova says. Many of those who have gone abroad, especially younger women with children who can take advantage of social welfare programs in other countries and IT specialists who have no difficulties in finding work, are not going to come back. Instead, they will remain abroad, and once the fighting is over, they are likely to be joined by husbands, making their return even less likely. Either way, the longer the war goes on, the more will remain abroad, even if the rate of outmigration slows.
Between deaths, emigration and Russia’s policy of forcibly deporting Ukrainians from the occupied territories to address its own demographic problems, the Kyiv-based expert says the population of Ukraine will fall to 30 million in 2030, 10 million fewer than at the start of this year, and continue to decline, albeit more slowly, in the decades after that, to 22 million by 2100 (Life.nv.ua, March 31, June 7; NovostiUA.net, Fraza.com, June 13). Keeping track of this decline is going to be difficult. The census Ukraine had planned for 2023 almost certainly will not be held, and so demographers and sociologists will be forced to use alternative (and almost by definition unreliable) means of measuring changes in the population. For example, she points out that it is relatively easy to count those leaving a country, but more problematic to determine just how many will actually remain abroad. That difference, she suggests, helps to explain what she says are the exaggerated numbers the United Nations has issued about Ukrainian population losses (Dsnews.ua, September 8, 2021).
The key takeaway from her observations and those of other demographers is this: Vladimir Putin has inflicted even more terrible losses on the Ukrainian population than war-time casualties and structural damage. And these losses will cast a horrific shadow on Ukraine not only in the immediate future but for as far ahead as anyone can project.