Putin’s War in Ukraine Exacerbates Russia’s Serious Demographic Problems

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 98

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Wars almost invariably have serious demographic consequences, not only for the countries attacked but also for the attackers. Armed conflicts create immediate losses in lives and a decline in births on both sides, aggravate other pre-existing negative demographic trends and, most importantly, disrupt the number of women of prime child-bearing years straightaway and for years to come. Indeed, Russia’s 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine has affected the Ukrainian population in these regards in major ways; a fact that is already attracting some international attention (see EDM, June 14). Yet the ways in which the war is affecting Russia’s demographic situation have not been as obvious, even though those developments appear likely to be at least as consequential as those in Ukraine—and possibly even more so.

The immediate impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Russian demography centers less on the number of men killed in the fighting or the amount of men and women deciding to emigrate than it does on how many babies will be born in the coming months and the echo that figure will have on the size of future generations. Aleksei Raksha, an independent Russian demographer and frequent critic of official Kremlin statistics, said in a recent interview that the number of Russians killed in Ukraine and the number of Russians who have chosen to leave the country have been too small to have a major impact on the country’s demographic future. But he argued that the war is affecting the decisions potential parents are making about having children. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic stagnation, far fewer decided to have children last year; and in April 2022, the number of children born in Russia was less than the number born in 1943–1944. If the war and Western sanctions continue, Raksha suggested, that figure could fall another 10 percent in the coming years to what would be close to “the lowest in the last 250 years.” A sizeable part of that decline will, thus, reflect not only the problems of the past but also the impact of Putin’s war in Ukraine (Verstka.media, June 21).

That the Russian populace will continue to decline in the short term seems obvious. Fewer Russians will be born in the near future despite Putin’s talk about boosting birthrates, while the death rate will remain where it has been or even rise because of combat losses and the aging of the overall population; however, the longer-term consequences will be more serious. Since World War II, Soviet and Russian experts have spoken at length about the residual effects of that conflict on future generations. Because fewer men and women were born during World War II, 20 to 25 years later, fewer mothers were able to have children; and without an upsurge in the birthrate, the number of children born fell. That in turn had another, albeit smaller, echo another 20 to 25 years after that and so on. On top of the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine appears likely to trigger a similar demographic crisis, although most likely to a lesser degree than did the Great Patriotic War of the 1940s.

The current war in Ukraine will also have consequences on other demographic trends already occurring in the Russian Federation. With fewer children being born now and in the future, Moscow will find it far more difficult to cope with underlying changes in where residents live, the relative size of the various nationalities in those places, and the integration of migrant workers and their families from abroad. All three of these vectors are already significant, and the war’s impact on them thus matters profoundly, even if at present it is still relatively small.

The release of preliminary results from the most recent Russian census shows a serious decline in the population in two economically and politically critical regions, the High North and the area east of the Urals (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 30; Thebarentsobserver.com, June 3). In those places, out-migration has exceeded in-migration, and overall deaths have outnumbered births. The situation in Siberia and the Far East is so serious that one Moscow scholar, Olga Lebedinskaya of the Russian University of Economics, writes that the problem is irreversible because it has reached “the point of no return” (Profile.ru, June 21).

Excess out-migration over in-immigration clearly has played a more important role in these regions, especially as indications show that births may have increased in some areas, particularly among non-Russian nationalities (Interfax, February 16). But that in itself calls attention to another potential impact of Putin’s war in Ukraine: the way in which that conflict may change the ethnic composition of the country.

Russian demographers already have said that the share of ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation will decline from the 80 percent recorded in the 2010 census to 76 or 77 percent now. (Because no census data on nationality has been released, these are only projections and must be treated with caution.) The researchers point to three factors: higher birthrates among some non-Russian nationalities than among ethnic Russians, in-migration by guest workers and their families and at least slightly higher birthrates among migrants than among either the non-Russian or Russian groups that are indigenous (Profile.ru, June 22).

The Ukraine conflict is unlikely to have much of an impact on birthrates among non-Russians and migrants, although it could influence birthrates in non-Russian areas that have lost a disproportionate number of men in the fighting (see EDM, March 31, June 7). But the in-migration of guest workers and their families may be affected both because immigrants are likely to become more, rather than less, needed to help run the sanctioned Russian economy and because immigrants are especially likely to have more children than ethnic Russians. As a result, non-Russian children will soon form a larger share of pupils in Russian schools, quite possibly sparking conflicts leading to the formation of ghettos, and even prompting foreign migrants inside Russia to move from one region to another (HSEdaily, June 12). If any of these situations does occur, then Putin’s war in Ukraine will have yet more demographic consequences at home.