While males outnumber females slightly at birth in most communities, higher mortality rates among men as compared to women means that, in most countries, by adulthood, women outnumber men. Typically, this difference is small, merely 1 or 2 percent, and does not carry major consequences. But, in this way, Russia is a major exception. Since World War II, the Russian Federation has stood out, as losses in that conflict disproportionately affected men, leaving the country with one of the largest gender imbalances anywhere in the world, at nearly 15 percent. That imbalance, which had a negative impact on marriages and child births, gradually declined over the following decades. But figures from the latest Russian census suggest that the decline has slowed given the extremely high levels of adult male mortality (Newizv.ru, September 23).
Now, it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is significantly exacerbating this imbalance once again, not only because of combat losses but also, and perhaps even more so, because of younger Russian men fleeing abroad to escape Putin’s plans to mobilize them to fight in Ukraine (Novayagazeta.eu, September 25). As this will affect the prime child-bearing age groups most of all, it will further depress the already low birthrates in the Russian Federation and put the country’s demographic future, already troubled, at even greater risk (see EDM, September 22).
Moscow journalist Sergey Baymukhametov says that the results of the 2021 census, which are now being published, suggest that Russian women continue to outnumber Russian men by almost exactly the same number as they did a decade ago: 10.5 million now as compared to 10.8 million then. That decline in the gender imbalance, while welcome, represents a significant slowing in the rapprochement of the two figures from earlier decades. The journalist adds that the 1959 Soviet census showed that 20.7 million more women lived in Russia than men at that time. Some of these were non-Russians, such as Belarusians and Ukrainians, but most were citizens of the Russian Federation. And Baymukhametov argues that the consequences of this imbalance and the failure to narrow it since remain significant and worrisome issues, including falling birthrates and the increasing number of children growing up in single-mother families (Newwizv.ru, September 23).
A major reason why Russia has not been able to maintain its course on reducing the gender imbalance in its population is the incredibly high mortality rate among working-age men—a pattern that is the product of excessive alcohol consumption, other poor lifestyle choices, accidents, suicides and Putin’s healthcare optimization program, which has left many Russians without access to the coverage they need. These pathologies have attracted attention because they have prevented Russia from being able to further increase life expectancies and have kept Moscow from being able to reduce the country’s gender imbalance, or boost birthrates (RIA Novosti, July 2, 2019; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 26, 2019; Versia.ru, accessed September 26). Now, Putin’s war in Ukraine has dashed any hopes that the Kremlin will be able to achieve any meaningful progress on this front.
Thus far, the war has had two primary demographic consequences—the more immediate being the departure of several hundred thousand young Russian men seeking to avoid Putin’s mobilization and the more serious, especially over the long term, being heavy combat losses. With regard to the first, media outlets are reporting that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has calculated that more than 260,000 Russian men have left the country to avoid military service since Putin announced the “partial mobilization” (Novayagazeta.eu, September 25).
However, many reporters doubt that number because they say the FSB is seldom able to come up with such figures so quickly, and they argue that the security service is putting forward the figure to prompt Putin to close the border “before it is too late.” This intention is suggested by the actions of regional officials who have restricted the departure of young men and, indirectly, by a popular new Russian anecdote that suggests Russian men will be issued international passports only if they sign papers declaring they will not leave Russia (Publizist.ru, September 24; Novayagazeta.eu, September 25).
An even more serious long-term threat to the gender imbalance specifically and Russian demography more generally, however, involves the growing number of combat losses. The most serious and comprehensive analysis of this danger so far and its future prospects has been offered by two Russian scholars working abroad, Oleg Itskhoki of Princeton University and Maxim Mironov of the University of Madrid. And the picture they paint is quite devastating (Novayagazeta.eu, September 25).
According to their research, to date, Russia has suffered 35,000 to 40,000 combat deaths and three times as many have been wounded, totaling approximately 150,000 men. To replace the dead and wounded and to allow for the regular rotation of Russian forces in Ukraine, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million men will be needed, Itskhoki and Mironov say. most of these men will be between 20 and 30 years old, a group that numbers only 7.3 million in Russia today because of low birthrates throughout the 1990s. That means approximately 25 percent of that age group will have to serve and that “in the next six months, losses among Russians who are mobilized may rise to 60 to 70 percent. Among these, 15 to 20 percent will be killed and 45 to 50 percent wounded.” As a result of such combat losses and emigration, “Russia could lose more than 10 percent of the men aged 20 to 29.”
That will leave a huge hole in Russian society and will not only increase the gender imbalance but also lower birthrates. Those Russian men who do indeed manage to return will experience enormous problems, the two scholars add. These will include not only mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder but also the proliferation of crime waves similar to those that followed the Afghan and Chechen wars; Russian losses in Ukraine “already exceed” losses in those two conflicts and are certain to grow. Itskhoki and Mironov conclude that the few children who are born will remain without fathers, something likely to lead to another rise in crime “when they become youths.”
In short, Putin’s war will cast a shadow on Russia for a long time to come—one growing ever darker the longer the war carries on.