President Vladimir Putin has spent years racing against Russia’s population clock, only to order an invasion of Ukraine that locks his country’s population into historic decline.
In addition to the thousands of casualties on the battlefield, the enlistment of 300,000 reservists to join the fight – and even greatest flight of men abroad – derails Putin’s goals to begin stabilizing the population as early as this year.
The crippling disruptions of war converge with a demographic crisis rooted in the 1990s, a period of economic hardship after the Soviet breakup that sent fertility rate plunging. Independent demographer Alexei Raksha calls it “a perfect storm”.
Plans Putin’s government had set a goal to begin reversing population decline in 2022 before growth resumes in 2030. Yet weeks before the mobilization was announced in September, a internal report drafted for a closed meeting showed that officials were already concluding that those goals were unrealistic.
Citing the consequences of the coronavirus and migration flows, the report instead proposed a revision that predicted a decrease of 416,700 people in 2030.
If military operations continue in the coming months, as expected, Russia could see fewer than 1.2 million births next year, the lowest in modern history, according to Igor Efremov, researcher and specialist in demography at the Gaidar Institute in Moscow. The total number of deaths in Russia averages almost 2 million per year, although the number has increased during the pandemic and approach 2.5 million last year.
“The main hit to the birth rate will be indirect, as most families will see their planning horizon completely destroyed,” Efremov said. “And the impact will be all the stronger as the mobilization lasts.”
A demographic reckoning has arrived for Russia, its economy starved of young workers and now threatened with stagnation or worse long after the war is over. Bloomberg Economics now estimates Russia’s potential growth rate at 0.5%, down two percentage points from before the war – with demographics accounting for about a quarter of the deterioration.
Adverse demographics in parts of Ukraine that Putin plans to annex will only add to the challenges Russia faces from a growing demographic burden, Renaissance Capital economists said in a report this month. this.
While demographic trauma generally spans decades, To fall of the invasion makes worst-case scenarios more likely – and much sooner than expected.
For Putin, who just turned 70, Russian demography has long been an existential issue, and just last year he declared that “saving the Russian people is our top national priority”. He presided over efforts to buy time with costly policies that contributed to a huge gain in longevity and ranged from lump sum payments for new mothers to mortgage relief for families.
But as Russia approached the invasion of Ukraine in February, it was coming out of its deadliest year since World War II – made worse by the pandemic – with a declining population since 2018. It reached 145.1 million as of August 1, a drop of 475,500 since the start of the year and down from 148.3 million in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Continuation of the military campaign and mobilization until late next spring would be “catastrophic”, according to Efremov, likely reducing births to just 1 million in the 12 months to mid-2024. The fertility rate could reach 1.2 children per woman, he said, a level Russia only saw once in 1999-2000.
A fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep populations stable without migration.
“It is likely that under conditions of uncertainty, many couples will postpone having children for some time until the situation stabilizes,” said Elena Churilova, researcher at the International Laboratory of Population and Health of the Graduate School of Economics. “In 2023, we are likely to see a further decline in the birth rate.”
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