Russia’s population shrinks even as Putin seeks to expand

(Bloomberg) – Russia’s population is shrinking even as it emerges from the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak, underscoring the government’s struggles to reverse the crisis as President Vladimir Putin wages war on Ukraine.

Deaths exceeded births by 311,200 in the first four months of this year, up from 304,500 a year earlier, according to data released Friday by the Federal Statistical Service, adding to a drop in migration to Russia .

“Demography is the first task” for the country, Putin told a group of young Russians on Thursday. “We should have more people and they should be healthy.”

The president has warned for years of a threat to Russia‘s economic and geopolitical future from population shifts. He sought to increase the birth rate by providing mortgage subsidies to families and expanding a program of “maternal capital” payments to women with children.

The Covid pandemic has exacerbated the crisis as Russia suffered one of the highest fatalities in the world, helping to reduce average life expectancy to levels seen a decade ago.

While the outbreak in Russia has moved away from its peak, there are no signs of a reversal in population decline. There were 700,000 fewer Russians at the start of this year than at the start of 2021, the statistics service reported.

Migration is decreasing

Russia’s difficulties are intensified by the drop in migration amid unprecedented international sanctions against its economy. A separate report from the Statistics Service last week showed that 51,000 more people had left the country than had arrived in the first quarter, the first time this had happened in at least eight years.

“The special operation and the imposed sanctions have a negative effect on migration flows,” said Vera Karpova, a demographer at Moscow State University.

Putin cited Peter the Great’s conquest of territory from Sweden in the 18th century during the 21-year-long Great Northern War as justification for his invasion at Thursday’s meeting. He told young entrepreneurs in Moscow that the Tsar had reclaimed Russian land and that “it was incumbent on us to come back and strengthen ourselves as well” in Ukraine, where the Kremlin is preparing to annex territories seized by its forces.

Although it’s too early to tell what long-term impact Russia’s war in Ukraine might have, Western officials estimate that at least 15,000 Russian troops have died in the fighting so far, while the Ukraine says that number is double. The Russian Defense Ministry has not commented on combat deaths in what it calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine since March 25, when it said 1,351 people had been killed.

Russia does not report anything on Russians missing in Ukraine, said Igor Efremov, a researcher at the International Laboratory for Demography and Human Capital at the Yegor Gaidar Institute in Moscow. “I think a lot of them died, but those deaths will no longer be included in official population statistics.”

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