With the war, Russia in a demographic “headlong rush”

It is the largest country in the world, yet it is far from being the most populous. Russia has suffered a significant demographic decline since the fall of the USSR and its depopulation is worsening in the light of the war it launched in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. However, the country’s population is one of the main concerns of the government, and in particular Vladimir Putin, even “an obsession”, according to Alain Blum, researcher at the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) and specialist in Russia, contacted by 20 minutes.

A difficulty that has dragged on for thirty years

It’s not a new problem. Since the 1990s and the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian population has tended to decline due to “high mortality and declining fertility”, explains the demographer. Thus on January 1, 2022, the Russian population was 145.5 million according to the Russian statistics agency Rosstat, against 149 million inhabitants in 1994, reports Geo. The opening of the borders has caused a massive exodus of populations, but that does not explain everything. The fertility rate has now fallen to 1.5 children per woman, according to AFP, far from the 2.1 necessary for generational renewal. Like many European countries, “society has changed, and women have had fewer children,” says Carole Grimaud, expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory and founder of the Center for Research on Russia and Eastern Europe (CREER).

In 2006, quoted by The Times, Vladimir Putin considered the population decline to be “the most urgent problem” of the country. He then set up a bonus for the second birth in order to encourage families to have more children. “People then rushed to have children, there was a real windfall effect,” continues Alain Blum.

A slight improvement peaked in the 2010s since the fertility rate reached 1.78 children per woman in 2015, according to Areion News. But deceptively, since the size of families does not increase, parents just have the same number of children in a shorter time. Finally, the effect of these pronatalist policies quickly fades. A new decline began in 2018 and continues today. Especially since the hardening of power in the years 2008 worsened the situation and pushed “artists, intellectuals, journalists” to leave the country, “and it did not stop”, adds Carole Grimaud.

Russia, like all countries in the world, has also suffered from a major health crisis which has had “a very strong effect in terms of deterioration of life expectancy”, analyzes Alain Blum. Thus, the country would have lost 1.04 million inhabitants, a record since the fall of the USSR, and the Covid-19 appears as the number 1 murderer, with more than 660,000 deaths recorded, according to the Russian statistics agency. , cited by different media. The only element that has really increased the population for decades, “is the annexation of Crimea” in 2014. It allowed Russia to increase the number of its inhabitants by more than two million, points out the demographer (hence the jump on the graph above).

With the war, a loss in quantity and quality

But since February 24, 2022, the losses have been piling up. While it is impossible to have precise data on the number of people killed in the fighting, “Russia lost more fighters in Ukraine in the first year of the war than in all the wars it has fought since the Second World War,” says a study of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published in February. In a press release published on February 17, the British Ministry of Defense estimates that “the forces of the Russian Ministry of Defense and private military contractors have probably suffered between 175,000 and 200,000 casualties since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. “This has a direct effect on the constitution of families, therefore the birth rate, and life expectancy in the country”, notes Alain Blum. Indeed, the Russians mobilized are mostly young men, of childbearing age and building a family. “A part will not come back, for the others, it necessarily delays the birth of a child,” he adds.

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Especially since the Russian mobilization has generated a strong emigration abroad. And there, “we are talking about young graduates, creative people, brains”, lists Carole Grimaud. “It’s a real problem in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality,” said Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, director of the Russia center at the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri). According to figures from Forbes Russia published last November, more than 700,000 people fled Russia to escape mobilization. “It has a catastrophic effect on the Russian population as a whole”, summarizes Alain Blum. Vladimir Putin’s latest decision to facilitate the mobilization of young Russians thus seems to go against this demographic concern considered urgent by the Russian president himself.

Putin’s “obsession”

This demographic question “has preoccupied the Russian state for many years, and even more today, notes Carole Grimaud. It is a basic problem which is not solved and which the war comes to dig. This “demographic obsession” responds to two ideologies, according to Alain Blum. The first echoes the idea that a large population is synonymous with military and economic power and that the depopulation of certain territories, on the contrary, weakens the country vis-à-vis its neighbours. On the other hand, “there is this very conservative ideology regarding the West as a world of perversion and that Russia is the repository of a culture that is being lost in Europe”, he explains again.

Can we then link the war in Ukraine and the annexation of four regions to this demographic problem? “Russia counts the new Ukrainian arrivals as well as the inhabitants of the annexed regions as Russians to stem the bleeding”, notes Carole Grimaud. However, “I don’t see how starting a war can bring demographics back up. What they lose on one side will never be balanced by arrivals on the other. Russia is sinking deeper into the problem and will have repercussions in its economy. It’s a headlong rush,” she says. Especially “as in practice, these annexed regions are emptied of their population”, adds Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean. Moreover, the current war does not offer any prospects and rather promises an uncertain future which does not encourage families to procreate.

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