Putin’s existential problem: Not enough Russians

The Russian president has called raising the birthrate a national priority. He declared 2024 “the year of the family” and enacted subsidies for those with three or more children.
The Russian president has called raising the birthrate a national priority. He declared 2024 “the year of the family” and enacted subsidies for those with three or more children.

Summary

Russia’s population has been in decline for years, and the war in Ukraine has made matters worse.

Vladimir Putin has portrayed himself as a defender of global stability, leading a powerful nation that offers a robust economic, military and cultural alternative to the West.

One challenge to his vision: Russia’s population has been in decline for years, and the war in Ukraine has made matters worse.

At least 150,000 Russians are dead on the battlefield, according to Western estimates. Nearly a million fled the country after the war began. The number of births is at its lowest in more than two decades, with bigger-than-average drops in babies born in some regions closest to the fight.

The Russian president has called raising the birthrate a national priority. He declared 2024 “the year of the family" and enacted subsidies for those with three or more children. Putin has pledged to spend up to $157 billion on measures to support families and children over the next six years. Russian society itself, he said, has to change, with large families becoming more common.

“Motherhood is an exquisite purpose for women," he said in an address on International Women’s Day in March. Family, he added, is “the most important thing for any woman, no matter what career path she chooses or what professional heights she attains."

The biggest single boost to Russia’s population in recent years came when the country annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, adding around 2.4 million inhabitants. Russia hasn’t included Ukrainian territories it has claimed in the war in its latest population counts.

“The most successful population program that the Kremlin has had has been annexing neighboring territories, not increasing the birthrate," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., who studies Russian demographics.

The country’s declining population, particularly those of working age, and its flight of talent are creating a demographic straitjacket, he said. “The loss of those human resources is going to compromise Russia’s economic future."

“The demographic problem is indeed a very pressing one," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wrote in an emailed response to questions. “Measures to increase the birthrate are a priority of the government and the president. Most of the country’s development goals are aimed at this in one way or another."

The main reasons for the low birthrate date back to declines in the birthrate during World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, he said. The government has had some success in the past with programs to increase births.

Shrinking

Before the Soviet Union came apart in 1991, Moscow presided over the world’s third-largest population, including states that became independent.

In the midst of the economic and social upheaval that followed, growing numbers of Russians died from cardiovascular disease, suicides, traffic accidents and other causes—often related to heavy drinking—and women had fewer babies.

By 2003, Russia’s life expectancy had dropped to about 65 years from 69 in 1990, far below many Western countries at the time. A more stable economy, along with policies restricting alcohol purchases and antismoking campaigns, helped push that up to about 70 years in 2022—still below most developed countries, according to United Nations data. The U.S. had a life expectancy of about 78 years. Estonia, a former Soviet republic, had a life expectancy of 79 years.

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, Russia was one of the world’s hardest-hit nations. Between April 2020 and March 2022, 1.12 million people died of Covid and its health consequences, said Alexey Raksha, an independent Russian demographer who was fired from a government role in 2020 after he exposed underreporting of Covid statistics.

That death toll was about the same as in the U.S., although Russia’s population is less than half the size.

Russia today has around 146 million people by official statistics, ranked ninth globally between Bangladesh and Mexico, according to U.N. data. That still leaves it far larger than Ukraine, whose prewar population hovered around 44 million and faces many of the same demographic challenges.

Unlike many Western countries, Russia hasn’t attracted large numbers of immigrants that are enough to offset its aging population and declining births, demographers say. Its population, like that of Japan and several other countries, is expected to decline over the rest of this century.

As many as 920,000 Russian citizens had left the country by July 2023 since the invasion, according to Re: Russia, a research and analysis group that based its calculation on migration data from sources in several countries.

Though some have since returned, many who have settled abroad are educated professionals in information technology and other fields. Official Russian statistics put the number of emigrants at about 668,000 in 2022, the highest since 1992, and about 450,000 in 2023.

The consequences are apparent in its shortage of labor to feed the needs of the battlefield. Putin has reoriented much of the economy toward producing tanks, missiles and mortars. He said last year that the lack of specialist workers is impeding military production.

Some 47% of manufacturing firms reported staff shortages in January, the highest percentage since 1996 in surveys by Russia’s Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy. Russia is short of 4.8 million workers, the Russian Academy of Sciences estimated in December. Shortages are especially acute in manufacturing, transportation, logistics and construction sectors, the central bank says.

Deaths of despair

Demographers say they are concerned the war may drive up so-called deaths of despair—from alcohol-related diseases and other causes—once again.

Drinking and drugs have long been a problem in Russia. In a televised meeting in 2022, Putin told a mother of a soldier who died in Ukraine that dying at war was more honorable than from alcoholism.

“With some people, it is unclear whether they live or not. It is unclear why they die—because of vodka or something else," he said. But her son, he said, “achieved his goal."

Much will depend on the length and scale of the war.

Putin’s heavy investment in weapons production has created jobs and boosted wages, but that stimulus could hurt future economic growth and “any drop in living standards affects fertility rate," said Tatiana Mikhailova, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University.

About 1.26 million children were born in Russia in 2023, the lowest number in over two decades, according to government statistics. Raksha, who analyzes national and regional data, estimates the overall fertility rate—or number of babies for each woman over her lifetime—has remained stable since 2022.

Russia’s past crises continue to echo through the generations. The population slump after the collapse of the Soviet Union means there are fewer women of reproductive age today, Raksha said. The number of women in that age group is expected to shrink 40% by 2030 compared with 2010, he said.

One thing that is growing, Raksha said: the fertility rate for a fourth child. Russia has one of the highest rates among developed countries, he said. Fathers of four or more children are exempt from mobilization to the front, but the rate was growing before the war.

‘No stability’

Economics have factored into the equation for Maria, a 34-year-old lawyer in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk who has a 6-year-old son. “I really want a second child," she said—but prices are rising, while real incomes aren’t growing. Medical checkups just to prepare for a pregnancy would cost about 80,000 rubles, or $890, she recently calculated.

“There is no stability, no confidence in the future in order to calmly plan children, although I would love to be a mom again," she said.

The number of births nationally has continued to decline this year, down 3.5% between January and March compared with the same period last year. The Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine and has been hit by deadly shelling, recorded a 10.2% drop, according to Rosstat.

Some other regions bordering Ukraine, as well as Russian-occupied Crimea, have also had greater declines in births than the national average. Bryansk, a region that has experienced incursions and drone attacks from Ukraine on oil facilities, experienced an 8.2% drop.

In some Russian provinces, the birthrate is declining faster than it did previously as a result of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of young men for the war in September 2022, said Igor Efremov, a Russia-based demographer.

Data gathered by FilterLabs.AI, a U.S.-based company that analyzes news websites, local websites, online forums and group messaging apps in various countries, suggests that sentiment has shifted in Russia about having children.

“Over the course of 2023, we found that people were speaking more positively about postponing a family," said Jonathan Teubner, the company’s chief executive officer.

Private clinics in several regions, including occupied Crimea, have stopped performing abortions, following a request from authorities. Russia’s State Duma is considering a nationwide ban on abortions in private clinics. Putin has called abortions a “pressing problem." But “the rights and freedoms of women also must be observed," he said in December, and suggested that a ban could be counterproductive.

‘Demographic winter’

Russian Senator Margarita Pavlova said last year that the country should encourage young women to have children rather than to get a higher education. “It has probably become obvious to all the authorities that we are on the threshold of a demographic winter," she said.

Salavat Abylkalikov knows Russia’s population problems well. The 37-year-old demographer figures all the issues Russia faced before—declining birthrate, low immigration and the slowdown in life expectancy—will be exacerbated by the war.

He also sees it in his own life. Abylkalikov’s 33-year-old wife became pregnant in mid-February 2022, shortly before the invasion. At the time, they felt that despite some instability, “it seemed that…life would get better," he said.

Once the war started, they decided they would leave Russia as soon as their daughter was born. War propaganda spread in schools and state media “began to revise the content of educational programs in favor of pumping it with militaristic agitation," said Abylkalikov. His daughter Diana is 1½ and the family moved to the U.K. last year.

He and his wife are contemplating having a second child abroad, “but only in conditions when we will be fully confident in our future," he said. “Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about Russia’s prospects in this respect in the next decade."

Kate Vtorygina and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.

Write to Betsy McKay at betsy.mckay@wsj.com and Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

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