Putin’s Nightmare: Do Demographic Trends Indicate a Dire Future for Russia?

Putin’s Nightmare: Do Demographic Trends Indicate a Dire Future for Russia?

Putin’s Nightmare:
Do Demographic Trends
Indicate a Dire Future for Russia? 

  •  By Tyrus W. Cobb

“Year by year we, the citizens of Russia, are getting fewer and fewer….We face the threat of becoming a senile nation”

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russia faces severe demographic challenges as birth rates for ethnic Russians are falling, with the only growth areas lying in predominantly Muslim regions. Declining growth rates among Russians is not a new phenomenon, but the downward trend continues, leading some to speculate that Russia itself will soon become an aging, sclerotic and smaller nation.

And it will only get worse for Russians since at present there is a relatively high number of women in the child-bearing range—in the future, that cohort will decline. As for men, Russians die earlier or are incapacitated at a higher rate than in most other areas of the world, due to high rates of alcoholism, tobacco use, poor nutrition, avoidable accidents, and the absence of quality medical care.

We should note that these adverse trends have been slowed, or even reversed, somewhat. Clearly the younger generations of Russians are healthier and living better lives.  There are indications of small increases in natural population growth as fertility rates have grown slightly. However, as a 2009 study by the RAND Corporation on Russian foreign policy concludes, fertility rates “show no sign of returning to replacement levels”. The slight improvements in life style and expectancy follow decades of decline and do not fundamentally change the conclusions in this analysis.


What are the Demographic Trends That Might Keep Putin Awake at Night

  • A 2003 in-depth study by the RAND Corporation highlights a number of demographic trends that will greatly diminish Moscow’s global importance and its ability to exercise control over its own internal affairs. Most importantly, since 1992 the population of Russia has fallen by 3 million and the population is expected to decline by nearly 20 million in coming decades, with the most pessimistic projection predicting a population of less than 100 million by 2050! While declines today are not as steep as that the country experienced in the 1990’s, the population is still declining.
  • One Russian observer, Paul Goble, notes that, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, last year there were more deaths than births among Russian citizens, with most of the growth that did occur in Russia coming from non-Russian and predominantly Muslim areas in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga. Goble adds, “The predominantly ethnic Russian center of the country continued to die off”, and as a result, the balance of the population between Russians and non-Russians continues to shift against the Russians.
  • Former Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock noted that when the USSR broke up, ethnic Russians made up about 80% of the population in the Russian Federation. That is radically changing due to demographic and health trends, and immigration—both legal and illegal—into Russia.
  • Recall that the USSR was the 3rd most populous nation on earth, when it had brought together numerous groups under its umbrella. In the future, Russia’s population will be exceeded by such countries as Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Congo and the Philippines!
  • Russia has experienced very high death rates from “non-natural causes”, an increase in mortality that is unusual for an industrialized nation.
  • Fertility rates in Russia continue to decline. In the 19th century, the RAND report notes, Russian women bore an average of 7 children. By 2000, this had fallen to only 1.2! Yes, this is typical of many industrialized nations, but the Russian challenge is compounded by extremely high rates of mortality and lessening life expectancy. A disturbing figure—in the 1960’s Russian and US male life expectancy was roughly the same. A decade ago the life span of a Russian male declined to about 59 (it was 65 in 1987!). While more recently the life span improved somewhat, it is still remarkably short—compare that to the American male life span, which has grown to over 72! Why? Deaths among Russian males have soared, due primarily to excessive consumption of alcohol and tobacco, extremely difficult living conditions, accidents, injuries, violence, the prevalence of AIDS, and inferior medical care. Russian male life expectancy is now 13 years less than that of a female.
  • The fertility rate has declined to among the world’s lowest, much of that due to a high rate of abortion. Again, more recently while the fertility rate has improved modestly, it is still far below “replacement levels”.
  • These trends are not new, but have been aggravated by economic stagnation and stress from recent social and political changes in Russia. For example, between 1990 and 1995 there were 1.5 million premature deaths, accounting for 15% of all those who died, with 70% of that occurring among males.
  • This is Russia’s mortality crisis. As one study concluded, “We are witnessing the most precipitous decline in life expectancy ever recorded in the absence of war”!


The Impact of the Rapid Growth of the Muslim Population 

Concerns about the impact of rapid Muslim growth centers on the volatile Caucasus region, an area marked by separatist movements, Islamic fundamentalism, and deep anti-Russian feelings. Dagestan, lying along the Caspian Sea, and Chechnya, are marked by particularly virulent strains of Islamist fervor, areas which have produced many of the Jihadists who have gone off to fight in wars ranging from Afghanistan to Libya. Dagestan is also the birthplace of the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston marathon bombings. In the last two years alone, violence in this region has killed or injured over 1,500 persons, from car bombings, assassinations, and clashes between Russian security forces and Muslim fighters.

Contrast the stagnation in births in the core Russian areas with the rapid population explosion in the Muslim regions. For example, in the volatile Chechnya area in the Caucasus, there are now five times as many births as deaths; in nearby Ingushetia, the ration is 7:1!

There are numerous radical Islamist groups in the Caucasus, all loosely affiliated but without a central organization or leadership. The best known might be the “Caucasus Emirate”, formed by Doku Umarov, who called for militant actions to disrupt the Sochi Olympics—what he labeled as the “Satanic Games”. Umarov is dead now, but it hardly matters—his role was largely symbolic. Still, much of the domestic terrorism in Russia has been perpetrated by individuals or groups emanating from this mountainous region. This includes the so-called “Black Widows”, wives of deceased Jihadists taking revenge and other female bombers, “lone wolves” operating without direction from a central group, and suicide bombers dispatched by Umarov or leaders of other cells.

However, one has to be careful not to characterize the entire Muslim population of Russia as fundamentalists with strong anti-Russian feelings. In fact, as Stanford University’s Robert Crews writes (Foreign Affairs), Umarov’s calls for Muslims living in Russia to rise up against Moscow have fallen on deaf ears. A vast majority of Russian Muslims are secular, have accommodated to living in a Russian state, and have resisted the calls to join in the global Jihad. The Muslim-majority territories, rather than being “radical redoubts”, are, in Crews’ words, “stable, well-integrated and relatively prosperous regions”. He adds that most Muslims living in the Russian Federation “hardly ever express sympathy for their brethren in the restive Caucasus region”. We should add that while this incendiary region is home to the vast majority of the radical groups, it would also be unfair to characterize all Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus as “radical”. Most aren’t, but a sizeable percentage of the population is.


Will Demographic Trends in Russia Diminish its Global Reach?

It is too early to draw deep conclusions regarding the policy and security implications of these demographic trends, but here are a few that think tanks who have addressed this problem, have raised (including AEI, RAND, CSIS):

  • If the Russian military in the future continues to be a manpower-heavy force, Russia will face increasing difficulty in staffing its armed forces, as the draft age cohort declines. In the past the USSR relied heavily on soldiers drafted from the rural areas, Muslim regions and those who lacked political connections to escape the levy. Terrorist attacks from Beslan in the past to Volgograd today heighten a desire not to include draftees from the Muslim areas, although this is the region of the most plentiful 18-year olds. Some estimates indicate that, in fact, a majority of the draft cohort in 2015 will be Muslim!
  • Given the high technology requirements of a modern military and obvious political constraints, it is doubtful that Russia will be able to field manpower intensive forces in the future. The competition for high quality 18-year olds is high and those with any influence will seek to avoid service.
  • Some have suggested this could mean a greater reliance on its still formidable nuclear weapon inventory as a deterrent and a threat. That is speculative, of course, but a factor that should be considered.
  • Family stability is threatened, as more families will have only one parent, and that a female. This will decrease economic expectations, further income inequality, and increase national poverty. Conversely, the 2009 RAND analysis notes that even modest economic growth will mean more for each family since the overall population is decreasing—more to go around to fewer! Small consolation it would seem!
  • At the same time, affluence is often a factor in declining fertility, as we have seen in Europe as a whole. To a certain extent this might be seen as a strength, and rapid population growth in underdeveloped areas of the world (India, Nigeria, and much of the Middle East) can be viewed as a problem and source of weakness.
  • The population growth in the Muslim areas and lack of economic opportunity has led to a migration of young Muslims to larger cities. Not unlike the illegal immigrants in the U.S. these new arrivals are willing to work hard for low wages, creating resentment and tension in Moscow and other principal cities. As CFR’s Steven Sestanovich observes, Moscow in particular has been a magnet for jobseekers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. “They are widely seen to be taking jobs from ethnic Russians, engaging in criminal activity, and exploiting social services” These tensions periodically result in violence, including beatings and killings, sometimes abetted by the police, against the migrants. Even more moderate politicians, Sestanovich observes, have been forced to join in the anti-immigrant movement. The nationalist slogan, “Russia is for Russians”, is a popular and growing staple of political gatherings.
  • The 2009 RAND report raised an interesting point, noting that “Another worry is that Russia’s shrinking population will continue to concentrate in urban areas, leading to a depopulation of rural Russia”. The report added that “Russians voice concern that the emptying of the Russian Far East will lead to a Chinese incursion”! Now that’s an interesting thought!
  • In sum, the danger today to global stability is more from miscalculation than from a predetermined hostile strategy. As CSIS concluded in one of its studies, in contrast to the Cold War era, the danger to the contemporary environment comes more from Russian weakness than from its strength

Should Putin Worry?

Putin may not face these challenges in his lifetime, but his successors will be dealing with a range of emerging demographic challenges. Given the continuing low replacement rate and short life spans of Russians (especially males), there is a real possibility that by the end of the century Muslims will constitute an absolute majority of the population within the Russian Federation. The increasing percentage of the population these “outsiders” represent, the greater there will be xenophobia and ugly ramifications of increased nationalist fervor (which Putin is promoting now!).

Immigrants from a range of countries will continue to play a significant and growing role in the Russian economy, labor intensive positions now but increasingly in all sectors of the economy (and like in the U.S., many of these “guest workers” do not pay taxes and work more in the “underground economy”.)

The Russian economy will experience modest growth, but will trail that of other industrialized countries, and will continue to be dangerously dependent on the export of raw materials, especially natural gas and oil. Shifts in global production elsewhere will diminish the value of Russian assets here, and there is also doubt that Moscow can maintain the high production rates of oil and gas indefinitely.

Thus, challenging demographic trends combine with discouraging economic prospects to paint a rather bleak future for Russians. In these circumstances we can expect Russian political leaders to glorify the Russian identity to substitute for confidence in the future, and in this atmosphere inter-ethnic strife will grow.

  • Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to President Ronald Reagan and as Director of Soviet, European and Canadian Affairs.


One comment

  1. This is an interesting article. With the current situation in the Middle East,one could surmise the Jews abandoning Israel for a new homeland in one of the Russian territories. Because the Russians need new blood in order to prolong their life.

    John Monette

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