The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia’s population crisis is making Putin more dangerous

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via videoconference from the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on March 3. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)
5 min

Russia is in a demographic death spiral. In the long term, that’s bad news for Russia. But in the short term, it’s bad news for Russia’s neighbors, because Vladimir Putin may be seeking military solutions to demographic problems.

Deaths have outpaced births almost every year since the end of communism. Russia’s population peaked in 1993 at 148.6 million. At the start of 2022, it was estimated at 145.6 million. That’s a decline of only 2 percent, but, by way of comparison, the U.S. population grew 33 percent from 1990 to 2020. The World Bank calculates that Russian life expectancy at birth is only 71 years compared with 77 in the United States. The disparity is even more dramatic among men: In the United States it’s 75 and in Russia, 66. That’s lower than in North Korea, Syria or Bangladesh. Russia has the world’s 11th-largest economy but ranks 96th in life expectancy.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, explained this deadly discrepancy in a fascinating report last year. The main problem is that Russia’s birthrate is only 1.5 children per woman — well below replacement level (two children per woman).

That rate isn’t especially low compared with other industrialized countries. But Russia stands out for its extraordinarily high death rate, particularly among men, from cardiovascular diseases (heart attacks, strokes, etc.) and injuries (homicides, suicides, accidents). Given the country’s income and education levels, Russian deaths from both causes are several times higher than expected. This can be explained by Russia’s terrible health-care system, its environmental pollution, and its high levels of binge drinking and drug addiction — which, in turn, are a signs of despair.

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Russia’s already high death rate has recently spiked. During the covid-19 pandemic, 2020-2023, Russia had 1.2 million to 1.6 million excess deaths, according to the Economist. If this is accurate, it means Russia had more covid deaths than the United States, whose population is more than twice as large.

Then, in the past year, Russia has suffered 60,000 to 70,000 combat fatalities in Ukraine — more than in all its other wars since 1945 combined, with no end in sight. “The average rate of Russian soldiers killed per month is at least 25 times the number killed per month in Chechnya and 35 times the number killed in Afghanistan,” reports the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And since the start of the war, 500,000 to 1 million Russians — mostly young and educated — have fled the country. In Moscow, there is a visible shortage of men.

Russia’s population loss is expected to continue — down to 135 million people by 2050 and 126 million by 2100. Currently the world’s ninth-most populous country, it is projected to fall to number 22 by century’s end. Demographics is, to some extent, destiny. Russia’s days as a great power are numbered.

Putin is acutely conscious of the problem and talks about it all the time. In September 2021, he lamented that Russia now would have a population of 500 million were it not for the loss of the Russian empire after the 1917 revolution and the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, which he has called “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

He has tried in vain all the normal ways to reverse the trend, from offering financial incentives for citizens to have more children to trying to lure immigrants from Central Asia. His invasion of Ukraine can be seen as a desperate gambit to increase the Russian population at gunpoint.

Russia occupies Ukrainian territories once inhabited by 8 million people — many of whom have died, fled or been deported to Russia. That the Russians have kidnapped at least 11,000 Ukrainian children looks especially sinister in light of Russia’s baby deficit.

Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador at large to the Soviet republics who is now a colleague of mine at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me that Putin is motivated by a “fever dream of decline.” The depopulation of Russia, he said, “feeds Putin’s apocalyptic sense of his own grand responsibilities. If you’re worried about a shrinking population, maybe conquering the 40 million people next door will solve your problem?”

Of course, in trying to address Russia’s manpower deficit, Putin only exacerbates it. But, alas, there is no evidence that Russia is running out of cannon fodder to send to Ukraine. An estimated 7.2 million Russian men are between the ages of 18 and 26. Putin was able to mobilize an additional 300,000 soldiers last year with little difficulty, and another draft may be in the offing. He may have more trouble keeping his vow to expand the army from 1.1 million soldiers to 1.5 million by 2026, but he doesn’t need an extra 400,000 troops to continue inflicting great suffering on the people of Ukraine.

In the short term, the loss of so many emigrants may actually help Putin by solidifying his control. “The problematic people are gone, and those who remain are the ones the regime needs to sustain itself and the war,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

So there’s little hope that Russia’s demographic woes will curtail the threat it poses anytime soon. If anything, Putin’s awareness of the “demographic doom loop” makes him more desperate and more dangerous.