Why Is this Man Smiling? Putin’s Russia is a Demographic Hot Mess

Like many European countries, Russia is facing a low fertility rate and a declining population. This demographic snapshot looks at the Eurasian giant’s uncertain demographic future.

No one hides a junk hand better than Vladimir Putin. In the past three years he’s annexed the Crimea, stirred-up his closest neighbors with fears of asymmetrical warfare, provoked NATO with a continuing series of air and sea incursions around Europe’s periphery, and went all-in by putting bombers into the skies of Syria.

But the cards he’s holding are weakening. Half of Russia’s 2016 national budget was projected to paid for by oil and gas revenues with a planned market price of $ 50/barrel. (Current pricing is around $ 30/barrel.) Add to that a falling ruble, NATO economic sanctions, European military countermoves, and a Syrian conflict that won’t be resolved anytime in the near future, and the former KGB officer will have to play his hand even more skillfully if Russia is to avoid another economic crisis of the scale that savaged the country in 1998. But if these near-term crises weren’t enough, Russia’s long term demographics pose an even greater threat to Putin’s grand vision for a renewal of Russian power.

Russia DemoRussia is like a lot of European countries with a low birth rate and a declining population. But the Russian narrative is particularly unique.
Russia’s birth rate, measured by TFR or Total Fertility Rate, crashed in the early 1990s.

TFR, or Total Fertility Rate, measures the estimated average number of children women in a given cohort would have over the course of their reproductive lives. A national TFR of 2.1 (2.1 children), sustained over a long period of time would maintain that nation’s population. A higher TFR implies growth – a lower TFR means population decline.

The underlying causes of Russia’s decline in TFR? Start with a general trend towards lower fertility throughout Europe and the developed world. Add to the mix Russia’s economic collapse in 1992 as deregulation triggered huge increases in retail prices and a crash in real incomes. (In simple terms, birth rates typically fall during tough economic times.) Russia’s TFR, which in the late 1980s had crept up to the replacement level, fell far below replacement levels by 1995, have stayed there for past twenty years and show no sign of going significantly higher anytime in the near future.

There’s one less-than-gloomy spot on the forecast. Life expectancy in Russia has pulled out of its recent nosedive and shows signs of slowly increasing. But it’s not enough to change fundamental downward population trends driven by the general lack of interest in babies on the part of Russian women.


Inevitable Population Decline

The result? Over the next twenty-five years Russia will see its total population drop about 7%, and with that the working age population will go down over 15%. The economic impact will be significant. Overall consumer demand will, at best, stagnate but more likely decline. The need for new consumer infrastructure will also languish. That will create an ongoing drag on a broken, crumbling economy that can at best be described as a state-sponsored kleptocracy.

But for Russia’s military, the outlook is not as grim. Despite crashing numbers in the 2015-2020 time frame, increases in the number of draft age men will give Moscow’s generals a somewhat larger number of men to dragoon into Russia’s enormously unpopular armed forces.

Immigration into Russia is an interesting story. While nowhere near the number needed to stem the ongoing population decline, a steady flow of immigrants from surrounding countries is helping to fill jobs otherwise not being filled by ethnic Russians.

While Russia has taken some steps in recent years to boost the birth rate, some observers believe that Russia won’t take the enormous steps needed to get its TFR above 2.1. Population decline and the economic stagnation it drives are inevitable.


Strategic Implications in the Russian Far East

Sorry Vlad, but buried in Russia’s population problems is an even more consequential geopolitical crisis that will slowly unfold in the coming decades. One of the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union was that Russia’s citizens were suddenly free to live wherever they wished and, surprise, Russian individuals and families started the abandoning Russian Far East.

The Russian Far East? Start in Moscow, head east about 6,000 kilometers – that’s 3,600 miles for the metrically impaired – and you’ll have gotten only as far as Siberia. You’ll need to go another 3,000 kilometers east before you reach Vladivostok, the port city tucked-in near the China-North Korea border and the capital of the Russian Far East.

1200px-Far_Eastern_in_Russia.svgThe Russian Far East (source – Wikipedia Commons)

The Russian Far East consists of nearly a third of the Russian landmass and sits to the east of Siberia along the Pacific coast. (Yes, this is the part of Russia Sarah Palin could see from her back yard.) While there are a few notable cities (Vladivostock) and industries (aircraft), the area’s transportation infrastructure is not much changed from the early twentieth century, living conditions are miserable, and its already sparse population is plummeting – from over 8 million in the early 1990s to just over 6 million in 2012.

There’s a lot of debate about Russia’s long-term grip on this farthest reach of the its global land mass. Some claim that Chinese immigration will slowly, eventually overwhelm the local Russian residents and potentially lead to China’s assimilation of the region – a kind of Borg “resistance is futile” scenario. Others claim the idea of a Chinese takeover is absurd, especially in light of China’s own population declines and rapid urbanization. Both sides have good arguments, and Putin’s administration has acknowledged the issue, putting forward plans to offer free land to Russian citizens that move to the region and taking other steps to improve the economic health of the region.


A Single Turn of the Card that Will Never Come

In poker a single turn of the card can turn a junk hand into winner, but the demographic fortunes of Putin’s Russia won’t be turned around by a one card, one deal, or a decade-long poker tournament. With an oil-based economy, a personality-based government, and imperialist, xenophobic ambitions, Russia doesn’t have the resources or vision to do what it takes to turn around its economy or nationwide population decline. In the decades to come, that means continued economic stagnation and an increasingly weak hold on the Russian Far East.


  1. Demographics is a fascinating subject and Russian demographics in particular. If we take the Masha Gessen ‘Russia is doomed’ school on the one side and dreams of a Russia with 150-million-inhabitants-by-2050 school on the other, I think Russia’s demographic trajectory will end somewhere in between.

    Taking into account increasing life expectancy (attitudes to healthy lifestyles, whilst not exactly at Western levels, improve rapidly each year), continued immigration flows from Ukraine (particularly Ukraine, which can supply at least 2-3 million Slavic Christian souls over the next 30 years) and the rest of the CIS countries along with a TFR (not to be confused with birth rate of course) which improves yearly in all the right places (i.e. European Russia and not the Caucusus), I think it is not unrealistic to expect the population to comfortably stay above 140 million.

    Of course, the situation is not ideal and had the 90’s and early 2000’s not been so catastrophic, one would have wanted to see a Russia with 175m souls by 2050. But I think the Kremlin has a fairly realistic understanding of the situation and what the future holds. Certainly, if the world consisted of solely the West (Europe, Anglosphere etc.) and East China, Russia’s demographic lot would look pretty bearable. It is only against the backdrop of the third world demographic explosion that it suddenly feels like a big problem. Take the Japanese – economists and politicians have calmly accepted that the population is indeed going to decline and that they may as well embrace the positive aspects of this decline. Endless population growth is, after all, not an option in itself.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I think the core challenge facing Putin is making Russia an attractive place to live for both current and future citizens. It’s a great case study of how economic and political policy can make or break a nation’s social, cultural and demographic viability. For my part, I’m not optimistic that their population will stay above 140 million, but I hope it does and conditions improve. The Russian people deserve better.

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