For years, one of my daily routines involved Chuck Colson’s daily Breakpoint commentaries. I started listening to Colson’s short spots on Christian radio and then realized that I could get an email version delivered to my inbox.
For those who don’t know or might not remember, Chuck Colson was a special counsel to Richard Nixon. He was known as Nixon’s “hatchet man” and was implicated in the Watergate scandal. In a now-quaint episode of honor and responsibility, he pled guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months in federal prison. Along the way, he became a Christian and spent the rest of his life as an evangelical writer and thinker. His Breakpoint ministry focused on looking at political and cultural events from a Christian worldview perspective.
That’s somewhat of a long introduction, but the runup to the war in Ukraine reminded me of one of Chuck’s commentaries from 2008 that talked about how Russia was experiencing a population bust. At the time, Colson cited statistics that predicted that Russia’s population would be halved by the end of this century despite incentives for having more children. The death toll since the invasion kicked off has kept the article on my mind.
Since reading that piece in 2008, I’ve seen quite a few more pieces on Russia’s demographic problems. In many of them, such as this Foreign Policy article from January, the implication was Russia would have to act quickly to reclaim its imperial borders, or else it would not have the manpower to do so.
Russia lost almost a million people in World War II, a demographic catastrophe that is still being felt. After booming in the postwar era, the Russian birth rate fell far below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman in the 1990s and has stayed there for three decades. Then came the Coronavirus pandemic with another estimated 361,000 deaths, which may be on the low side (but which also probably skews towards people past child-bearing age).
That brings us to present day and the disastrous Russian war on Ukraine. Russia is tight-lipped about its casualty figures but publicly acknowledges 1,300 dead. Russian state news briefly cited a figure of 10,000 dead in a now-deleted post, while NATO estimates range from 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers killed. Those figures are a week old by the way. For reference, the Soviet Union lost an estimated 15,000 troops in 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. The devastation to Russia’s economy from sanctions is easy to see, but the catastrophic effect on its demographics won’t be as easily repaired.
The war in Ukraine is not the war in Afghanistan. As the US did, the Soviet Union primarily fought insurgents in small actions in Afghanistan. The Ukraine war is a large-scale, conventional war that is being fought with armored vehicles and high-tech weapons. There really hasn’t been an armored war like this since the tank battles of WWII.
Missile technology may be new but outmoded tanks have been death traps in other wars. The US M4 Sherman was dubbed the “Ronson” in the early days of WWII after the popular cigarette lighter because of its propensity to burst into flame when hit. Tanks are good protection against small-arms fire but not necessarily against high-explosive projectiles.
We’ve all seen innumerable pictures of destroyed Russian tanks like the one below. The modern T-80 carries a crew of three so a Russian tank burning after a Javelin strike is likely a funeral pyre for three men since it is unlikely that they would be able to get out. Armored infantry fighting vehicles such as the BMP-2M carry a crew of three plus as many as seven infantry soldiers, who might also be killed as the vehicle is struck.
It isn’t only Ukrainian defenders who are killing Russian soldiers. The elements and harsh temperatures are causing some Russians to die of exposure. The Russian army is sometimes supplying its soldiers with food and medical supplies that are years past their expiration dates. CNN reported that Russian soldiers claimed that they would be shot by their own side if they retreated.
Russian soldiers may not support the war or Vladimir Putin, but they are between a rock and hard place. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, dying both at the hands of the Ukrainians and their own masters.
Where this all comes together is that it is the young, military-age males dying in droves in Ukraine are the key to Russia’s demographic future. Not only are the Russian soldiers separated from their wives and girlfriends for and extended period, which tends to make procreation difficult, an untold number of them will never return. Of those who do, post-traumatic stress and physical injuries may make child-rearing impossible or unappealing.
As recently as 2020, Vladimir Putin was creating a series of incentives for Russians to make more babies. These included payments to first-time mothers, subsidies for low-income families, bonuses for families with more children, and the creation of more nurseries. Now, two years later, Putin’s war may be unraveling much of what he had hoped to gain.
Despite its large geographical size, Russia is sparsely populated. The 2020 estimate for its population was ony 144 million (compared to 330 million Americans). When you slice up the population by age, the number of Russians who are at the appropriate ages for having children shrinks dramatically. Statistia reports that Russian women already outnumber men, with about 20 percent of the male population between the ages of 20 and 40.
At the beginning of the war, the number of Russian soldiers committed to fighting in Ukraine was estimated to be about 190,000. That may not seem like a large number compared to the national population, but it grows in significance with a few back-of-the-envelope calculations (roughly half the population is male and about 20 percent of that is in the correct age cohort) that put the number of Russian men between 20 and 40 in the neighborhood of 14 million. The interruption to procreation will only increase as more units are deployed to the front, more young men are conscripted, and more Russian soldiers go home in body bags or fertilize sunflowers in Ukrainian fields.
Further, the average Russian family is now only 3.2 people. This presents two problems for Putin. First, if Russian families are losing their only children to the war, it will quickly further erode public support. Second, the average family size for Christian families is only 3.1 people compared with 3.6 for Russian Muslims. The deaths of large numbers of Russian Christians could accelerate the demographic shift that Putin’s Russian Christian nationalism seeks to prevent.
It’s probably too early for serious studies on how the war and its associated military buildup will affect the Russian birth rate, but I’ll go out on a limb and say it will be negative. The only question is how bad it will be. The longer the war continues and the more young Russian men are called up to fight, the more young Russian men are not back home making babies. And many will never have that opportunity.
War is sometimes necessary but always a waste. In Russia’s case, where Vladimir Putin has pushed for decades to increase the number of (white, Christian) Russian babies, the war is not only wasteful, it’s counter-productive.
I’m sure that Vladimir Putin never expected to lose thousands of young Russians in a fight that would have no end in sight after more than a month, but his miscalculation has become Russia’s tragedy. Today, Putin is between his own rock and hard place of losing the war (and losing face) or mortgaging Russia’s future population.
The young Russian soldiers who are dying in the mud and snow of Ukraine are Russia’s future. As they die, so do Russian prospects for demographic salvation.
It is Vladimir Putin who is literally killing Russia.
[Note: The math on Russia’s child-rearing male cohort was corrected from 1.4 million to 14 million.]
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Some other good threads on Russia's demography issues from Kamil Kazani: