Vladimir Putin has declared it a national priority to increase birth rates and life expectancy. Russia’s post-Soviet population decline is accelerating and Putin wants solutions that do not interfere with his efforts to rebuild the Russian empire by military conquest. Going public with the call for solutions is both a desperate and pragmatic effort to fix the problem. Putin has made open criticism of the war in Ukraine a felony and subject to harsh punishment. It is no secret that the Ukraine War is the primary obstacle to reversing the declining birth rate. Couples are reluctant to have children during a war because of the unstable conditions. Raising children is difficult enough in the best of times and becomes much more difficult during a war. The birth rate cannot be changed with threats of punishment and penalties for those who do not comply. Putin may be willing to accept a reasonable, if remotely possible, proposal for using coercion to generate additional births. The last time this sort of thing was tried was the Lebensborn project in Nazi Germany and conquered territories from 1935 to 1945. Lebensborn had some initial success, with a major assist from a declining unemployment rate, and got the German birth rate above the replacement rate by 1939. In wartime, Lebensborn didn’t work because it could not overcome the uncertainty factor, the shortage of available young men plus reduced opportunities for couples to form and become parents. The Nazis also tried kidnapping ethnically-correct children from occupied nations who could be adopted and raised as Nazis.
Putin has a very clear preference for more Slavic children.. That means Ukrainian and Belarussian children are acceptable while those from groups that cannot at least pass as Slavic are not. Putin has another problem, there is substantial resistance from military-age Russian men to military service, even if it means leaving Russia. Women of a similar age are also discouraged from having children because of the wartime atmosphere and severe economic problems because of Western economic sanctions. The Nazis avoided this by looting as much food and other resources as they needed, from occupied nations. There was a lot of hunger but few German starvation deaths. Millions of other Europeans starved to death because of this, which was not a problem as far as the Nazis were concerned. This sort of atmosphere is not conducive to having children.
Putin may be out of options here. He tried most of the Lebensborn techniques and had less success than the Nazis. Putin, like the World War II Germans, has been unable to find a solution to wartime birth rate declines.
About seven million Russians have left Russia since Vladimir Putin took power in 1999. The exodus accelerated when he made his rule legally permanent in 2020. The exodus surged again after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. He described this as the first of several conquests that were necessary for Russia’s national survival. This is not working out well because increased internal repression and external violence have crippled the economy (fewer jobs) while forcing men into the army to fight in Ukraine have led to still more Russians leaving Russia. The departures are substantial and continually reduce the population and percentage of the population that is Russian.
This is all about Putin seeking to increase Russia’s Slavic population and rely less on migrants from former Soviet states in Central Asia to make up the difference in numbers. This is worse because the ethnic Russians have a much lower birth rate than the new arrivals. This lower birth rate is similar to what is happening in most industrialized nations.
When Putin became the Russian leader in 1999, there were 117 million ethnic Russians who formed 80 percent of the population. The other 20 percent were various “less reliable” minorities. That included Ukrainians living in Russia. By 2020 there were 109 million ethnic Russians and 34 million non-Russians. That meant 24 percent of the population was non-Russian. In 1999 the total population was 147 million while in 2020 it was 144 million. Russia added the population of Crimea (2.4 million) to the official total but that province belongs to Ukraine and the Ukrainians are now poised to take it back. So far the war has killed over 100,000 Russians and a about half as many Ukrainians.
Currently Russia is forcibly moving over a million Ukrainians to Russia. About ten percent of these forced migrants are kidnapped children who are to be adopted and raised by Russian families as Russians. That might work with the younger children, but those ten or older have been resisting this forced change. Adults want no part of becoming Russian and that is why many were moved to remote (from Ukraine) parts of Russia. This is an ancient Russian practice and usually does not work.
The Russians who have left since 1999 are largely better educated, more affluent and looking for a place to settle for good. In 2022 over half a million of these Russians fled to Europe or Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union. These Russians were fleeing the surprise conscription of young Russians to fight in Ukraine. Putin was conscripting migrants from Central Asia as well as those in Russia as temporary workers. These non-Russians were angry at being forced into the army and many went back to Central Asia when they saw what was happening. Few of these older “mobilized” men made good soldiers and those sent to Ukraine were often untrained and poorly equipped. Their usefulness in combat was dismal. Some Russians who fled started businesses and the Central Asian governments appreciated this even though the sudden presence of so many Slavic foreigners was not popular. Many of these exiles plan to return if Putin is replaced by someone who is less lethal to young Russians and the economy. This was in sharp contrast to the 1990s, when many Russians living in these former parts of the Soviet Union found themselves under pressure to leave. Now a new generation with no memory of the Soviet Union initially welcomes these affluent and talented foreigners. That welcome did not last long because threats from Putin and the sudden presence of so many Russians created local resistance to the Russian exiles.
The exodus of Russians accelerated after the Russian war on Ukraine began in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and a partially successful seizure of two provinces in eastern Ukraine. A quicker than expected Ukrainian military response halted the seizure of the two eastern provinces and that led to a shaky ceasefire and pointless peace talks. In February 2022 when Russia sought to conquer all of Ukraine, which also failed and the flight of Russians from Russia accelerated still more.
This aggressive behavior was not popular with many Russians, nor was Vladimir Putin, who became the Russian leader and in 1999 and after about six years decided that Russia needed a more permanent and totalitarian government under his leadership. Putin remained in power despite term-limits and by 2020 had managed to change the constitution to make his long-term rule legal. Putin has displayed considerable talent for political survival. One thing that might bring him down is the continued Russian failures in Ukraine, which Putin still insists is actually part of Russia. The invasion has unified Ukrainians as Ukrainians in ways that no one, Russian or Ukrainian, ever expected. Despite what Putin said, most Russians considered the fighting in Ukraine a foreign war against a very adept and motivated people.
Putin blamed it all on the West, especially the NATO alliance. Ukrainians were not eager to join NATO until the 2014 attack, now they are an unofficial NATO member and expect to formalize that when their NATO-supported war is over. Between 2014 and 2021 NATO provided considerable assistance to transform Ukraine’s Soviet-era military into a force that thought and fought like NATO troops did. This meant better training and leadership as well as more flexible tactics. This played a major role in the unexpectedly rapid defeat of the Russian invaders and the superior performance of the Ukrainians on the offensive. Because of heavy losses and the poor quality of replacement troops, the Russians find themselves, a year later, outnumbered by better trained, armed and led Ukrainian forces that also have a lot of combat experience. This is why Putin has resorted to attacks on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure (electricity, water and transportation). To do that Russia had to buy cruise missiles from Iran and artillery ammo from North Korea because Russian production capabilities could not replace the artillery munitions fast enough.
Despite government censorship and control over mass media, Russians still find out about what is happening in Ukraine. The government suppressed public protests with mass arrests and jail sentences. That led to clandestine attacks (usually fire bombs) 0n military mobilization officers and lots of anti-war and anti-Putin graffiti. Other Russians simply left Russia. That exodus was so massive and sustained that it has clearly defeated Putin’s campaign to make Russia more Russian.