Far from the battlefield, Moscow’s generals fight a falling birth rate

The writer is the FT’s former demography correspondent

Despite the vast combat operation currently under way in Ukraine, the Kremlin has refrained from a full military mobilization and refused to admit that it is at war. There are plenty of strategic reasons for this decision, but an underlying demographic weakness may also be partly to blame: Russia has been producing too few babies since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union to even keep its population stable, let alone build up an army .

This trend is not specific to Russia – falling fertility rates have been characteristic of almost all developed economies for several decades. While the world is at peace, the necessary adjustments to rising longevity and falling fertility tend to focus on economic and social policies. As we have seen across Europe and the US, governments are raising state pension ages and looking at support for working mothers. War, however, casts falling fertility in a different light.

The data for Russia indicates that its total fertility rate fell to about 1.3 babies per woman aged 15 to 44 in the early 1990s, according to the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. To maintain a stable population, the national average needs to be closer to 2.1 babies. Other nations falling below this threshold include China and several countries across central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine – which has barred men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country since the invasion.

Moscow has tried to reverse the falling birth rate, including a policy in 2007 to offer financial rewards to those having children. But Dmitri Jdanov, head of Max Planck’s data lab, notes that while this produced a slight uptick in births, it mainly encouraged women to have a second child more quickly after the first was born.

Three years later, concerns were growing among Russia’s military leadership that low fertility was becoming a national security issue, with Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, then commander of airborne forces, proclaiming this a “great danger that we can no longer ignore”.

Shamanov’s fears are borne out in the data: while the number of men aged 18 to 27 is expected to grow sharply from severely depressed levels by 2035, the size of the slightly older cohort aged 30 to 35 will fall by 50 per cent over the same period, according to a study carried out on behalf of Finland’s Defense Research Agency.

Those of prime conscription age, 20 to 24, peaked in 2015 and began declining in 2020, the paper found. The manpower deficit will not be made any easier following the death of at least 15,000 Russian troops since the start of the Ukraine invasion.

This is not to say that population concerns have acted as a break on mass military mobilization in the current conflict. Julian Cooper, emeritus professor of Russian economic studies at the University of Birmingham, argues the Kremlin is far more concerned about potentially unsettling social and political effects on a “largely unprepared society already suffering from the impact of sanctions on their consumption”.

Clearly, Putin is trying to maintain the fiction that the Ukrainian invasion is not a war. Nevertheless, the manpower shortage is real. This year, he abolished the maximum age at which men can enlist for military service, which was previously capped at 40.

Andrew Lohsen, a Russian expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that a more pressing problem is that military service is an unattractive option for young men with better choices. Notoriously poor pay and harsh treatment of conscripts have, for decades, struck fear into potential applicants.

The difficulty for defense chiefs is that as the war continues, new demographic factors could make things worse. Since the 1990s, deaths have been outstripping births almost every year, although immigration has offset roughly half that population decline. This is significant given that foreigners aged 18 to 30 have been allowed to serve in Russia’s military since 2015.

A nation at war, suffering economic hardship, will struggle to attract the number of new immigrants it has in the past.

Now that the Ukraine conflict is progressing from an acute attack to a drawn-out war of attrition, the population effects – emigration of Russian nationals, birth rate suppression due to political uncertainty and dwindling numbers of new immigrants – spell further trouble for the long- term future of the armed forces.

As Lohsen warns: “The long term effects of a nation’s demography on a grinding war have to be taken into account.”

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