How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For decades, first the Soviet Union and then Russia languished under adverse population trends. Deaths far outpaced births, life expectancy was dismally low, and social ills, from alcoholism to unsafe abortion practices, were rampant.
Over the past several years, however, this demographic picture has somewhat brightened. In 2012, live births outnumbered deaths for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That indicator has remained marginally positive, and others have also begun to improve. By 2013, Russia’s average life expectancy reached a historic high, at 71 years, and birthrates nearly matched European averages. These reversals have been modest, but they have been enough for the Kremlin to proclaim victory in its decades-long fight against demographic decline. In a December address to Kremlin officials, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the “effectiveness” of Russia’s demographic programs in reversing the country’s trajectory.
His conclusion, however, is extremely premature. That is the assessment of a 2015 study by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), a state university. The report points to some marked improvements in Russia’s recent demographic fortunes, with fertility rates, for example, rising from 1.3 children per woman in 2006 to 1.7 children per woman in 2012. But it maintains that Russia’s demographic prospects are profoundly negative in the longer term. “Despite . . . recent positive dynamics,” the report notes, “the potential for a demographic crisis is not over.”
Indeed, Russia’s window for further population growth is rapidly closing. Within a decade, according to RANEPA’s estimates, the population of Russian women aged 20 to 29 will shrink by nearly 50 percent. The corresponding decrease in birth rates, particularly when combined with the country’s mortality rates—the 22nd highest in the world, according to the study—makes it clear that Russia is still in for long-term decline.
Russia’s window for population growth is rapidly closing.
In fact, without remedial action, Russia’s population could shrink to 113 million by 2050, a decrease of more than 20 percent from today’s population of 144 million. And in a worst-case scenario, RANEPA argues, Russia’s population could fall by nearly a third, to 100 million, before midcentury. The economic effects of such a shift would be dramatic; Russia’s working-age population would decrease by more than 26 million, making the country less competitive and less prosperous. But there is still some hope: if Moscow takes measures to reduce mortality and boost the birthrate, RANEPA estimates that the Russian population could rise modestly, to 155 million, by 2040.
In other words, Russia has a choice to make—one with deep social and economic consequences. If implemented in the near term, improvements in health care, tax benefits for families, and steps to discourage emigration could offset and even reverse Russia’s long-term population decline. The opportunity to do so, however, will be lost over the next decade, and the social and economic consequences of governmental inattention could be catastrophic.
Unfortunately, there’s little chance that the Kremlin will seize the moment. In recent years, preoccupied with regaining its place on the world stage, Moscow has only peripherally addressed the long-term sources of national decline. Instead, it has prioritized spending on programs that reinforce its reputation as a great power. Even before the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, it was estimated that Russia planned to spend upward of $600 billion on upgrading its military capabilities by 2020. The increased expenditures have funded, among other projects, the creation of new intercontinental ballistic missiles, the deployment of additional long-range strike capabilities, and serious work on electromagnetic pulse weapons.
In recent years, Moscow has only peripherally addressed the long-term sources of national decline.
Over the past year and a half, as Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated and as its economy has suffered under Western sanctions and slumping oil prices, Moscow has assumed an even more martial focus. According to a recent Bloomberg exposé, Russia is in the midst of a massive military spending boom. Many of the increases in defense spending, the news agency reports, are in the “black budget”: expenditures authorized by Putin but not publicly announced, often due to opaque national security concerns. The black budget has doubled over the past five years, to some $60 billion. It is set to grow even more in the future. In all, the study estimates, military expenditures have increased by a factor of 20 since Putin became president 15 years ago, and defense and security now account for some 34 percent of Russia’s budget. That is nearly double the proportion of the U.S. budget devoted to those sectors.
All of this leaves little room for the serious investments in social services that Russia’s demographic health demands. The country’s social sector is weak: Russian health-care expenditures, for example, have declined as a percentage of GDP since 2009, and issues such as education, public health, and science are seen as only marginally important. Indeed, in September 2012, Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach admitted that Moscow’s budget priorities precluded reform in those sectors. Today, with the country in an even more precarious state as a result of the Ukraine conflict, there’s even less likelihood of reform.
That’s a potentially dangerous mistake. Unless Moscow gets serious about Russia’s internal health, and does so quickly, the country’s recent population rebound is destined to be temporary —and Russia’s negative demographic future will return with a vengeance.