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Is Demographic Decline Fueling Russia’s Aggression?
Demographic decline was supposed to keep Russia at bay. But maybe the opposite is true: Russia’s adverse demographic trends could be pushing the country to become more aggressive, not less.
In 2009, former secretary of defense Robert Gates wrote that “adverse demographic trends in Russia will likely keep [its military] forces in check.” And many analysts agreed with this sentiment: Low fertility and high mortality, by constraining available manpower and economic growth, would keep Russia at bay. Clearly, however, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—along with his recent nuclear belligerency and threats against Finland and Sweden—throws that theory into doubt.
So what’s going on? This NYT op-ed points to a compelling concept: power transition theory. This theory, born in the early postwar era, posits that countries entering demographic decline have two big incentives to act more aggressively. The first and most important is that such countries may perceive that they are losing power relative to their adversaries. They may therefore feel they face a “closing window of opportunity” in which time is not on their side—so it is best to strike sooner rather than later. The second is the hope that success and resolve may be rewarded by a more favorable domestic outlook on the future which may work to reverse the dynamics of demographic decline.
In a previous NewsWire, we discussed how this theory may explain the harder-line foreign policy coming out of China. (See “Births in China Continue to Fall.”) Over just the last few years, the CCP has suddenly become very concerned about China’s rapid fertility decline. From 2012 to 2021, the number of annual births in China fell a whopping -46%, cutting the rate of natural increase to near zero. Since China has negligible net immigration, that means that in just the next year or two China may enter an indefinite period of overall population decline. China’s depopulating future is now due to arrive much earlier than recent official Chinese projections had indicated.
The government has responded by frantically introducing pronatalist policies. (See “China Limits Vasectomies” and “China Pins Its Future on a Three-Child Policy.”) But as I have suggested, the population alarmism also seems to be feeding China’s new aggressiveness in pursuing its geopolitical goals.
Throughout most of his leadership tenure, Xi Jinping has often expressed the view that the West is on track to disintegrate socially and politically on its own accord. Accordingly, China need only keep growing and thriving while waiting patiently and peacefully to inherit the mantle of regional superpower. But the sudden prospect of impending demographic decline may be persuading the CCP that the future is no longer on China’s side: It may be better to strike while the iron is hot. And there may be an additional benefit: An impressive foreign policy victory could help increase fertility by bolstering public confidence in China’s future.
The situation in Russia is somewhat different. While China is just now becoming aware of its looming demographic decline, Russia’s demographic troubles have been acknowledged since well before the fall of the Soviet Union. So what explains the very recent timing of Russia’s new active hostility to the West? I suspect the answer lies in the changing hopes and fears of Vladimir Putin.
Throughout Putin’s 22-year de-facto role as Russia’s supreme leader, he has consistently prioritized efforts to reverse Russia’s demographic decline. As he famously declared in his 2006 state of the union address, “The most urgent problem facing Russia is demographic crisis.” And indeed he has had some success in reversing the adverse demographic trends he inherited from the 1990s. During Putin’s tenure, Russia’s appallingly high mortality rate has dropped substantially, thanks in part to much lower rates of alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking. Since 2000, meanwhile, Russia’s birth rate rose for nearly 15 years. By 2015 and 2016, amazingly, Russia’s rising total fertility rate (TFR) had nearly caught up with America’s falling TFR.
But many of these positive trends, especially fertility, have stagnated or even reversed over the last five years. And Russia’s dismal response to the pandemic has accelerated a catastrophic reversal in deaths. In 2021, Russia’s population fell by more than half a million people. (See “Russia’s Population Falls By Over Half a Million.”)
Until a few years ago, in other words, Putin and Russia took pride in an increasingly brighter demographic future. But now it looks as though Putin now understands that he is engaged in a tougher and more desperate struggle than he earlier imagined. Just like Xi in China, Putin no longer views time as his friend. If Putin wants to overcome the West, therefore, he figures he had better take some chances and start now before the motherland becomes any weaker. And who knows? With a new spirit of national solidarity, combined with a few successes on the battlefield, maybe the Russian national mood will again change in his favor.
Most western pundits, of course, thinks Putin is losing his mind by pursuing his current course. They say he’s uniting all of his western adversaries against Russia—and, on the demographic front, this new war is triggering a significant exodus of his most educated citizens.
IMO, Putin figures this is all a price worth paying. Calling the emigrants (and protesters) “scum and traitors,” he has announced that “a necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.” He knows he was never going to beat the West by means of a larger economy or superior technology—or even greater numbers. But where he does figure he can beat the West is in sheer patriotism and collective self-sacrifice. The unification of the West against Russia actually helps him stay in power, by demonstrating to his people that their enemies are besieging Russia on all sides. Even the departure of “traitors,” from his perspective, may galvanize a deeper will to fight harder.
The power transition theory of international conflict is mostly about changing perceptions of a nation’s relative strength relative to its adversaries. But it is also, implicitly, a theory that explains an important psychological fact about so many nations that initiate brutal aggression against neighbors: very often, their citizenry are motivated by fear and paranoia combined with revanchist hopes of overcoming insufferable humiliation—so much so that “enemies” among the citizens themselves are purged at the same time that “enemies” across borders are invaded.
As we all know, many nations followed this path during the 1930s, a decade in which—as in our own time—fears of demographic decline were widespread (especially in such authoritarian aggressors as Italy, Germany, and Japan). One of these aggressors turned out to be Russia. And its paranoid and purge-happy leader, Joseph Stalin, is now repeatedly invoked by Putin as a paradigm for Russian greatness. Thanks to Putin’s efforts, Stalin has now reassumed his role as Russia’s national exemplar, just in time for Putin himself to step into it. By 2017, more Russians were volunteering “Stalin” as among history’s ten greatest figures than any other person.