Russia's 'catastrophic' missing men problem

Where have all the young men gone?

Fleeing Russia.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

"Where have all the flowers gone?" asks the famous 1960s antiwar song. In Moscow today, The New York Times reports, the question is: Where have all the men gone?

The answer to both questions is, in part, the same: To the graveyards of soldiers. But a lot of the missing men of Moscow have also fled Russian President Vladimir Putin's draft for his war in Ukraine. In fact, demographers say Russia may not recover for generations, if ever.

"Putin spent years racing against Russia's demographic clock, only to order an invasion of Ukraine that's consigning his country's population to a historic decline," Bloomberg News reports. Here's a look at what demographer Alexei Raksha calls Russia's "perfect storm" of demographic decline:

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Where have all the young men gone?

Putin says his October 2022 mobilization drafted about 300,000 men to send to Ukraine. Another 300,000 Russians are believed to have fled to other countries to avoid the draft. The U.S. calculated in May 2023 that about 20,000 Russian fighters had died in Ukraine since December and another 80,000 were injured. That's on top of tens of thousands Russian soldiers killed or wounded in the first 10 months of the war. "I feel like we are a country of women now," Moscow resident Stanislava, 33, told the Times. "I was searching for male friends to help me move some furniture, and I realized almost all of them had left."

Russia's central bank found in a spring 2023 survey of 14,000 employers that the country's supply of available workers has hit its lowest level since 1998, pushing Russia into "its worst labor shortage in decades," Britain's Ministry of Defense reported in May. The COVID-19 pandemic had already shrunk the country's population more than expected before the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine, and then "Russia saw up to 1.3 million people leave the country in 2022, including many younger and well-educated people in high-value industries," Britain's defense ministry added. For example, "about 10 percent (100,000) of [Russia's] IT workforce left the country in 2022 and did not return."

Aleksei Ermilov, the founder of Russia's Chop-Chop barber shop empire, tells the Times you "can see the massive relocation wave more in Moscow and St. Petersburg than in other cities, partially because more people have the means to leave there."

The urban professionals who could blithely avoid thinking about the war over the summer did get a rude awakening when the Kremlin started pressing them into military service. The ranks of Moscow's "intelligentsia, who often have disposable income and passports for foreign travel," have "thinned noticeably — in restaurants, in the hipster community, and at social gatherings like dinners and parties," the Times reports. But ethnic and religious minorities in some regions have it worse.

In the remote far north of Russia and along the Mongolia border, in the regions of Sakha and Buryatia, mobilization rates were up to six times higher than in Russia's European regions, according to Yekaterina Morland at the Asians of Russia Foundation. Indigenous people in those regions were "rounded up in their villages" and enlistment officers scoured the tundra and "handed out summonses to anyone they met," Vladimir Budaev of the Free Buryatia Foundation told The Associated Press.

How has the male exodus affected Russian demography?

Russia already had a huge gender imbalance before the Ukraine invasion, dating back to massive battlefield losses in World War II, Paul Goble writes at Eurasia Daily Monitor. Results from the 2021 census are expected to show that Russia has 10.5 million more women than men, almost the same disparity as a decade ago — the double blow being that Russian men at "prime child-bearing age" are dying in Ukraine or fleeing Putin's draft, which will "further depress the already low birthrates in the Russian Federation and put the country's demographic future, already troubled, at even greater risk."

"The mobilization is upending families at perhaps the most fraught moment ever for Russian demographics, with the number of women of childbearing age down by about a third in the past decade" amid the country's broader population decline, Bloomberg reports. "While demographic traumas usually play out over decades, the fallout of the invasion is making the worst scenarios more likely — and much sooner than expected."

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Continuing with the Ukraine war and mobilization efforts until the end of next spring would be "catastrophic" for Russia, Moscow demographer Igor Efremov told Bloomberg in the fall. It would likely bring birth rates down to 1 million between mid-2023 and mid-2024, dropping the fertility rate to 1.2 children per woman, a low mark Russia hit only once, in the 1999-2000 period. "A fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep populations stable without migration," Bloomberg adds, and currently Russia is facing "immigration outflows" and serious questions about its "ability to attract workers from abroad."

The war is bad for Ukraine, too, right?

Yes — and like Russia, Ukraine was already hurting demographically even before the invasion, Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the conservative Institute for Family Studies, wrote in March 2022. "Both Russia and Ukraine have low fertility rates, but in recent years, Russia has implemented pro-natal policies that have helped the country avoid extreme fertility declines," while Ukraine has been relatively lacking in such policies as it struggled through 15 years of war and political and economic upheaval.

Given Russia's much larger population and less severe recent population decline, "Ukraine's position compared to Russia's is steadily eroding," and "this trend will continue at an even greater pace in the future as the gaps in fertility rates between the two countries grow wider," Stone predicts. But "core demographic factors like birth rates and migration rates," while important, "are not destiny," and Ukraine has "turned demographic decline into military rejuvenation" through alliance-building and the "sharp willingness" of Ukrainians to fight.

Moreover, if Russia succeeds in annexing significant parts of Ukraine, Putin will have succeeded in bulking up Russia's population — but he'll also be adding Ukraine's "unfavorable demographics" to his own problems, Bloomberg notes.

Might there be a Russian post-war baby boom?

It's possible. Sometimes wars "lead to higher fertility," as when "sudden bursts of conception" occur as men deploy for battle, Goble writes at Eurasia Daily Monitor. "For example, monthly birth data from the 1940s clearly shows that U.S. baby boom began not as the G.I.'s returned from war, but as they were leaving for war." After the fighting stops, he adds, "wars may trigger a surge of nationalist ideas making people susceptible to pro-natal ideas and policies, even as so-called 'replacement fertility' often leads families to 'respond' to high-casualty events by having 'replacement' children."

In the short term, though, "it is likely that in conditions of uncertainty, many couples will postpone having children for some time until the situation stabilizes," Elena Churilova, research fellow in the Higher School Economics's International Laboratory for Population and Health, tells Bloomberg. "In 2023, we are likely to see a further decline in the birth rate."

And in the meantime, "downloads of dating apps have significantly increased in the countries to which Russian men fled," the Times reports, noting sharp rises in downloads in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. "All of the most reasonable guys are gone," said Tatiana, a 36-year-old Muscovite. "The dating pool has shrunk by at least 50 percent."

Is there any way Russia can reverse its demographic spiral?

The most likely outcome is that "Putin's war will cast a shadow on Russia for a long time to come — one growing ever darker the longer the war carries on," Goble writes. Not only will the loss of Russian men to emigration and battlefield death "leave a huge hole in Russian society," but "those Russian men who do indeed manage to return will experience enormous problems," from PTSD and other health struggles to participating in a "proliferation of crime waves similar to those that followed the Afghan and Chechen wars."

The shape of "Russia's population pyramid" means "the birthrate is almost destined to decline," Brent Peabody wrote at Foreign Policy in January. Putin has said he's haunted by that fact, and "Russia's need for more people is no doubt a motivating consideration for its current aggressive posture toward Ukraine," even as "the idea that Ukrainians would sign up to be good Russians is largely delusional."

Ukrainians may not sign up to be good Russians willingly, but thousands of Ukrainian children have been spirited off to Russia to be placed in Russian "foster families," AP reports.

Ukrainian authorities say they are launching a criminal case against Russia's children's rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, who announced in mid-October that she herself had adopted a boy seized by Russian forces in Ukraine's bombed-out Mariupol, AP reports. U.S., British, and other Western nations sanctioned Lvova-Belova in September over allegations she masterminded the removal to Russia of more than 2,000 vulnerable children from Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Demography, and assumptions about how nations will react to demographic changes, are not exact arts, Rhodes College professor Jennifer Sciubba wrote at Population Reference Bureau in April 2022. For example, "for years, one common argument in the U.S. policy community was that Russia's demographic troubles would curtail its ability to project power outside its borders."

Obviously, the "geriatric peace theory" was not a good fit for Russia, Sciubba adds. But more broadly, "population aging and contraction are such new trends that we know little about how states conduct foreign policy under these conditions, and we shouldn't expect aging states to act like aging individuals."

Updated May 10, 2023: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.

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