The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Putin Whistles in the Dark As Mother Russia Declines

President Putin is doing his best to spin the numbers on Russian demography. After catastrophic declines in population since the death of the Soviet Union, Russia saw births outnumber deaths last year and, temporarily, the demographic numbers look better. As the Financial Times reports, the ebullient sounding President remarked that the solution to Russia’s demographic problmes ar at home: “Our women know what to do, and when,” he remarked.

In 2012, births outnumbered deaths in Russia from January through September — the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that this has happened. Putin would like to claim this as a long term trend that could reverse Russia’s geopolitical slide, but there are two reasons for doubting that the baby boomlet means what he says it does.

The first is numbers: demographers note that the increase in Russian births this year reflects the coming of age of the relatively large generation of Russian millennials. These children of the optimistic perestroika years are now having children. Russia had something of a baby boom in those joyous and optimistic late Soviet days when the doors to a better life seemed to be opening wide. As the privations, lawlessness and social collapse of the ensuing era appeared, Russian women cut back on child bearing and once the echo of the perestroika baby boom fades away, Russia is looking at decades of shrinking numbers of women of child bearing years. The demographic good news is a blip, not a trend.

Much worse from President Putin’s point of view, one suspects, is the question — not addressed in the FT article or mentioned much in polite company in Russia — of just who is having babies in Russia today. Anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that the ethnic Russians are still dying out and that they are having many fewer children proportionately than the many non-Russian nationalities on the territory of the Federation. Muslim nationalities, in particular, may have substantially higher birthrates than Russian speaking Slavs.

Putin has to know this is true, and has to know something of what it means. Indeed, last week he announced proposals for additional incentives to promote more childbirth in fifty geographical areas in Russia where birth rates are particularly low. We suspect that the demographics of many of those districts look more like ‘Old Russia’ than like the multi-ethnic, multi-religious society growing up on the territory once held by the czars. While sounding bullish on Russian demography, Putin is also facing up to the (for him) grim fact that ethnic Russians continue to lose ground in what remains of the country.

Russia is a complex place and there are many currents and cross currents in Putin’s government these days, but it seems to us that the President and his inner circle must feel a great deal of pessimism as they look to Russia’s future. The population of the country as a whole remains set to shrink, and the Russians in Russia will be declining in percentage terms within that shrinking whole. The world energy market does not appear to be going Russia’s way. Islamist insurgencies and unrest in the Caucasus continue to threaten national unity. China shows little interest in a deep geopolitical partnership with Russia and looks more like a threat than an asset in the long run. Russia has not yet been able to translate its hydrocarbon wealth into the basis of a modern and dynamic economy, and even President Putin must understand how corruption is eating away ever more deeply at the structures of the state. The European Union shows no inclination to defer to him; Germany no longer seems to be toying with the idea of returning to a kind of Northern Courts diplomacy. Russia has had little impact on events in Syria and does not seem well positioned to play a decisive role as the Iranian situation unfolds. Russia dreads the prospect of a Sunni-dominated Middle East, but seems powerless either to strengthen the Shiite powers or to persuade the United States and western Europe to back away from the Sunnis. Closer to home, while Belarus remains under Moscow’s control and Ukraine has been unable to make a clear move west, Poland and the Baltic Republics have aligned themselves firmly with the west and Poland’s economic dynamism and political influence in Europe must be both galling and depressing to the Kremlin.

President Putin is too intelligent and clear eyed a man to miss these truths, however the propagandists and spinners around him try to paint a different picture. His foreign policy needs to be understood against this background of uncertainty and decline. Bluff, caution, patience and opportunism are the chief instruments of a power in Russia’s current position, and those (plus the diligent and determined use of the legacy intelligence and propaganda capabilities inherited from the Soviet era) are the instruments we expect President Putin to use.

Published on December 23, 2012 10:20 am