Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via Reuters

Russian Power in Decline


nick eberstadt, a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published October 31, 2022


The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine may have marked the end of one era and the beginning of another — but it was only one step (albeit a fateful one) along a strategic path the Kremlin has methodically pursued for over a decade and a half. What this progression has revealed is the classic modus operandi of a revanchist power determined to turn the clock back and restore an earlier order.

From Putin’s 2005 declaration that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century” to the 2008 war against neighboring Georgia to the fateful “special military operation” now underway in Ukraine, Russia’s behavior will be entirely familiar to those who have studied other “restorationist” states.

But there is an interesting wrinkle in the current Russian case. History is full of instances where an aggrieved rising power acts to expand its borders or otherwise coerce status-enhancing concessions from neighbors. In Russia today we see a much more unusual situation: this increasingly menacing and ambitious geopolitical actor looks to be a state whose power is actually in decline. Notwithstanding its nuclear arsenal and its vast territory, a striking feature — arguably, the distinguishing feature — of contemporary Russia is its underdevelopment and relative economic weakness.

Over the years, we have often heard a refrain about Russia’s enormous leverage over the global economy. Yet for all its oil and gas, Russia’s total exports in 2021 fell short of Belgium’s ($550 billion vs. $680 billion). The plain fact is that, while petro-states like Saudi Arabia may have influence in the global economic order, there has never been an enduring energy superpower anywhere, ever. In the modern era, the ultimate source of national wealth and power is not natural resources but human resources. And Russia’s human resource position is peculiarly dismal — with worse quite possibly in store.

Here I examine Russia’s demographic and human resource circumstances — recent, current and prospective. Some of this will be familiar to generally well-informed readers. But other aspects of my assessment will be news to most — even though they’ve been hiding in plain sight.

Demography Counts

There are three virtues to examining Russia through the prism of demography. First, among the social sciences, demography is perhaps the most straightforward. It is conceptually easier to count heads than to determine, say, income levels or purchasing power. Demographic change is relatively easy to track: next year’s population should equal today’s population, netted for deaths, births and migration. And the basic metrics for demography (such as births per woman and life expectancy at birth) are more intuitive than such constructs as GDP or the yield curve.

Demographics slowly but inexorably alter the realm of the possible in human affairs. And Russia offers an important, and in some ways puzzling, example.

Second, absent catastrophe of Biblical proportion, demography permits us to peer further into the future than other social sciences. We can confidently project the size of key cohorts, from working-age labor to pensionersto- be, decades down the road since the folks being counted are already alive.

Third, demographic trends matter. They afford insight into a society’s well-being and cast light on its economic potential — and, arguably, its odds of prevailing in a war of attrition like the invasion of Ukraine. None of this is to say that demography is necessarily destiny. But I would stake out a less ethereal claim — namely, that demographics slowly but inexorably alter the realm of the possible in human affairs. And Russia offers an important, and in some ways puzzling, example.

Back to Depopulation

Start with the facts about Russia’s post-Soviet demography. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has been losing population. To be clear: population decline doesn’t necessarily imply falling living standards — prosperous Japan has been shrinking for over a decade, and dynamic Germany has been on the verge for years. But population does bear directly on the human resources the Kremlin can command.

For a time, Russia’s post-Soviet population decline not only halted but promised a reversal. Thanks to modest immigration inflows from the periphery of the former Soviet empire, the Russian Federation’s total population increased by nearly one million from 2009 to 2014 (on a baseline of 143 million). Then, by annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia’s population instantly increased by another 2.3 million.

The reprieve was temporary, though. By 2018 population decline had resumed, and thereafter picked up terrible momentum. Whereas the officially estimated cumulative decline for 2018 and 2019 amounted to less than 150,000, the drop linked to Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021 came to almost 1.3 million.

The shock from the coronavirus was probably a one-time event. But other factors driving depopulation are gaining force. Until Covid, Russia’s birth totals had been rebounding from their post-Soviet collapse (hitting a low point in 1999), while death totals had been heading downward since 2003. And from 2013 through 2015, the lines crossed: for the first time since the end of the Communist era, births (slightly) exceeded deaths.

But that achievement was fleeting. In 2016, Russia once again reported fewer births than deaths, and thereafter the gap widened. By the year 2019, deaths exceeded births by more than 300,000. Then, thanks in part to the virus, the dam burst.

Viktor Korotayev/Reuters Pictures

An independent analysis put Russia’s “excess mortality” level during the first two years of the pandemic at twice that of the United States, which hardly distinguished itself in preventing Covid deaths. Russia’s net mortality exceeded a million in 2021 alone. Ultimately, over the whole 1992-2021 period, deaths in Russia surpassed births by a cumulative 15.7 million.

A bit of context here. The emergence of a “negative natural increase” in peacetime Russia over the past generation is by no means unique. Indeed, it was not the most exceptional outlier — though all of its close company did happen to be post-Communist states, including Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine and Bulgaria.

Remember, too, that high ratios of deaths to births are also becoming characteristic of most affluent societies as their populations age. Germany and Italy, for example, are already on the “top 10” roster for 1992-2020 — and in the years since 2012, the European Union as a whole has slipped into net mortality. For the time being, though, persistent excess of deaths over births is still more likely to be an indicator of a dysfunctional society — much as in days of old, when it was a consequence of war, famine and upheaval.

Russia Is Like and Not Like Europe

The other side of the population coin, of course, is births. Between 1999 and 2012, Russia witnessed a surge from the doldrums of the Soviet end-times, with annual births jumping from 1.2 million to 1.9 million. But the surge was a passing event, not a new normal. By 2015, birth totals had again begun to decline, and by 2019 — before the pandemic shock — births had dropped by almost a fourth from their 2014 levels. Unsurprisingly, the birth dearth got even grimmer during the Covid years of 2020 and 2021.

Why the roller coaster? The rise of births in Russia between 2008 and 2014 did coincide with Putin’s pro-natal birth benefits program, leading the Kremlin to call that initiative a success. But the program continued even as births plunged. Fertility is always changing everywhere, and it is exceedingly difficult to parse the immediate factors responsible. That said, it is still possible to offer a few confident observations about fertility and family formation in contemporary Russia.

Contemporary Russia never came close to child-bearing rates that could have ensured population stability. By 2018, the NRR was back to 0.75. If that number holds, Russia’s population will shrink by a quarter in one generation, absent immigration.

First, notwithstanding its brief baby surge, which temporarily propelled Russia’s fertility level from below the European average to slightly above it, births in Russia remained below the replacement level. According to the official statistics, the high-water mark for the Russian Federation’s “net reproduction rate” (NRR) in the post-Soviet era was in 2015, when the rate hit 0.85 (an NRR of 1.00 leads to long-term population stability without inmigration).

To be sure, that reading was up substantially from the low of 1999, when the NRR was a truly forbidding 0.54. Even so, contemporary Russia never came close to childbearing rates that could have ensured population stability. And by 2018, the NRR was back to 0.75. If that number holds, Russia’s population will shrink by a quarter in one generation, absent immigration.

It’s worth pointing out that Russia’s nationwide NRR is an average of rates that differ considerably among regions. The 2018 NRR was just 0.54 in the St. Petersburg metro area, but a still robust 1.24 in Chechnya. Of the 85 regions (oblast) for which the government provided NRR estimates, though, just three of them (with just 2 percent of Russia’s population) came in above 1.00.

Russia’s pronounced and geographically pervasive sub-replacement fertility must be borne in mind when one hears claims about the country’s supposedly prolific Muslim population, which is a not-inconsiderable 11 percent of the total population. But Russia’s Muslims — more specifically, men and women from traditionally Islamic ethnicities, since Russia does not collect data on the religion of its population — seem little more inclined than others to be fertile and multiply. Of all the historically and culturally Muslimmajority regions in Russia, only Chechnya’s fertility levels are persistently above replacement. While Russians of Muslim heritage may on average have higher fertility than the rest of the country — and are thereby likely to account for a somewhat larger share of the national population in the years ahead than they do today — their total numbers are also on track to shrink unless their current childbearing patterns change dramatically.

Broadly speaking, Russian fertility levels in fact mirror the rest of Europe’s. A corresponding shift to indefinite sub-replacement fertility also appears to be underway in the European Union. At 0.74, the EU’s net reproduction rate in 2018 was similar to Russia’s, with regional rates as low as 0.49 in Sardinia and as high as 1.01 in Romania’s northeast. But that’s far from the end of the story.

Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin (Russia)
Russia’s Disastrous Survival Profile

While Russia’s childbearing patterns look European, its mortality patterns look Third World — actually, worse than Third World. Compare the Russian population’s survival trajectory with that of the rest of the world in 2019. That year was a good one for life expectancy in Russia — indeed, the highest ever recorded. But drill a bit deeper, and the rot appears: according to World Health Organization estimates, life expectancy in 2019 for 15-year-old Russian males was essentially indistinguishable from 15-year-old males in Haiti.

This is not a typo. The estimate for both Haiti and Russia was 53.7 years. That teenage Russian male stood worse survival chances in Russia than in 23 of the 46 countries the United Nations categorizes as “least developed” — among them Mali, Yemen and even war-decimated Afghanistan.

Projecting from 2019 survival trajectories, over one in four 20-year-old males will die before their 60th birthday. The corresponding risk in Europe is only half that high — and those European aggregates, remember, are distorted by including Russia in them.

Although survival prospects are distinctly better for women, the WHO-estimated life expectancy for 15-year-old Russian females in 2019 was still only comparable with Bangladesh, a country with only one-fifth the per capita income. And combined male and female life expectancy at age 15 in 2019 was estimated to be fully three years higher in Bangladesh than in Russia — 62.0 years versus 58.8 years.

The Russian Paradox

Russia is an urbanized, literate and seemingly highly educated society. Indeed, the country has one of the highest shares of population over the age of 25 with some post-secondary education in the world. The Russian and its precursor-Soviet educational systems may have granted higher degrees at lower levels of attainment than in counterpart countries. But that likely systemic bias notwithstanding, overall years of schooling in Russia still look pretty good. In fact, Russia’s mean years of adult schooling slightly exceed those of France and Belgium. But how can high levels of educational attainment coexist with the life expectancy of countries awash with absolute poverty?

Russia’s life expectancy setback of 1.6 years during the initial year of the pan-demic was the largest among the 37 high- and upper-middle-income countries that collect comparable data. And it didn’t get any better in 2021
Russia’s Mortality Mystery

The explanation is tied to the peculiar causes and timing of Russian mortality. Start with the reality that life expectancy at birth in Russia was no higher in 2010 than it had been half a century earlier.

Russia did enjoy steady improvement in the 2005-2019 period, with a jump in overall life expectancy of nearly eight years — and nearly a decade for men. Indeed, this was the most sustained improvement since the death of Stalin. But two qualifications are nevertheless necessary here.

First, since steady health improvements are the norm rather than the exception in the rest of the world, a decade and a half of exceptional health progress in Russia only brought the country up to the world average — and still well behind peers in terms of income. Even at its 2019 peak, life expectancy in Russia was almost eight years below that of countries classified as high income by the United Nations.

Second, Russia’s life expectancy setback of 1.6 years during the initial year of the pandemic was the largest among the 37 high- and upper-middle-income countries that collect comparable data. And it didn’t get any better in 2021, when life expectancy may have dropped by another 1.6 years.

How could a country whose overall life expectancy at birth was just about average in global terms (as Russia’s was in 2019) also suffer from woeful survival in mid-life? That paradox is explained by the odd structure of mortality. While death rates for infants and children in Russia are about the same as in developed nations, death rates for the working-age population resemble those of wretchedly poor states. And this is possible because Russians risk death from very different causes than the ones that loom in the world’s least-developed populations.

Over the decades under consideration, Western Europe’s mortality levels have undergone a smooth continuing decline. The same is true for the post-Communist societies that have joined the EU. But Russia’s mortality level — both under Communism and since — has been erratic and unstable, with improvements in one period tending to be erased by retrenchment in the next.

Viktor Korotayev/Reuters Pictures

The Soviet-bloc states of eastern Europe fared far worse than the rest of the continent in terms of public health in the final decades of the Cold War Era. In 1990, mortality levels for what are now the “new” (late-joining) EU countries were on average 46 percent above those of the “old” EU, while the Soviet Union’s mortality levels were 53 percent higher. So mortality levels in Russia and the rest of Communist Europe were fairly similar at the end of the Soviet era. After that, however, the modest mortality gap between the Russian Federation and those European states formerly ruled by Moscow opened to a chasm. Evidently, the shadow over Russian public health cannot be attributed solely to a legacy of the commissars.

In very poor countries, foreshortened life is typically due to the collision of malnutrition and communicable diseases. Although Russia’s tuberculosis and HIV problems are very real, they account for only a tiny share — around one-fiftieth — of the vast gap separating all-cause, age-standardized mortality levels in Russia and the EU. Here’s the surprise: Russia’s terrible killers are cardiovascular disease (CVD) and injuries (homicides, suicides, traffic fatalities and miscellaneous accidents).

For decades, Russia’s death rates from CVD were higher than the highest levels ever recorded in any Western country (namely Finland, circa 1970). Indeed, in 2008, male CVD mortality levels for the Russian Federation were three and a half times higher than would have been predicted solely on the basis of the country’s income.

Age-standardized Russian CVD mortality has come down a bit since 2005. Even so, 2019 CVD mortality was two and a half times higher in Russia than in Finland and 3.2 times overall levels for the OECD.

As for injuries and poisonings, death rates in 2008 for working-age Russian men were four times higher than would have been predicted solely by per capita income, with absolute levels of violent death exceeded only in a handful of places, including civil-war-riven Iraq and Sri Lanka. Violent death, of course, is overwhelmingly a male problem more or less everywhere. But in Russia, violence is so shockingly high that for a time the country managed the dubious achievement of a crossover: for much of the first decade of the 21st century, age-standardized death rates from injuries and poisonings were actually higher for women in Russia than for men in the OECD countries.

The Russian way of death — these fear-somely high levels of mortality from cardio-vascular disease and injuries — is a terrible epidemiological enigma. Public health specialists are still groping for explanations.

Between 2005 and 2019, Russia reportedly managed to cut mortality from injury and poisonings by more than half — a meaningful achievement. Even so, 2019 injury and poisoning death levels remained over twice as high as in the OECD. And in 2019, as earlier, almost all of Russia’s excess mortality was attributable to its much higher level of adult (not child) mortality.

The Russian way of death — these fearsomely high levels of mortality from cardiovascular disease and injuries — is a terrible epidemiological enigma. Public health specialists are still groping for explanations. Strikingly, the standard risk factors used for predicting CVD in the rest of the world — blood pressure, smoking, obesity and the like — don’t work for Russia: death rates there are always much higher than these classic indicators would suggest. And Russia’s injury mortality profiles are positively pre-industrial.

Why? Russian drinking habits may have something to do with all this. As anyone who has spent time in the country knows, vodka bingeing is prodigious. Other behavioral factors — including stressful lifestyles — may also play their part. But the sad fact is that the causes behind Russia’s hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths each year are not yet fully understood, much less addressed, by medical authorities.

Russia’s Dysfunctional Knowledge Economy

Russia’s “high education, low human capital” paradox does not end with problematic health: it shows up acutely in the country’s “knowledge production” deficit, too. Nowadays, long-term economic progress depends critically on improving productivity through knowledge — technology, management and so on — rather than through the accumulation of physical capital. But, oddly for a well-educated, mediumhigh- income country, Russia is terrible at it.

The U.S. Patent Office (now known as the Patent and Trade Office, or PTO) was established in the 1830s. But nearly half of its patent awards and well over half of its awards to foreign inventers have been granted just since the year 2000. Of the 2.5 million patents awarded to foreigners between 2000 and 2020, applicants from Russia took home fewer than 6,600 — which was a smaller fraction of the total than had been awarded to the USSR during the Cold War. In the 2002-2020 period, Russia (with the world’s ninth-largest population) ranked 25th in PTO awards, behind tiny Norway and Finland.

Grigory Tambulov/AFP via Getty Images

Wait, this gets better — I mean worse. The Russian Federation’s rate of PTO awards is currently on a par with the state of Alabama. But Alabama’s population is just 5 million — while Russia’s is over 140 million, very nearly 30 times larger. The contrast with high-tech California is truly remarkable. Russia’s population is over three and a half times larger, while in 2020 California produced over 80 times more patents — that’s total, not per capita.

Another way to look at Russia’s underperformance in patents is to compare patent activity with educational attainment. Belgium’s 2020 “yield” of international patent applications per person with some college attendance was 15 times higher than Russia’s, while Austria’s was 23 times higher. By this reckoning, over 50 countries — not just Western countries and China, but Saudi Arabia and South Africa — came out ahead of Russia.

This underperformance is reflected in foreign trade. In 2019, Russia’s share of global economic output adjusted for purchasing power was 3.1 percent. Yet Russia generated only 1 percent of total global service-sector exports. Note that service exports really amount to trade in human skills — unlike merchandise trade, which is in commodities or natural resources and thus generally less skills-intensive. Curiously, given Russia’s wellknown expertise in software, it even fares poorly in IT exports, where its 2019 share of the global market was only slightly ahead of the Philippines.

Adding to the shortfall, the Ukraine invasion seems to be affecting the talent base for what there is of a knowledge economy. In the initial weeks of the war, some estimated that as many as 200,000 highly skilled Russians fled their country — many of them IT specialists. Depending on the course of that war and on Western sanctions, the bleed of talent may or may not be staunched when the guns fall silent. But it is difficult to envision a scenario in which Russia ever becomes a magnet for the best and brightest.

No Turnaround in Sight

As bad as Russia’s demographic and human resource trends are, the outlook for the years ahead seems even bleaker in terms of comparisons with the rest of the world — the metric arguably most important to practitioners of geopolitics in the Kremlin.

The number of working-age Russians (ages 25-64) peaked in 2011 and is on a path of steady shrinkage through at least 2040, while the prime-age group (25-54) actually peaked two decades ago.

Consider first the total population and its composition. Given the birth slump of the past two decades, Russia’s native-born labor force, which is already shrinking, is bound to be yet smaller in 2030 and 2040 than it is today. The number of working-age Russians (ages 25-64) peaked in 2011 and is on a path of steady shrinkage through at least 2040, while the prime-age group (25-54) actually peaked two decades ago.

In light of the continuing growth of global population over the next few decades, the absolute drop in workers guarantees that Russia’s share of global labor is set for even more pronounced decline. UN projections suggest Russia’s share of 15- to 64-year-olds will be just half as large in 2040 as in 1990.

Then there is Russia’s total future population. There is good reason to think that Russian deaths will continue to outnumber births — if only because, due to the post-Soviet baby crash of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the number of women entering their 20s will shrink for the next decade. It seems that continuing depopulation could only be prevented by substantially increased immigration.

If all this were not sobering enough for Putin, Russia’s geopolitical potential is being squeezed further by the rapid growth of skilled manpower pools elsewhere. Russia is likely to account for barely a fortieth of the world’s highly educated working-age labor by 2040 — not only trailing distantly behind the U.S., China and India, but behind Indonesia and Nigeria by 2050. Moreover, the productivity of Russian knowledge workers stands to be constrained by health problems. Russian life expectancy at birth is projected to remain below that of Bangladesh in 2040, and the outlook for working-age mortality is even less favorable.

Russian life expectancy at birth is projected to remain below that of Bangladesh in 2040, and the outlook for working-age mortality is even less favorable.
Something Must Give

Not to beat a dead horse, but Russia’s demographic and human resource problems are daunting. Russia is already in the grip of a prolonged, if still gradual, population decline. And although education elsewhere confers health benefits, Russia looks to be an exception. Then, too, despite an education profile that looks pretty good on paper, Russia seems utterly incapable of competing in knowledge production.

The contrast between the fantasy of Russian restorationism and the reality of an economy and society hollowed out by poor health and lack of economic competitiveness is striking. Witness the dictator’s proclivity for taking ever-greater risks abroad, from Georgia to Crimea and now Ukraine — and likewise, the rise in nuclear saber-rattling. Greater risk-taking in the context of the contemporary Russian state can be seen as a method of compensating for declining national potential. Up until the Ukraine invasion, it had proved a successful, low-cost approach for the Kremlin.

Yet Putin’s ambitions are simply not viable in the long run.

The big question is just how the Kremlin’s expectations will be pared back to conform with Russia’s human resource realities. And a number of scenarios can be envisioned that might bring Russia’s overreach to an end. Given Putin’s obsession that Russia has been denied its due place in the geopolitical firmament, few of these scenarios are pleasant to contemplate.