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Russia’s plummeting people power

Babies at a Moscow maternity clinic in 1987. Illustré/RDB/Ullstein Bild/Getty

“Russian power has always been built on the foundation of demography,” says Paul Morland in UnHerd. At the beginning of the 20th century, the country’s population was 136 million – and booming. The German historian Friedrich Meinecke fretted over the “almost inexhaustible fertility” of the Slavs, and in the Second World War it was “the endlessness of Russian manpower” that eventually ground down the Nazi army. “We confronted a hydra,” said the German Field Marshall Erich von Manstein. “For every head cut off, two new ones appeared to grow.”

Not any more. Before its break-up the Soviet Union’s population was 290 million; today Russia’s is just 146 million. That’s a disaster for Vladimir Putin. First, because a country of Russia’s size can only function if people are willing to “settle in some of the most inhospitable habitats in the world”. As its population declines, more and more Russians are abandoning places like Siberia and heading to the big cities – leaving “vast regions uninhabited”, and the infrastructure in those places unattended. Second, because “the preparedness of a society to sustain military losses falls as family size falls”. The Russian men who died fighting the Germans in the 1940s were from families of six or seven. Today, those fighting in Ukraine are much more likely to be only-children. That’s why the only conflicts that go on for years nowadays – Libya, Syria, Yemen, Congo – are in places where the men who die have many brothers. Russia’s days of vastly superior manpower are over. “A long, grinding war followed by a bloody occupation would cripple it.”