Russia’s War Is a Failed Answer to Its Demographic Crisis

For decades, Vladimir Putin has warned that Russia is on the path to extinction. His war has killed untold numbers of people — but it’s also an attempt to force millions of people into Russian citizenship.

Russian recruits gather outside a military processing center as drafted men said goodbye to their families before departing from their town in Moscow, Russia on October 6, 2022. (Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“The demographic doom loop has not, it appears, diminished Mr Putin’s craving for conquest. But it is rapidly making Russia a smaller, worse-educated and poorer country, from which young people flee and where men die in their 60s.” So concludes a recent Economist article about the demographic situation in Russia, a year into its invasion of Ukraine. However, what the British weekly isn’t counting — unlike the Russian government — are the approximately two million Crimeans who received Russian citizenship after the annexation in 2014. It also fails to mention the over 2.8 million Ukrainians who had to move to Russia since the beginning of the invasion, the more than one million people from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions who had to move to Russia over the last eight years of war, as well as those who have stayed in the occupied territories, and are currently lining up to receive Russian citizenship.

But these people matter — and including them in an analysis of the invasion and its consequences is crucial. As I will show here, managing the demographic crisis — part of a broader crisis of the reproduction of Russian society itself — can be understood as one of the key reasons behind the invasion. Before February 24, 2022, Ukrainians constituted the key ethnic group among those acquiring Russian citizenship and coming to the country as labor migrants. Now, the Kremlin uses forcefully displaced Ukrainians to refill the population pool with educated, predominantly Slavic, Russian-speaking new citizens. It is no coincidence that Putin repeats that Ukrainians do not exist as a separate nation — they, according to him, should be integrated into Russian citizenship but in a specially designed category as “second-class” citizens. Now, Putin’s changes to Russian citizenship law have introduced a new category of citizens with acquired citizenship.

Surely, such demographic engineering offers a scary vision of the future envisaged by Putin. But as my analysis shows, it can also help us better conceptualize a biopolitical imperialism, i.e. one “in which death is figuratively exported and life imported back.” That is, we can understand this imperialism in its connection with social reproduction — the replenishment of the Russian population itself.

“Traditional Values,” a Magical Solution

Since the early 2010s, as Dmitrii Dorogov argues, the Russian government has been vocal about what it calls “gender freedoms,” a series of scapegoats that includes feminism, women without children, and “LGBTQ propaganda.” The latter is already completely prohibited in public space in Russia, and a ban on “child-free propaganda” is being discussed. Several feminist activists and organizations promoting gender equality have already been stigmatized with “foreign agent” status. These attacks are often reduced to the superficial confrontation of an emancipatory feminist agenda and the autocratic patriarchal Putin: so the argument goes, “gender rights are explicitly democratic, so they threaten authoritarian regimes like Russia’s that rely on traditional, unequal gender roles, heteronormativity and, especially, the cult of masculinity.”

Clearly, the gender hierarchy implied in “traditional values” contributes to many other social hierarchies, which can be naturalized through gendered metaphors. If it is agreed that the “masculine” should be superior, it may be easier to accept the priority of military spending over health care, the priority of the security of borders over the protection of life, etc. Spheres coded as feminine can be underfunded and underrepresented, all in the name of the “natural, traditional” order. The conservative Russian government hates any emancipatory projects, whether Bolshevik or queer-feminist. But the question of gender has the more fundamental political-economic connection with social reproduction, which is doubtless one of the Kremlin’s key anxieties.

“Traditional values,” as Putin’s ideologues present things, provide a secure basis for the nation’s procreation. In this conservative worldview, a woman is often seen as incomplete until she gives birth. Everyone who has ever visited a gynecologist in Russia will know this attitude — according to women’s consultation personnel, all our problems will wither away as soon as we give birth. Women should, preferably, give birth to three children — or so Putin explained to us in his 2012 address to the Federation Council. However, in 2022, this accounting of female bodies’ reproductive capacities has bumped up the numbers; it now calls for a life-threatening ten offspring per woman, by introducing the medal of the “Mother Heroine,” which is accompanied by a onetime payment of one million rubles. This attempt to strengthen control over reproduction is also expressed in the prohibition on foreign citizens from using Russian women as surrogates, and in discussions about removing abortions from the state health-insurance system.

In stark contrast to this rhetoric is a recent national strategy for women’s interests, which focuses on women’s involvement in paid labor and political decision-making. It even calls for a fight against “gender stereotypes,” female poverty, and domestic violence. Overall, the strategy remarkably echoes the structure, language, and priorities of the old Soviet trade-union organizations, except for one distinction: the national strategy also cites “traditional values” to encourage women to fulfill their natural roles as mothers while also being workers. Without any material foundation, “traditional values” here loom as a magic spell to solve the demographic crisis.

As Mona Claro argues, in post-Soviet Russia “postponing motherhood was becoming a new way of ‘doing class’ in a context of growing social inequalities.” In other words, in Russia people stay childless because they simply cannot afford to have children. Thus, there is no solution to the demographic crisis without a radical restructuring of the economy in favor of reproduction — and the national strategy reveals the fact that “traditional values” are an unachievable goal for the government and probably an undesirable one for the population. Russian data shows that having three or more children in almost 50 percent of cases means life below the poverty line. In this sense, the talk of a return to “traditional values” is just a symptom of the Russian government’s helplessness in influencing women’s demographic choices.

But anxiety about social reproduction is broader than just fear of a demographic crisis — it reflects the threat that the new generation will not comply with the system. This is evident in Russian authorities’ obsession with children and teenagers protesting, highlighted by the “criminal” files on journal DOXA. Ever-more initiatives in Russia are addressing the need for a “patriotic upbringing,” like “Important Conversations” classes or the “Movement of the First,” a pseudo-imitation of the Soviet-era Young Pioneers. This is combined with severe criminal prosecution of kids like Masha Moskaleva — sent to an orphanage for an antiwar painting — or a schoolgirl in Kazan under house arrest for an alleged attempt to set a conscription office on fire. We are seeing the tightening of control over the transformation of young individuals into “proper” political subjects who will recognize themselves ideologically as “Russians.”

Over the last decade, the Kremlin spoke ever louder about its reproduction crisis, both in the physical form of procreation and in the political form of ensuring itself a mass of compliant citizens. The fight for “traditional values” is an attempt to find a metaphysical solution for the actual material problems of poverty and inequality that are among the causes of population decline.

Demographic Situation: An Existential Threat

Much is written in the media about the drastic demographic situation in Russia — a state that, despite all the efforts made, has a falling population. Ultimately, corrupt capitalism mixed with an authoritarian government may not provide comfortable conditions for happy family life. True, the demographic crisis is hardly unique to Russia. Still, it is worth examining how in public discourse, these demographic challenges are framed as a threat to national security or even to Russia’s very existence.

In his first address to the Federation Council in 2000, Putin framed demographic problems as a threat to national security:

And, if you believe the forecasts and the estimates are based on actual work, the real work of people who understand this, who have devoted their whole lives to this, in 15 years, there may be 22 million fewer Russians. I ask you to think about this figure: a seventh of the country’s population. If the current trend continues, the nation’s survival will be in jeopardy [emphasis added].

According to researchers Ekaterina Vasilieva, Tamara Rostovskaya, and Ebulfez Süleymanlý, the 1990s were the first time demographic issues were framed, in public policy, as a part of national security. This trend is one of the most obvious and persistent in Putin’s rhetoric over the decades of his rule. Based on a discourse analysis of Russian laws, they argue, “since 2000, a new stage in the formation of meanings begins — the popularization of demographic threats to the national security of the Russian Federation.”

In 2006, Putin declared the need to address population decline as “the highest national priority,” and the Maternity Capital program was launched the following year. It offers a significant onetime benefit (known as a certificate) to parents who give birth to or adopt a second or third child. The funds are designated for specific purposes such as housing, children’s education, contribution to the mother’s pension fund, or rehabilitation services for a child with a disability. However, all these measures have not substantially increased fertility rates — they have only changed the timing of giving birth. Neither has an influx of migrants been enough to make up for population decrease.

Thus as the years have passed, the gloomy forecast in Putin’s 2000 address is ever more the reality. In 2013 — the year before the annexation of Crimea, which brought Russia two million new citizens — major daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an article with the alarming headline “Russia is facing a colossal deficit of the working-age population.” The introduction claimed that “Russia has only five years left to get out of the ‘demographic hole.’” Not only economic consequences were discussed, but also threats to the Russian army, given that the demographic crisis “will jeopardize the country’s defense capability (by 2020, the number of men of military age will be reduced by more than a third, and by 2050, by more than 40 percent) [emphasis added].”

This situation didn’t improve over the last decade. An accelerating natural population decrease occurred in 2020–21 due to the government’s failure to implement anti-COVID measures, which migration did not make up for: “The natural population decrease in Russia in 2021 amounted to 1.042 million people, compared to 688,700 people in 2020 and 317,200 people in 2019.” This data has plenty to say about the looming collapse of the “Russian nation.” If something should have been a “reasonable security concern,” it was not as much NATO expansion per se as the lack of human bodies to protect Russian borders.

Thus, the Ukrainians forcefully and violently displaced by the Russian invasion represent one of the Kremlin’s main gains in this war. In this sense, the story of kidnapped Ukrainian children is not just one of many horrifying Russian war crimes, but represents the core of this military aggression.

New Citizens

All this ought to sound counterintuitive. War is always seen as a source of demographic crisis: people refrain from giving birth, flee the country, and get killed. According to different data, up to half a million people emigrated from Russia (the most generous calculation, but also some of them are coming back), at least 16,774 people have been killed (as established by the independent media), and the number of wounded people is unknown. These statistics are horrifying, especially since the raw numbers hide the reality of disrupted human life. Yet, the picture gets even more sinister if we look into the numbers of displaced Ukrainians in Russia and the new laws about asylum and citizenship. Indeed, war is a crisis, but capital accumulation needs a crisis that is “orchestrated, managed, and controlled to rationalize the system.”

According to UN data from the beginning of the invasion, more than 2.8 million Ukrainians had to cross the Russian border, lacking almost any possibility of leaving the occupied territories to the Ukrainian side. But the Russian authorities proudly announced numbers almost twice as high at 5.3 million, among them 738,000 children, thus showing their pride in the forced displacement of millions of Ukrainians and simultaneously articulating their hidden desire: millions of new potential citizens. Unfortunately, we do not know precisely how many people are trying to survive in the occupied territories.

There is almost zero state support or protection for displaced Ukrainians in Russia. Only twenty-eight Ukrainians have a “refugee” status as of December 31, 2022; 65,374 Ukrainians have temporary protection status. The rest must either work — which includes the requirement of obtaining an expensive patent for labor migrants — or have to acquire Russian citizenship. In July 2022, Putin signed a decree that guarantees an easier procedure of acquiring Russian citizenship to all Ukrainian citizens (since 2019, it only covered people from uncontrolled territories).

Although 303,786 Ukrainians acquired Russian citizenship in 2022, this number is lower than the previous year (375,989). The change may point to Ukrainians’ resistance to taking up Russian citizenship but may also be related to the slow pace of bureaucracy or exclusion of people from the occupied territories from the database. We cannot know. But we do know that this low number — opposite to what was expected, given claims that there are some five million forcefully displaced Ukrainians — has saddened Putin. He recently expressed his disappointment in the only form available to him: as an order to the authorities to speed up the process, finishing his public address to the responsible bodies with “Get it right. I’m serious.”

Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, the survivors of the devastation of their hometowns. These Ukrainians — predominantly Slavic, primarily Christian, Russian speaking, and ground through filtration camps — can guarantee Putin the increase in population that he failed to achieve during his rule, with minimal state investment. By September 2022, Russia spent less than 0.1 percent of its GDP on support programs for Ukrainians, considerably lower than most Eastern European countries that have welcomed Ukrainian refugees. Some of this money is also stolen by contractors.

Instead of support for “refugees” per se, we are today seeing increasing support for motherhood: a substantial increase in social benefits for mothers and children in the new Russian budget, a new system of social benefits starting January 1, 2023, and Putin’s promise to pay Maternity Capital to all women from the occupied territories who gave birth or adopted children after 2007 (on condition, we may assume, of them taking up Russian citizenship). These benefits will make Russian citizenship much more attractive to women with children whose cities — along with their houses, workplaces, childcare, and health-care infrastructure — were destroyed by the Russian invasion. This again points to how Russia has bought new citizens for relatively small sums (the benefits for children do not exceed one living wage per child, if the parent’s income is below this level).

So, how are Ukrainians in Russia living and surviving? According to official data, there are ninety-five thousand places in temporary housing facilities for Ukrainians in Russia. However, as Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Civic Assistance Committee, told Feminist Antiwar Resistance, only thirty-eight thousand of them are now receiving accommodation in these facilities. Thus, Russian social media has been filled with ads like, “I will rent half of my bed to a Ukrainian woman.” According to Gannushkina, many Ukrainians have to move in with their relatives or friends, and agree to whatever job is available due to their precarious and vulnerable status. In addition, they must pay for health insurance during the application process for either citizenship or temporary protection.

In the last year, Russian imperialism has uprooted millions of Ukrainians: it took away their houses, ways of life, and community — a “devaluation and destruction of previously viable livelihoods” — to transform Ukrainians from the occupied territories into an even more precarious workforce. As a result, the Kremlin accumulates cheap labor power, appropriating Ukrainian state investment in the birth, care, and education of its former citizens; their reproductive labor; and even their personal relations that allow them to survive in Russia without state support. This — together with the appropriation of companies and the devastation of territories now to be redeveloped — is a typical process of imperialist accumulation by dispossession. However, it is essential to emphasize that the new citizens themselves become the main asset in question, albeit one tremendously devalued through the war with its litany of daily shellings, murders, death, and injuries. Indeed, human life is never as cheap as during wartime.

Changed Citizenship

But, some may ask — what is so bad about Russian citizenship? Indeed, it is true that the Russian state does not only govern through repression and coercion. An invitation to take up citizenship, rather than an exhausting refugee status, might seem to some pro-Russian people from occupied territories as a brotherly and caring gesture. At the same time, Russian foreign policy has extensively used Russian citizenship as a means of soft power, destabilizing the sovereignty of neighboring countries. However, Ukrainians entering Russia must pass through humiliating filtration camps and sign a paper that they have no claims against this state.

Changes have also been made to Russian citizenship itself. The amendments were initially proposed by Putin in December 2021 and approved by the State Duma in the first reading in April 2022. However, after that first approval, the process stalled. This is very unusual for presidential proposals, which are typically adopted nearly immediately. The amendments to the law about citizenship were announced again last fall and included a wide range of reasons for deprivation of the acquired citizenship. They include political motives like spreading fake news about or “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces; calls for separatism; participation in the activities of an undesirable organization; desecration of the flag and coat of arms of Russia; encroachment on the life of a statesman; and calls for extremism and the evasion of military service. Besides these are crimes like drug dealing, hooliganism, vandalism, corruption, etc. The State Duma Committee finally approved the amendments earlier this month. Simultaneously, we can see legislative initiatives introduced in Russia to prevent Ukrainians from keeping their Ukrainian citizenship or to simplify the procedure of canceling the Ukrainian citizenship of minors without their consent.

Those of us born in the USSR but outside the territory of the contemporary Russian Federation thus risk falling, overnight, into the condition of second-class citizens — people who, because of their disobedience, risk not only imprisonment but the deprivation of the only citizenship they hold. These new amendments thus challenge even the remnants of popular sovereignty in Russia, with dissent restricted not only by the threat of imprisonment but by the deprivation of all citizenship rights. The amendments thus postulate a new type of contract between the Russian state and its new citizens, who are obliged to be loyal in order to be citizens at all.

This happens at a time when citizens are increasingly dependent on the state, even for income. For example, the income of the poorest part of the population actually increased during 2022 due to the benefits connected with the war, whereas the middle class lost out, except for those groups that receive a salary from the state (army, police, teachers, public servants, etc.). Intensifying this dependency, the amendments destroy our barely existing freedom of political expression, including those of us who are abroad.

Along with their repressive aspect, the amendments to citizenship law also have another element designed to balance discontent: they simplify the process of acquiring citizenship for twenty categories of people, including those in useful professions, such as drone operators. Last fall, Putin signed a decree that grants simplified acquisition of Russian citizenship to foreign citizens after a year of military-contract service.

This war has thus become a testing ground for the Kremlin in creating new tools of population management. It is developing a new type of biopolitical imperialism to manage the crisis in social reproduction. In granting and depriving citizenship, it is possible to expand Russia’s borders and its political influence, while also cleansing the internal population in the interest of creating an obedient and silent army of workers, soldiers, and future mothers. A new law about digital notices for the military draft and severe restrictions on evaders from the army (including a ban on monetary transactions, restriction of movement, etc.) is another side of this transformation of citizenship permitted by the war.

It is vital to note that these amendments to citizenship law came from Putin’s own initiative, upon the eve of the invasion. This helps us understand how he sees the “saved” Ukrainian population — as a silent and obedient workforce requiring zero support and investment. In this sense, the kidnapping of Ukrainian children is only the tip of the iceberg of the demographic politics of this war. It is crucial that any conversation about postwar justice makes visible and heard these millions of Ukrainians who have been displaced to Russia and forced into Russian citizenship.

Troublingly, the new manipulations of Russian citizenship reach far beyond Ukrainians alone. The amendments to the citizenship law also allow Putin to expand the categories of people eligible for simplified acquisition of citizenship, including “citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine.” The inclusion of these many other countries marks out the horizons of the Kremlin’s imperialist ambitions.