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Why Ukraine Matters to Russia: The Demographic Factor

Why Ukraine Matters to Russia: The Demographic Factor
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

Most of the reasons behind Russia’s interest in Ukraine are well-known. Dig a little deeper, though, and one finds an overarching theme: the underlying fear that Russia will be absorbed by Asia. A "demographic insecurity", if you will. While Russia’s population is shrinking, that of Central Asia is increasing, and China’s growing shadow looms over the Eastern part of the former Soviet Union. In a way, for Russia, losing Ukraine means trading a European future for an Asian one. 

Moscow’s ambivalence towards Central Asia

At the heart of the problem is Central Asia, a region Russia has always been ambivalent about. 

On the one hand, the region was an important component of the Empire and the Soviet Union, which allows Moscow to claim its rule over a multi-national and multi-ethnic space. "Russia’s imperial legitimacy relies directly on maintaining rule over Central Asia", writes Marlène Laruelle, a French historian on Eurasia and Europe. "The glorification of the land’s vastness, of expansion into Asia, of the "great game" with Western powers, the idea of being the meeting point of the Christian and Muslim worlds - all these notions were made possible by the colonization of the Steppes and of Turkistan". Control of Central Asia also helps Russia claim great power status - and keep an eye on China. 

Control of Central Asia also helps Russia claim great power status - and keep an eye on China. 

On the other hand, Russia has always been wary of Muslim Republics. During imperial times, the area was considered backward: a weight that Russia had accepted to bear, rather than a region it had proudly conquered. Today, Russian nationalist currents have little interest in Central Asia. According to public opinion, "the region is constantly amalgamated with notions of Islamism, terrorism, and mafia", while positive references emphasizing the historical and cultural ties to the region are rare.

It was not by accident that the three Republics given seats at the UN were Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. In his 1990 book Rebuilding Russia, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn proposed to do away with the Central Asian Republics. 

This is where Ukraine comes into play. In a telephone conversation with President Bush that took place on the eve of the Ukrainian independence referendum in 1991, Boris Yeltsin made it clear that a new union without Ukraine would "dramatically change the balance in the Union between Slavic and Islamic nations. We can't have a situation where Russia and Byelorussia have two votes as Slavic states against five for the Islamic nations''. As the US analyst Mackensie Knorr puts it, "once it was clear that Ukraine was lost, Russia was not interested in a union with a greatly diminished Slavic influence relative to the populations of Central Asia and the Caucasus". 

Divergent demographic evolutions

This ambivalence about Central Asia has long been reflected in the demographic balance. Russia needs Central Asian workers, but is at the same time wary about excessive immigration. 

The 1970 census already revealed that the Russian demographic high tide had passed and that the Russian share of the Soviet population (53% at the time) was beginning to decline. As compared with 1959, the "Muslim" population had grown by 52% against 13% for Russians. 

In 1978, a young French scholar named Hélène Carrère d’Encausse published L’Empire éclaté ("The Shattered Empire"). She argued that the imbalance of population growth between Muslim and Slavic Republics would end up challenging the legitimacy and authority of the Russian leadership. In 1981, Moscow adopted a policy of encouraging Russian births, but it was too late. Carrère d’Encausse’s thesis seemed to be vindicated when, in 1986, protests erupted in Kazakhstan after the appointment of a Russian as leader of the local Communist party. 

In 1990, "Muslim" Republics represented 20% of the Soviet population, as compared to 13% in 1959. Population growth in Central Asia was significantly higher than in Russia. The former was beginning its demographic transition: fertility remained high (two or three points above Russia’s) while child mortality was declining. The latter, for its part, ended the era of the "demographic dividend", referring to when the economy is boosted by a favorable age structure. 

Putin himself has embraced a Eurasian and inclusive, multicultural vision of Russia - the "Russian world" being a cultural, rather than ethnic, entity. Notions of citizenship and nationality are distinct in domestic law. Yet there is evident discomfort in nationalist circles about an internal evolution, which has mirrored that of the former USSR. In 1959, the country was 83% Russian. In 2010, that percentage had gone down to 78%. Russia currently hosts 15-20 million Muslims, which amounts to 10-15% of the population. Fertility remains much higher in Muslim-majority regions (with Dagestan having the national record). According to the Grand Mufti, Muslims will make up to 30% of the population by the mid-2030s. 

Putin himself has embraced a Eurasian and inclusive, multicultural vision of Russia - the "Russian world" being a cultural, rather than ethnic, entity.

The Russian demographic predicament has three components. First, there is a very high mortality rate among males (even when they live outside Russia), largely due to high alcohol consumption, which has increased since the end of the Soviet Union. This is paired with a low birth rate and a high emigration rate. The Russian population peaked at 148 million in 1992 and has been declining ever since, despite a modest rebound in the mid-2010s. Over the past two years, Covid-19 has taken a significant demographic toll: there was high surplus mortality, the birth rate was the lowest in two decades, and immigration did not compensate for emigration. The natural balance (births/deaths) registered an unprecedented loss of one million in 2021; Russia’s natural population has declined by more than 12 million between 1992 and 2010. Standing at 146 million today, the country will hover around 140 million in 2035 and 130 in 2050. 
Meanwhile, the Central Asian demography has continued to evolve in the opposite direction. According to the United Nations, the region (75.5 million today) could host 88 million in 2035 and 100 in 2050. Uzbekistan’s working age population is set to increase by more than 6 million by 2050, Tajikistan’s by nearly 3 million. 

Putin’s approach

Moscow had little choice but to resort to Central Asian workers. Thus, since the beginning of his presidency, Putin has adopted a two-pronged approach. 

One prong was to invite as many Russians as possible to return from abroad (with a strict citizenship law based on jus sanguinis). Between 1991 and 2016, citizenship was granted to 8.6 million, of which 92% were from the former Soviet Union, notably from Kazakhstan and Ukraine. 

But immigration no longer compensates for natural decline, and has resulted in rising tensions in cities and racist incidents. The Kremlin has therefore experimented with new approaches.

The other was to open Russia’s borders to a large number of immigrants, notably from Central Asian countries, preferably as temporary workers. Since its independence, Russia has been the second or third destination country in the world and its immigrant population has doubled. In 2017, it was 11.6 million or 8% of the population - much more for some demographers. About half of these immigrants came from Central Asia, with the largest number from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Work immigration is even easier for citizens of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEA).  But immigration no longer compensates for natural decline, and has resulted in rising tensions in cities and racist incidents. The Kremlin has therefore experimented with new approaches. 

One of them, which reconciles geopolitical and demographic objectives, is "passportization" or the distribution of Russian passports in occupied or disputed areas - Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, the Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh. Even before the 2008 war, 90% of Abkhazians and South Ossetians had Russian passports. And in the past three years, at least 650,000 citizens of Donbas were granted Russian passports. 

Another involves easing the naturalization of "native speakers". After a 2014 reform to that effect, a 2019 action plan sought to grant citizenship to 5-10 million people by 2025, targeting Russian-speakers from the former Union. In 2020, Russia welcomed a record number of new citizens - 660,000 including 410,000 from Ukraine and 145,000 from Central Asia. 

Finally, the annexation of Crimea allowed for an additional 2.5 million people to become Russian citizens in a single day. 

Ukraine as a reservoir of population?

To sum up, this demographic background puts into perspective the true geopolitical catastrophe that was the "loss" of Ukraine (and its population of 52 million at the time), and explains why the independence of the latter felt almost like an amputation to Russia. 

Further annexations of territory in the West would help Russia solve its demographic conundrum. But this is less likely and desirable than a scenario where Ukraine would stay close to Russia - ideally as a member of the EEA. Ukraine’s proximity would allow for a much higher influx of Slavic workers "going East" instead of "going West" (to Poland in particular). As an expert put it, Ukrainians "are almost ideal migrants. As Eastern Slavs, they are considered easy to integrate; they bring the necessary skills for the Russian labor market".

This is not to say that the population problem is at the heart of Moscow’s strategy with regards to Ukraine. But overlooking the demographic dimension of the Kremlin’s vision and calculations would mean turning a blind eye to a significant historical, cultural, and socio-political component of Russia’s national identity. 


Copyright: Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP

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